Reciprocity and the psychology of successful sales

15th Oct 2018

We all want to sell more. So how do we do this? A powerful sales technique exists that can help.  The best sales organizations use it well; the worst, not so much. It is based on a psychological concept called reciprocity, and it might be what you need to get (or keep) your foot in the door.

We discussed reciprocity in our recent podcast episode. Reciprocity is a concept in psychology that describes how people respond to a positive act with another one in return. For example, someone holds the door for you when you walk into the store, so you let them take the spot in front of you in line. People feel like when someone is kind to them, they should return the kindness.

Obviously, not everyone shares this idea or returning kindness after enjoying kindness. There is a whole other term for these ungrateful blokes.

Reciprocity is Everywhere—Even Right Here

Marketers use reciprocity all the time. It describes how they give customers or prospects something with the hopes that their generosity will be returned in higher sales or customer loyalty. The idea is that the recipient will feel like they should return the favor in exchange for the gift offered.

Reciprocity is the concept behind content marketing (an activity you are participating in right this very moment). Organizations offer some of their knowledge through free eBooks, videos, articles, and podcasts about their area of expertise to get new clients.

Another example of reciprocity in marketing are the address labels you get from the charities in the mail. The nonprofits print those and send them to you in hopes that their gift will inspire you to support their charity. They even include a return envelope and suggested donation levels to help you along your decision-making process. It works, or charities wouldn’t do it.

However, this example also demonstrates what happens when a good marketing idea gets overused. Like many of you, I receive numerous address return labels throughout the year, more labels than I could ever use. After the fifth or sixth envelope of my “no-obligation gift,” the return labels feel more like a solicitation than a gift and, therefore, no longer inspire me to contribute to their cause. The reciprocity isn’t there.

The Door in the Face Technique

Return labels example aside, using the principles of reciprocity in your sales strategy is a fantastic way to sell more to your customers. The Door in the Face Technique first introduced by Dr. Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., uses the concept of reciprocity, albeit in a different way.

This video explains it well:

The Door in the Face Technique was born out of a social experiment Cialdini did in the 1970s. He asked a control group if they would take some troubled youth to the zoo. Most people said no; only 17% said yes. Next, he asked the second group of people if they would be willing to volunteer to serve as a peer-counselor for troubled youth for two hours a week over a two-year period. No one said yes. However, after their refusal when he followed up with asking them to take the juvenile delinquents to the zoo, 50% said they would.

The Door in the Face Technique supposes that when a person refuses a large request, they will be more likely to agree to a small request. It is based on the idea that no one wants to be the person who always says no. If they do say no after someone asks them for something, they might feel they should say yes to something else to make up for it.

If you are enjoying this post, you might be interested in the following blogs and podcasts:

How Do Customers Decide If Their Experience is Good or Bad? [Podcast]

How We Make Decisions—Prospect Theory

Why Customers Make Strange Decisions

Using Reciprocity for Profit

Customers don’t always want to say no either. So, you can use the strategy when you are selling to them. However, use caution. No one wants to be tricked or cajoled into the sale. Feeling duped or pressured by a company is not the type of emotion that leads to customer loyalty.

You need to be deliberate about using reciprocity, just like you need to be for all parts of your Customer Experience. Think through what you can do in your experience to give your customers something proactively, not reactively. It should be an enhancement to your experience.

Moreover, you have to switch it up. You can’t do the same thing over and over. For example, let’s say you are a stationery store and you give your customers a free pen. But when they come back the next time, you provide them another one. And the next time, that’s right, they get another pen. After three pens or so, the free pen is not as effective as it might have been the first time. However, you could do the pen the first time, follow that up with a set of fancy thank you notes, and maybe a letter opener. The little gifts related to your customer’s love of fine paper products serve to appreciate their business and hopefully build an emotional bond that is so critical to forming customer loyalty.

It’s like being nice to get more sales. However, being nice means different things to different people. One time we told a client their call center should work to form a personal bond with their customers. They didn’t define what that meant, so when the call center employees heard that, some of them started calling everyone “Hon” or “Sweetie” when they called in. While it was cute, it wasn’t what we meant.

I could see “being nice” ending up in the “Hon and Sweetie” category pretty quickly if you don’t define what you mean by nice. So, your organization needs to determine how you are going to be nice to get more sales from your customers, what nice looks like, how nice will make customers feel, and when the niceness should happen. In other words, how you use reciprocity and the Door in the Face sales technique in your Customer Experience should be deliberate, natural, and, well, nice.

Show me an organization that doesn’t want to sell more, and I will show you one that is going out of business. We all need sales, and the lion’s share of them will come from your loyal customers. Reciprocity and the Door in the Face Technique are ways you can begin to build emotional engagement, which fosters customer loyalty. However, you have to be deliberate, natural, and nice about it or the figurative sales technique door might be far more literal and in your face than you hoped.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

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