A small gesture goes a long way toward influencing the behavior of another person to act in a way we want.
As you take your second tasty treat sample in the middle of a bustling Costco store and smile back at the kindly person offering it, you may be unaware that far more is going on than just trying to stimulate your taste buds into a sale. You are about to be affected by one of the most powerful social norms in western society, and Costco uses it masterfully.
When someone does us a favor, we feel a strong obligation to reciprocate. In society, it serves the important role of enabling stronger and enduring relationships. In business, it is a frequently used method for eliciting a useful response from our clients.
A study performed by French researchers Jacob, Gueguen, and Boulbry sought to find out if individuals offered a piece of candy before a request to complete a survey were more likely to comply with the request than those not offered candy. The results indicated that those people offered the candy were more likely to comply. This effect was especially strong in women.
Let’s revisit our free samples at Costco as a well-known example of reciprocity in action. While you may assume correctly that one of the reasons for this strategy is to stimulate your appetite for the sampled food, the other is to place you in a position of debt. Research shows that free samples increase sales even among people who did not even enjoy the taste of the free sample. Why is it given to you by a kindly person? Having the person behind the sample counter heightens the level of social pressure associated with making a post-sample purchase. In other words, people feel they owe the person giving them the sample something. And who among us want to be ungrateful to someone who is kind?
How to Use Reciprocity
Reciprocity has more value than simply a method to increase product sales. Our feelings of indebtedness are deep-rooted and difficult to ignore. Finding a way to use it in your practice in a manner that feels natural to clients can increase sales of both services and products.
Here are some tips:
- Give First. Find ways to initiate a feeling of reciprocity with potential buyers.
- Give in Person. People feel less inclined to return a favor online than in person.
- Make it Unexpected. Don’t advertise the gift before you give it. A surprise gift appears to have a stronger influence on the behavior.
- Make it Personal. A small gift with a handwritten card is more compelling than an impersonal gift.
- Keep Giving. It is more difficult to resist feelings of reciprocity when faced with additional gifts.
Looking a Little Deeper
Reciprocity has an equality principle built in that keeps the response in proportion to the gift. You cannot, for example, expect to give a $5 gift and receive a $5000 sale in return. For this reason, consider at which point in the buyer’s journey a gift may be most appropriate.
A gift given before your buyer reaches a decision stage has much less value than one given later in the journey. In most cases, your gift is not intended to receive a large sale in return. It is intended to receive a positive decision in return.
Unfortunately, reciprocity works in both the positive and negative. It is for this reason that maintaining a client-centric culture in your practice is important. A client who believes he or she has received negative treatment from your team is socially motivated to inflict equal harm in return. This is an example of negative reciprocity, and in an age of online reviews, it is an easy goal to achieve.