The Buddha in Business

I’m going to shift this business and marketing blog to a more personal tone. I realized that all the advice I’m giving on this site is easily gotten elsewhere, so I want to offer a fresh perspective that I believe will still be relevant to my current audience. I hope you enjoy it. If so, please share it and also comment to let me know. Thanks!


dreamstime_xs_11835331I once used a word in a job interview you don’t often hear in business. I was asked by the interviewer how I would respond to a particular situation involving competing factions within the company. I answered, “Compassion.” By the look on his face, I immediately knew that I had tanked the interview.

I went on to explain that in order to untangle such a conflict, one had to realize that each party was convinced they were right. If they were treated as such they’d be much more open to compromise. He didn’t buy it. He wanted to hear how tough I would be on people. He said as much by giving examples of how the outgoing employee had kept everyone in line through intimidation. It sounded very stressful. If that’s what lost me the job I was glad of it.

This wasn’t always my approach. My wife used to call part of my personality “The Alligator”. It referred to my patience with clients and colleagues until they had crossed some inviolable boundary. Alligators lie in wait for their prey just below the waterline in an otherwise placid state until they rise up and chomp down to drag their victim under for a death roll. I could be the picture of grace and gentility while a client questioned my invoice. But if the re-negotiated sum wasn’t there when promised I immediately contacted my attorney. “That’ll teach them,” I thought.

It taught a lot of people not to do business with me again.

The Alligator is now extinct in my business dealings. I structure engagements in order to reduce conflict. You can look at the pricing page on my website to see that I primarily work on a retainer basis that minimizes arguing over the bill. I’ve learned the hard way that no matter how much a client claims that “money is no object” they seem to get sticker shock when an hourly invoice arrives. My retainer often reflects some level of discount off the hourly rate. It gives me the flexibility to achieve additional quality without worrying if the client will approve the additional cost. They get work that I’m proud to deliver. Any money sacrificed is serenity preserved.

It’s different than a flat rate because I’m getting the retainer fee upfront under the proviso that we’re entering into a longer term relationship. I don’t do project work anymore. I don’t give clients the opportunity to stiff me. That reduces the stress for both of us.

I developed this behavior by becoming an avid meditator. I draw from Buddhism and other spiritual traditions in my practice. I don’t define myself as a Buddhist but Buddhism offers a very clear perspective on compassion through the Five Precepts:

  1. Have respect for life
  2. Cultivate generosity in every way possible
  3. Use sexuality as a gateway to intimacy and expression of love
  4. Remain sensitive to the potential impact of all communication and use speech to heal
  5. Have a commitment to a mind that sees the truth

The Precepts are stated differently within different Buddhist traditions, but these are the basic ones. Precept #4 is particularly relevant in business as well as everyday life. It calls to mind an experience I had years ago when The Alligator was still lurking. I owed a man some money. One day he showed up to my office unannounced to collect. I was a bit stunned. I had never met him face to face before. He sat down across from my desk and politely asked if I could pay him anything. I was tongue-tied. I was embarrassed and uncomfortable. I squirmed. I apologized profusely. I could not pay him. I shared with him all the financial difficulties I was experiencing until he stopped me by leaning in with the kindest voice and expression while he said, “You are running a business in a difficult market. Things like this happen. I forgive you – but – it doesn’t change the fact that you owe me the money.”

I couldn’t argue with him. His truth and wisdom were undeniable. His compassion was profound. The sincerity of his forgiveness affected me deeply. We shook hands. I gave him whatever minuscule sum I could muster that day. I held to my payment promise. I never forgot his generosity of spirit. As the Fourth Precept states, he was sensitive to the impact of his communication and he used speech to heal. He could have easily used it to punish. That would have been The Alligator’s approach. He taught me that there was another way.

There’s one catch to these Five Precepts in business. They must be performed without the intention of personal gain. Otherwise they are as selfish as any other act we might perform. But they can be the basis of a marketing plan if you treat everyone the same whether they buy something from you or not.

Many of us have had the experience of reaching out to a company we wanted to buy something from only to be treated like a second-class citizen for not wanting to buy enough. If you haven’t, try walking into a wholesaler and ask to purchase one item. I’ve had salespeople walk away from me without a word. Think of the good will that could have been generated had they offered the name of a reseller they supplied.

Many firms structure their marketing messages under the banner, “Let Us Help You”. Some actually mean it. A few retailers have built empires around legendary customer service. Nordstrom’s has been known to accept returns for items they don’t even sell from people they don’t even know. This is compassion in action – as long as they genuinely expect nothing in return. If it leads to a sale, so be it. If it doesn’t, so be it. The word will spread that they’re a wonderful company. Karmic.

Check out this clip from Miracle on 34th Street that embodies this idea:

Another I way I try to walk this walk is through my offer to brainstorm for free with anyone who calls. I don’t charge to brainstorm. I charge to execute. I’m not afraid of giving away my ideas. I have plenty of them. If an idea is easy to execute without me than it has no monetary value to me. Why not give it away?

Finally, I’ve actually turned down work when I thought that hiring me might not be in the client’s best interest. Many small proprietors only get the marketing religion when their companies are struggling. They call in a panic asking me to perform some social media magic that will produce customers. I’m happy to brainstorm with them but I usually can’t solve the problem as quickly or as cheaply as they’d like. Therefore, I invite them to call me any time to discuss their efforts but I won’t accept money until I sense the business is on the mend.

These are just ideas. They’re not guidelines or even suggestions. They’re things to chew on. I don’t expect anyone will have an epiphany. If it brings one moment of awareness to your professional activities, or your daily life, wonderful. The Buddha will be in business.

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