Have you ever received those sheets of address labels in the mail from a non-profit organization that also conveniently included a form for donating to the group? Or maybe a pen with your name on it (often misspelled) or perhaps a set of hand drawn notecards by one of the children the group supports? How did you respond? Did you send money to the group out of a sense of guilt or did you keep the gift and throw away the donation information?
Welcome to the Law of Reciprocity, something sociologist say is drilled into us as children and occurs almost universally throughout all cultures. It’s the reason we feel compelled to respond in kind when given a gift or even something as simple as returning a hello when we pass a stranger on the street. Studies have shown those address labels, when included with a donation request, raise the response rate from 18% to 35%. Simply by including a gift that cost a few pennies to produce, the address labels, these groups were able to almost double the amount of money they received from the recipients. No matter how you cut up those numbers, that’s an amazing response rate.
Or take the case of a young sociologist at Brigham Young University who, in 1974, decided to conduct an experiment. Phillip Kunz randomly chose about 600 people he didn’t know and sent them either a hand-written Christmas card or one with a photo of Kunz and his family. In response, he received back some 200 cards, many with long, hand-written notes of their own about the sender’s family and wishing good tidings to Kunz. And many continued to do so for the next 15 years.
So how can reciprocity help us in business and our lives on a daily basis? Here are four ways I’ve seen this law used to build relationships and to increase sales.
- Direct mail: As noted above, when a gift is included in a mailing, the odds are greatly increased that the recipient will respond favorably. Keep this in mind when inviting customers and prospects to a trade show or when seeking to set an appointment with someone you may not know. Reciprocity doesn’t mean you’ll always convince someone to come to your booth, meet with you or even buy from you, but the chances improve dramatically if a small gift is involved.
- Unreturned calls/emails: Studies have shown the average number of touches before you get hold of a prospect or get them to respond is eight. I have personally used the Law of Reciprocity to reduce this number substantially. If after three or four calls/emails to someone I haven’t heard back from, I will send them a small gift in the mail with a note that says I understand they are busy and I’d just like five minutes of their time to introduce myself and see if there might be a need for my service. While not scientific, I’d say 50% – 75% of the time they will take my next call or respond to my next email in some way. They may say no, but at least I can then check them off my list and move on to others who may need what I offer.
- Trade shows: A study a decade ago by Georgia Southern University found people were more likely to stop by a trade show booth when invited beforehand if they knew they would receive a gift in exchange for their invitation. I always advise customers to have a very inexpensive promo product for everyone who comes by, but to keep a nicer gift hidden away for those who are current customers or they can qualify as interested prospects. If these branded products are unique and functional, not only will these people keep and use them, but they’ll be advertising for the company as well.
- Every day interactions: It’s no secret customer service has declined in every area due to layoffs, the poor economy and a myriad of other factors. I’ve seen it personally and heard stories from others who’ve said a kind word or a small gift has helped them get what they wanted. Be it an upgrade on a trip, the email address of a prospect from a receptionist or a better seat at a venue, little things can make the difference. Kindness is free to use and often makes the difference between whether someone will respond to your request in a positive way or not.
As we head into a new year, make the use of reciprocity one of your goals. Keep in mind as you put it into practice that it can be a powerful tool so use it respectfully and ethically. People’s B.S. meters will go off if they think you are trying to scam them or use them. Use this law to show people how you can benefit them as much if not more than the benefits you’ll receive in return.
Be willing to give of yourself freely, offer help to others, be a mentor and share your knowledge. What this does is show you are a caring, honest and credible person and when the opportunity arises, they will be much more amenable to returning the favor, sometimes in spades.
Peal S. Buck, an American writer from the last century, spent the first 40 years of her life in China. Her first book The Good Earth was a semi-autobiographical look at the life of peasants in that country and resulted in a Pulitzer Prize for her work. She spent her life helping others and she knew well this law and noted, “There is one word that can be the guide for your life – it is the word reciprocity.”