Reciprocity — Giving Something to Get Something

Many sales and marketing professionals find themselves in a rut, sooner or later. Even with a well-developed sales script or enough understanding of the field to skip one, they find customers just aren’t interested in what they have to offer. No matter how had or soft the sell is, things seem to fall through every time. Often, this comes with too much focusing on the bottom line–and the more a sales professional focuses on absolutely ensuring a sale gets made, the less selling actually gets done.

Customers can sense a sale they feel is too hard for their tastes and will usually reject it. One way to soften those sales is by invoking the norm of reciprocity: when you do something for me, I’ll respond by doing something for you. Like many sales techniques based on social etiquette, good manners, and basic human psychology, this doesn’t need to be overt. You can use sophisticated techniques to create a sense of reciprocity with a potential customer.

Reciprocity: The Basics

At its core the idea of reciprocity is simple: people will do unto others as is done unto them, and will give when they are given to. If people feel as though they have accrued a benefit from someone else’s work, they will strive to do something comparable in return. This is bound up with other basic ideas like fair play.

Many studies, including one from Santa Clara University, have found this strategy is a strongly internalized norm. People will work hard to reciprocate even if the person they’re repaying will never know. The motivation comes from within, not from outside the person. It’s not that they want to make sure the other person feels paid back. Rather, they want to know they have paid the person back for their own sake.

Reciprocity of Taking

It can be easy to think of reciprocity only as mutual giving, but social scientists have discovered that taking encourages taking as well. When customers feel like something is going away or being removed from a service they already use, they are likely to feel hurt or betrayed. This encourages them to not only take in equal measure, but to do so vindictively. As with most other discussions about customer satisfaction, positive interactions are “okay” while negative interactions are “very bad.”

A University of Chicago study illustrates this point well. Even when the end results of giving or taking are equal, a simple change in framing leads people to respond appropriately. When people perceived one study participant as taking, they were more apt to punish, while those who were perceived as giving could get away with keeping much more for themselves. Those who felt they had been wronged by a “taker” would punish in excess of the initial theft.

When dealing with customers, this creates a need to make absolutely clear when an arrangement is temporary. If features are to be taken away, it needs to be clear why they are disappearing and how the company will add other forms of value for the customer. When a promotional price is only for the first six months of a service, customers need to know that in a way they can internalize. If they feel they’ve had something taken unfairly from them, they will not only respond by taking their business elsewhere, but they’ll do so by leaving negative reviews or otherwise actively sabotaging your efforts to sell.

Ways to Use It

Reciprocity sounds nice, but how can you put it to use as a salesperson or marketer? What can you give that will get customers to give back through sales? This deep-seated norm can be invoked in many ways, including both tangible and intangible give and take.

The Freebie

We have discussed freebies in the past, but they bear mentioning as part of reciprocity. This is the most basic way to use reciprocity to your advantage: those who are offered something for free will respond by “paying the company back” by buying the product. These things don’t always work out the way a company intends, but the assumption of reciprocity is what underlies many free offers.

This can be dangerous to rely on, however, if you do not then work to build a good relationship in other ways. Customers will feel their “debt” has been paid back relatively quickly, and will need more than the idea that they should pay things back to stay engaged. For closing sales early on in a relationship, this works, but maintaining that relationship needs a broader understanding of what reciprocity is.

Customer Service

While at first it may not register as a literal give-and-take situation, quality customer service often raises the specter of reciprocity for customers. Those who receive better customer service while feeling a product out often feel the urge to purchase the product, even if they are not sold on its features or quality. The goodwill built up through the service extends to the product and the company, and customers want to do the company the same good in turn that the company did for them.

Even if salespeople aren’t working for tips, many of the same principles that help service workers get good tips will lead to better sales. Giving of your time as a salesperson, whether it’s with an in-depth product demonstration, honesty during sales calls, or other quality forms of customer service will prompt gifts in return. Encouraging a customer to take their time and think a sale through will often end up speeding the path to a decision, as the customer decides to “do you a favor” by buying.

Conversely, bad customer service reads as wasting time and money, and customers will respond to this like something has been taken from them. Bad service will lead to the customer “taking” in kind, pulling their own business and potentially smearing the company to their friends, colleagues, and even casual acquaintances. With the growing reach of social media and the power of sites like Yelp in directing customers to buy, this kind of “punishment for taking” cannot be ignored.

Building Relationships

When you reach out to a customer, how soon do you start thinking about closing the sale? If you have that on your mind from the first ten minutes of the first call, you may be sabotaging your efforts. Building relationships often takes honest effort and time, and an attention to detail and customer needs that often goes overlooked. This type of giving takes a lot of time, but can also have the largest payoff.

When cultivating a lead, take some time to get to know the individuals involved and the businesses they work in. As them questions like, “What difficulties are you facing in your business?” and “What do you wish you had a better understanding of?” Once you know the answers to these questions, you can start helping them. Send them links to articles you find that relate to their field, or to the areas in which they want to grow their business. Call just to check in, or maybe to share a book that reminded you of something they said in your last meeting.

The more time you spend giving, the less time you have to spend selling to get that business. Be careful of focusing too much on a lead or past customer who doesn’t seem interested. If a customer isn’t at least a little amenable to this approach, they may view it as an unwelcome intrusion or a waste of time. A customer you win over in this manner, however, is more likely to build your business through referrals, and their loyalty will likely be higher as well.

Give a Little Bit

Reciprocity isn’t everything. All the other tactics you use to bring in sales, such as lead generation, sales scripts, and even the hard sell have their place in the salesperson’s toolbox. Because of its strong roots in basic human psychology and the ease with which it can be applied, reciprocity should be at the forefront of any good seller’s mind when making pitches or building relationships with customers.

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