I learned the power of purpose-led innovation the day I met Ayanda (not her real name). What I learned that day changed my career—for the better.

She was in her mid-40s at the time, living in a modest house in Johannesburg with her husband, her teenager and two other school-going kids.

She didn’t have a university education, but she was articulate and intelligent. My impression of her was how dedicated and responsible she was. She was committed to doing the best she could. She really cared about her future and her children’s future. She didn’t believe in reckless spending.

And that contrasted with the decision she made.

When she changed jobs from one contact centre to another, she cashed out her pension. Most of that money is spent.

I was in her house with my team from Accenture. Our job was to find out her reasons for taking the pay-out instead of keeping it in the retirement fund.

The research was part of an engagement with a South African asset manager and employee benefits provider. They thought we would find that customers cash in their retirement savings because they need the money. So they take the pay-out.

Our client sensed an opportunity. If they could encourage people to keep their retirement savings in the fund, they would have more funds under management.

But there was a larger societal problem as well. An estimated 95% of people don’t have enough money to retire. When they reach the end of their working life, they will depend on other people to help them. That has a knock-on effect. The people who end up looking after the retirees are using their own discretionary income, and may not have enough for their own needs. It becomes a societal problem that self-perpetuates.

Our client looked at their purpose and decided it wasn’t to make as much profit as possible. Their purpose was to help their customers make better financial decisions.

So they commissioned our project and, one afternoon, I and my team found ourselves in Ayanda´s house.

Thinking about purpose-led innovation now, half a decade later, I realise that our client had a big advantage. Their own interests aligned with their customers’ interests. If the customers could leave their money in the retirement fund, the customers would be better off in the long term, and so would our client.

That isn’t always the case. How many times have we heard about financial advisers who guide their customers to vehicles that carry the highest commission for the salesperson, not the biggest advantage to the customer?

In those cases, there’s a win/lose dynamic. If the customer gets the correct advice the customer wins, but the financial adviser may lose out on some commission. The same is true the other way around. If the adviser gets the best commission, the customer may not get the best advice. Win/lose.

It’s very difficult to do the right thing when your income or your profits depend on you doing the wrong thing by the customer.

The conversation our team had with Ayanda changed all of us.

She told us that the process of taking the pay-out, from the simple forms to the support offered by her employer´s HR department, was much quicker and easier to understand than the option of preserving the money.

No one had spoken to her at all about the benefits of keeping the sum invested.

But what shocked us the most was that Ayanda didn’t actually need the money—she would have been fine without it.

That went against everything we believed.

What we realized that day in Ayanda’s living room is how the industry was inadvertently making it easy for Ayanda, and millions like her, to make financial decisions with terrible long-term consequences. It was pushing 80-90% of its customers to make the wrong decisions.

We presented the findings to our client, and they asked us to help create systems, structures, processes and decision architecture to encourage their customers to make decisions that better aligned with their life goals.

We created products and services for decision points in peoples’ lives. Like when they retire or move jobs. Or when they reach two years to retirement age. The goal was to help people retire better.

We saw health outcomes improve for our client’s customers, and on average they gained an extra two years of retirement. And of course our client gained more customers, and grew their funds under management. We quadrupled preservation rates.

After that afternoon in Ayanda´s house, I and my team discovered a new sense of purpose. By helping our client, we were helping people like Ayanda. We got a taste for doing projects that really helped people. Now, when we work with clients, we try to find the purpose behind it, whether it’s a bank, a logistics company or an insurer.

It’s scary for most companies to look at the real-world impact they are having on their customers, and to decide to really put their customers ahead of profits.

But I saw some recent research that shows that banks that do that—that really try to help their customers make the correct decisions—may lose some fee income or interest income in the short term. But their revenues can increase by 9%. I believe it, because I’ve seen it first-hand.

I’d be interested to hear how you manage the tension between your company’s purpose and its profitability.

You can reach me at luis.m.rodriguez@accenture.com. And if you’d like to read our purpose-driven banking research, you can find it here.