Law of reciprocity: how understanding it can help you get more sales

Chamber Blog |Aug 26, 2019|9 min read
How the Law of Reciprocity Brings More Sales


Quid pro quo. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Do unto others as you would like done unto you. These are all ways to say that if you help others, you’ll receive the same treatment from them.


This isn’t just fancy manipulation to get your way. There’s psychological science/research behind it. It’s called the Law of Reciprocity and understanding it can help improve your business and sales.


In this article, you’ll learn what it is and how to best practice it. Once you do, you’ll see a lot of what you’re giving to other businesses comes back to you.


What is the Law of Reciprocity?


The Law of Reciprocity simply explained is that when someone does something for you, you feel obligated to reciprocate or do something in return for them.


You’ve likely experienced this in your personal life. For instance, when you pick up the tab at lunch for you and your friend, if they are a good person, chances are they’ll pick up the tab the next time you go out. Most people will feel obligated and at least offer to do so.


But the Law of Reciprocity extends past just personal relationships where people know each other well. It also extends to donations, business, and sales situations.


Law of reciprocity in action: helping someone out and they will help you.

The Law of Reciprocity in Practice


Do you remember the Hare Krishnas? The religious group spread their message at airports and public gatherings. Like most religious organizations, they had papers that they handed out.


They found very few people took the papers, donated money, or listened to their message.




They began giving gifts. A flower, a book, a prayer card…and suddenly the same people who walked by them without giving them any attention were now stopping and giving money.


But this isn’t an anomaly.


Robert Cialdini, the “Godfather of Influence.” found that when mints were given with the restaurant bill that tips went up an average of 3.1%.


The Law of Reciprocity also works among complete strangers. Philip Kunz, a former sociologist at Brigham Young University performed a study in 1974 where he sent Christmas cards to 600 strangers.


He received more than 200 replies, some of them as long as 4-pages. And the reciprocity continued once the pattern was initiated. Kunz received some of these yearly Christmas card responses for up to 15 years.


People feel obligated to reciprocate even when they don’t know the person initiating.


So how can you put the law of reciprocity to work for you?


Using the Law of Reciprocity to Increase Business


If you want more interest in your business, you can use the Law of Reciprocity to make it happen. But you must act first (initially). Here are a few ways you can do that:


law of reciprocity - giving a gift of a brown paper package tied in string
  1. Post about your experience with another business on social media. Tag them and tell your audience how much you enjoyed their service or product.
  2. Offer coffee or other free food or drink when potential customers enter your business.
  3. Give out swag to incentivize purchases.
  4. Make samples available. People often feel obligated to buy after receiving a sample.
  5. Demonstrate how well your product works on your potential buyers. Ever walk by a mall kiosk and someone tries to invite you over to sample their moisturizer? They do this because chances are if you experience the product and like it, you’ll buy at least a small size of the product.
  6. Give free food to people who could potentially order from you or partner with you, especially other businesses. Ask a doctor’s office staff how often they get lunch catered by pharmaceutical sales reps. Pharmaceutical salespeople do it because there’s ROI in bringing in lunch.
  7. Introduce someone as an expert in their industry and build them up as such. They’ll likely return the favor.
  8. Give them attention and make them feel interesting. Ask questions and ask their opinion. They’ll do the same of you in the future.
  9. Give them the benefit of the doubt and the favor will be returned to you.
  10. Allow for a liberal exchange policy. They will value your product knowing you value them as customers.
  11. Act extremely appreciative of their purchases. Not only does it make people feel good when you appreciate them but they’re likely to buy more because you show such appreciation for it. Think about your own life. Who do you want to help? Someone who doesn’t seem to care when you go out of your way for them or someone who consistently thanks you for your efforts? The latter, of course.
  12. Use positive language and a soft, slow, even tone during customer complaints. They’ll likely calm their tone to match yours. It’s difficult to yell at someone who’s speaking kindly to you with lots of respect.
  13. Give them a name. Poor behavior often happens because people compartmentalize and don’t think about those around them. For instance, I used to work in the governor’s office fielding calls from constituents. I always knew I was in for a bad call when it began with “You people.” Because while that sounds like the caller saw me as a person, they didn’t. They had lumped me into the position of government hack, separate from their own human existence. And I knew I had to reestablish my humanity in their eyes before they would treat me that way. I had to build empathy. The same is true in waiting tables at a buffet. It’s easy for diners to forget the tip at a buffet if they see the person waiting on them as a faceless table busser. But if the waiter provides their name on an elegant card, diners soon realize that if they don’t tip or tip poorly, they’re doing it to that specific person. Always make sure your customers know they are dealing with a person with feelings and a name. Ensuring they know this will smooth over any difficulties in the situation.
  14. Offer free classes on how to use your product. They may buy an upgrade if they know you’re always there to support it and help them.
  15. Provide advice even if it doesn’t always benefit you. If you’re honest about a competing solution being a better one for them, they may not buy from you at that point. But they’ll remember your honesty and look to buy from you (or recommend you in the future) because they trust you and know you were straight with them even though it cost you the sale.
  16. Offer something for free if they buy today. Buying is often an emotional action. Usually, the Law of Reciprocity requires you to do something for them first before they’ll do something for you. But sometimes the offer to do something is enough to incentivize the sale. For instance, if you offer someone something extra when they buy from you they might do it. Car dealerships use free car washes, oil changes, TVs or vacations to get people to buy a car. We’ll give you this, if you buy from us and not the competition
  17. Offer free maintenance or checks of your product. If you sell a product that requires maintenance, think about offering free check-ups. This gives your customer peace of mind but also allows you to propose upsells and additional services. Keep in mind, you never want to offer things that don’t help your customer. If you make suggestions for maintenance or fixes they don’t need, they will feel taken advantage of.
  18. Host a free night of fun at your business as a thank you for your loyal customers. They will feel obligated to buy something as long as you don’t present the free night of fun as an infomercial for your product. Don’t be salesy.
  19. Throw a wine tasting or open house. Again, people will enjoy the wine and buy from you.
  20. Offer limited free advice. Give customers (limited) free advice or free use of your services. Make it clear what they get for free and what parts are a paid service. You might be surprised how people will use the free service and later upgrade because of reciprocity.

How to Use the Law of Reciprocity in Advanced Situations


There are two kinds of uses for the Law of Reciprocity.


There are the immediate benefits like a larger tip when mints are provided and there’s the kind that builds credit as a “savings account” that you can later draw on.


Law of reciprocity and social capital as demonstrated by a little piggy bank.


The tips listed above mainly produce instantaneous action by the customer or potential customer. But some actions produce long-term effects. When you build up credit with your audience by helping them know, like, and trust you, you can use the Law of Reciprocity on another level: a delayed one. This is also known as “social capital.”


  • Be a resource and give away all of your knowledge for free. Eventually, you’ll build up enough credit with your audience that they will do things that you ask.
  • Always ask for a favor. You’ll be surprised how often people will do something just because you ask for it. Most people are not conditioned to say no. Some may say, “well, that depends” and then when you reveal how basic the favor is, they’ll happily acquiesce.
  • Ask to pay what it’s worth. When you provide someone with a good or service and then ask them to pay what they think it is worth, very few people will choose zero. The Law of Reciprocity means that if they find even remote value from your good or service, they’ll pay something.

If you want to build your business and improve sales, one of the easiest ways is to become adept at the Law of Reciprocity. By giving away things, knowledge, expertise, advice, or anything else, people will often provide you with their attention and money.


Who couldn’t use more of that?


By: Christina R. Green