Over the years I’ve attended meetings and read articles about the value of categorizing and prioritizing my clients. There is a sensible logic to this.
If you spend too much time with clients you like, but who don’t contribute much to your business, you’ll be a nice guy with a hobby. There is nothing wrong with this. You’ll have great relationships with people you enjoy, less stress, more time and not much money.
There are an infinite number of ways to categorize your clients: by revenue, by value (as a source of influence), by personality, by attention needs (high-touch/ low-touch) — the number is limited only by your imagination. The challenge, of course, is that the real world doesn’t order itself as neatly as we do.
I’ve had clients who believed that the entire stock market was rigged. I’ve had clients who called me daily asking why the market was or wasn’t reacting to the news of the day, and still others who never called; their response to something as scary as the 2008 global financial crisis never exceeded mild curiosity.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Some years ago a divorced woman was referred to me. During her marriage, she had lived a very comfortable life with two beautiful homes, expensive cars and furniture, regular dinners at fine restaurants, long trips with first-class seating and five-star hotels.
Her alimony of $20,000 per month, while certainly ample for the average single person, was not enough to support her lifestyle, and she was slowly liquidating a nest egg that for most people would produce enough income to sustain one or two people quite comfortably. More critically, her alimony was due to end in five years.
There was nothing I could say or do to get her to acknowledge her self-destructive financial behavior. She was an intelligent and wonderful person, but her identity was so closely tied to her material lifestyle that she would rather extend it as long as possible (until she was impoverished) and deal with the consequences later.
On the other extreme, I had a client with a similar asset base who was so careful with her spending that she could have buried the money in her mattress, lived 30 more years and (barring a fire) still have had more than half left over for her children.
On the surface, they seem like polar ends of the same spectrum. But outside of their contrasting spending habits, both of these clients had attributes that would have grouped them together: They were sophisticated investors who understood stock market risk and could handle it. They were serious long-term investors who required little to no hand holding. And they were both sources of referrals.
The use of categories in business, in science and in life is a proven, productive and intelligent way to find commonalities; it saves us time and makes us more effective. We all know that real life will spill over the boundaries of whatever categories we create. But that spillover is not often a meaningful issue for business purposes, so we can ignore it until it creates a problem. And while practical, our decision to ignore the spillover is more complicated than we might think.
The late evolutionary biologist, polymath and thinker Stephen Jay Gould made a brilliant observation that addresses this issue. Gould’s insight is that we have a cultural tradition dating back to Plato — to view concepts like categories and averages not simply as tools to make our lives easier but as a way of uncovering an important essence.
Consider what comes to mind when you think about the concept of normal. Do you say to yourself, “When I think about ‘normal,’ I think of an abstraction, a mathematically derived calculation of data points from the real world. To me, normal is just something useful and valuable, but I know it doesn’t really exist outside of my own mind.”
Of course you don’t think that! I certainly don’t. But that is exactly what “normal” is: a valuable but artificial computation. We are not culturally comfortable with the ambiguity real life presents to us — the messy or amorphous situations and/or outcomes that it produces. We greatly prefer clearly defined distinctions and unambiguous answers, as this familiar story illustrates.
On a young rabbi’s first day on the job, a huge argument broke out in the congregation over how a certain prayer should be recited. Half the congregation insisted that their tradition was to sit; the other half insisted that their tradition was to stand. The two sides started to yell at each other, and everything ground to a halt.