How The Law of Reciprocity Can Make or Break Your Business


Have you ever noticed that you feel compelled to do something for people who have helped you along the way – even if they haven’t asked you to?

There’s something very powerful at play that causes this phenomenon.

Social psychologists call it The Law of Reciprocity – and it basically says that when someone does something nice for you, you will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return.

As a matter of fact, you may even reciprocate with a gesture far more generous than their original good deed. You can try and resist this law, but as a human, you will more than likely still feel that you need to respond in kind to a good deed.

If that’s true (and it is) then it would be to your advantage to understand the right way – and the wrong way to take advantage of this powerful law.

Reciprocity and The Business Person

As someone who is running (or is aspiring to run) their own business, there are a couple of ways you can choose to use this power: for good – or for evil. Or, for our purposes, the right way and the wrong way.

The Right Way
One of the hardest parts of a new business relationship is building trust and rapport. And to do that, there are some things you have to establish up front with a new prospect to show them you’re one of the good guys. Things like intent, empathy, and credibility.

So, if you really are one of the good guys, you can show people what you’re made of simply by being friendly, honest, and helpful. That’s the idea behind a lot of the freebies that bloggers give away all the time. By giving something that’s of legitimate value away with no expectation of compensation, you’re achieving several things.

  • If the material or help you’re giving away is of high quality, you’re establishing yourself as a person of credibility – someone who knows what they’re talking about.
  • You’re demonstrating empathy by showing the recipient that you understand they’re looking for answers. You understand that they need help – and you’re someone who’s willing to give it to them.
  • You’re showing that your intent is not just to get into their wallets – but to sincerely help.

And in the process, you put The Law of Reciprocity into play. When you establish yourself as an honest, sincere, and giving person – you make it much easier for people to buy from you when you have something to offer.

At that point they already like you, they have seen that you know your stuff, and they trust you. All that makes it much easier for them to choose you.

The Wrong Way
While responding to The Law of Reciprocity is hard-wired into us, most people aren’t stupid. If the law is exploited as a tactic, they can smell it from a mile away and it won’t work. At least it won’t work long-term.

Exploiting the law means using it as a front. Pretending to be sincere and helpful only to trick people into feeling a sense of obligation to a future sales pitch. Lousy salespeople are easy to find – and when someone is using reciprocity as a pressure tactic, it’s obvious.

You’ve been there as a consumer. I’ll bet you don’t have to go back very far in your memory bank to remember a time when someone seemed a little too nice. Even though they were doing something positive for you, you still instinctively didn’t trust them.

That’s because their intentions weren’t sincere and you sensed it. Using the law that way may trick someone from time to time, but it likely won’t lead to repeat sales, good will, or referrals. Pressured prospects tend to disappear quietly. Sometimes not so quietly.

The right way to gain maximum benefit from the Law of reciprocity is to use it sincerely and for the right reasons: to help others and to grow your relationships.

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With Great Power…

There is a lot of aggressive sales and marketing advice out there, but listen to it with caution. Consumers are savvier than ever before. Being aggressive tends to offend and alienate. Instead, aim for active.

What’s the difference? Aggressive is relentless and pushy. Active is, well, active. If what you’re selling is truly of value, you don’t have to be a bully to get people to buy. You just have to work hard to get your name out there and develop your brand.

Your offering and your reputation should speak for itself.

Even if you’re coming from a sincere place – if you tread too closely to the aggressive vs. active line, you run the risk of mistakenly being seen as “one of those pushy marketers.”


What Can You Do Today?

Since you are one of the good guys, ask yourself, “What small thing can I provide today that my customers can really use?”

And when you come up with an answer – give it to them. It’s the right thing to do – and because of The Law of Reciprocity, your customers will gladly return that generosity when you do have something to sell.

Time to speak up!
Share your experiences with reciprocity in the comments. Where have you seen it used well – or poorly?..

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How The Law of Reciprocity Can Make or Break Your Business


About Gary Korisko

Gary is a battle-tested sales and marketing pro, copywriter, coach, and business strategist who teaches how to create worthwhile work on Reboot Authentic. Connect with Gary on Google+ and Twitter.

62 Replies

  1. This is really a pillar post, Gary, because it is based on one of the foundations of persuading others. Have you read Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence? Reciprocity is the first ‘technique’ he discusses.

    As you said so very well, reciprocity can be used for good or evil. And I find that it can also create some confusion for the blogger or business person because sometimes it’s hard to know 1.) how much to give away vs. sell, and 2.) what one’s true motives are, a la “Am I being good or do some of my intentions smack of not-so-good?”

    Nonetheless, putting up with a little confusion is a good trade-off for using such a powerful tool!

    1. Thanks Bobbi.

      Yes, I’ve read that book… and you just reminded me to add it to my recommended reading plugin over there in my sidebar. It’s a brilliant book, but i didn’t realize reciprocity was the first one he covered. Looks like I’m in good company 🙂

      but you’re right – it’s very important as a seller and as a consumer to be aware of the pros and cons of this law.

      Thanks for stopping in!

  2. Wow, I can think of all kinds of examples of reciprocity used well — any product or program I’ve ever bought online came from someone who first offered loads and loads of value upfront for free — Marie Forleo, Laura Roeder, Corbett Barr, etc. Like you say, being “friendly, honest, and helpful” goes a looooong way toward building trust and rapport. I never would have bought any of these programs if I didn’t first receive value from the free content these fine folks offered! : )

    1. Those are three great examples of people who take the time to demonstrate what they’re made of by being generous and helpful every day. Then when they do have something to sell, your only hesitation is to consider if you can afford it at the time or not. No trust or credibility issues at all.

      Thanks, Kimberly!

  3. Ava

    For some reason negative examples of come to my mind. There is often a short survey after customer service event. Basically the idea is to get instant and direct feedback, which is hopefully used for improving the service. If you think further the good customer service creates credibility and long lasting relationships. I have been bothered with these how-would-you-rate-our-service type of surveys. Come to think of it there has been some rather odd wordings, as if the companies haven’t fully thought of what they are asking. I even got a response for a negative feedback begging me to change my mind. As if! The worst example was the last part of this kind survey, it asked if I could hit the Facebook Like button! Talking about begging!

    This is totally off topic but Gary when will you write a post about avoiding boredom when traveling for business?

    1. That’s funny, Ava. And a great example: A reply to your complaint with a “like” button at the bottom. interesting!

      I’ll give that post idea some thought. Do you travel for business, too?

      1. Ava

        Funny indeed! The like button took didn’t come out very professional!

        It would be really interesting to read your post about business traveling. I travel too for business but try to avoid it as much as I can.

        1. I try to avoid it, too. So far, I’ve managed to avoid it almost 20% of the time. Ha! 🙂

          1. Ava

            Haha 20% success rate! On the other hand remote working wouldn’t probably fit for your line of work!

  4. Jane Robinson- Art Epicurean

    Your post made me think of the businesses and people who have used the law of reciprocity to feather their own nest while plucking my feathers to cushion it. It usually doesn’t take long to figure it out and as you said “I slip away quietly”…usually. Sometimes I am sharing with my band of entrepreneurs the tatics of this particular person and we agree that they have damaged their reputation far worse than if they never offered anything at all.

    1. Exactly, Jane. It’s kind of like people who are treated poorly in a restaurant. They don’t always complain to the owner. Usually they just stop coming – and then tell everyone they know how badly it went.

      Another example how it can work both ways.

      Enjoy your vacation 🙂

      1. Jane Robinson- Art Epicurean

        Thanks. Counting down – 3 hours to blast off.

  5. Hi Gary,
    Great post as always. This fits right in line with a post I have been developing on manners. There is such a lack of manners in business in general and online particularly. When someone displays manners it is so out of the norm.that you stand out.

    As far as reciprocity, I see people who should even know better somehow fail to practice it. Bloggers and others who use social media should know that by liking, commenting and sharing posts leads them to be displayed more and thus reaching a larger audience. So if they know this, why don’t they do it for others? I have found when I like and share as much a possible, I get the same in return. Funny how that works…

    1. You’re right, Michael. As a military guy, I know you understand basic human respect. I’d agree that a lot of people are abandoning it. (Except the smart ones)

      My brother used to say, “If you just show up and try you’re ahead of the game.” And as I’ve grown up and worked with all different kinds of people and organizations… he was right. You can read about it here

      Thanks for the insightful comment as always!

  6. Jim Bessey

    I’ll add my most recent experience as a good example, Gary. (Great question, by the way.)

    Doing a bit of resource-networking, I’ve befriended a talented book editor over time. I bought her book, “Writing a Killer Thriller,” because the topic really interests me. Then she did a major revision. I bought that, too. Then she updated the revised edition, but sent me that one as a courtesy via email, without my asking.

    So I wrote a thoughtful review of her most current edition. Even thought it was a “5-star” review, it wasn’t puffery.

    A day later I got a sincere Thank You message from her and an offer to edit a full chapter of my choosing, free. Just a simple bit of reciprocity, but it really left me happily surprised.

    Gee, I wonder who I might recommend when one of my subscribers needs an Editor? 🙂

    1. That’s a great example, Jim. Thanks very much for sharing it with us.

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    1. Actually yes. There are several, but the one I use is called WordPress SEO by Yoast. You can find it here…

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      Gary Korisko recently posted…Is Disqus Killing Your Blog? Why (and How) I Pulled the PlugMy Profile

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  9. Joshua Franklin

    Loved it. Really interesting stuff. Thanks for taking the time to write it

  10. Reciprocity is the key principle of Influence & Persuasion 🙂

  11. Hello Gary,

    Nice to meet you here 🙂 Hope you are doing great.

    This one is great stuff. Being positive towards your aim and helpful indeed take our business to new heights.
    People will gradually consider us as one of the trust worthy among the rest. Yeah but it needs time.
    nothing can be created in a single day.

    Reciprocity could have both effects good as well as bad. Many would be confused at certain points that
    how to recover from a loss.
    Thank you for sharing this among us.
    Shantanu sinha

  12. I really agree on what you have mentioned that one of the hardest parts of a new business relationship is building trust and rapport. This is a critical point beginners would have to face when starting off a business. But with continuous learning and practice, this can be sorted out so easy.

  13. Hii,

    I must say this is indeed a very interesting and useful post and we can’t deny the fact that people often wonder what reciprocity truly means and how it can be exercised effectively. Reciprocity is influenced based on meeting peoples’ needs in exchange for the support and assistance they provide.

    For example, when charities put small gifts into their donation request envelopes, they are hoping that giving you a gift will induce you to give them one in kind.

    However, Reciprocity is sometimes difficult to exercise because it is so counter-intuitive.

    Thomas Wyckoff
    Thomas Wyckoff recently posted…Should You Invest in an Outside General Counsel?My Profile

  14. Hi Gary! I’ve been a marketer for almost a decade now and I must say that there were times that I’m a bit pushy. I just learned a long the way the law of reciprocity. It really helped me to become a better marketer. 🙂
    Elena Law recently posted…The Rise of the Individual Investor ProgrammeMy Profile

  15. Great Share!
    The Law of Reciprocity states when you receive something from someone you are very likely to return the favor. Although seemingly simplistic, this is a very powerful concept.
    You can use this notion to grow and maintain relationships. You can use this idea to build your business. This law teaches a very straightforward lesson: when you give, you get.
    Thanks for sharing such an informative post.

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