How giving without expectation makes sense in business

Human beings are social animals. This may sound like an extreme case of stating the obvious, but it is, in fact, important. Social creatures often follow internal “social programs” even when they’re not completely aware of doing so. The law of reciprocity is one such social program. It is the principle that in decent societies – when somebody does something nice for you, you will want to do something nice for them in return. As you can imagine, this makes life generally more pleasant for everyone. So, it’s hardwired into us to be nice when people are nice to us.

In fact, it’s not enough for us to be nice in return when someone is nice to us. Another facet of human social behaviour is that we try to do better than those around us. So, when somebody is nice to us – we try to be even nicer in return. We do this subconsciously most of the time.

The law of reciprocity is important for business people because it can be harnessed to help you build your business; if you do it in the right way.

The law of reciprocity and generosity

The underlying basis of using the law of reciprocity in your business is that it does with generous intent. It can be a struggle when you first get started to build trust in you and your business. It often means taking risks to demonstrate your credibility, empathy and overall good intent towards others.

Think about the Internet – the most obvious example of this behaviour at work is in the form of a free e-book. The website owner gives you a free e-book because a) it’s a chance for them to demonstrate their knowledge and to bring real benefits to your business, and b) there’s a good chance they understand the law of reciprocity; if they give you useful advice for free, you’ll be much more inclined to hire them for their expertise.

For this to be in “good faith” the gift must fulfil certain criteria:

  • It must be useful. We’ve all been victim of the free e-book which was just a straight up waste of our time. It teases a little information before demanding that we pay for the valuable stuff. This isn’t “good faith”, it’s a trick.
  • It must demonstrate empathy with the recipient. A gift can’t be useful only from your perspective, it must help the recipient solve a problem or improve their life in some other way.
  • It must feel like a gift and not a ploy to sneak into their wallet. You have to sincerely give and risk that your recipient chooses to not do business with you in order for a gift to have value.

If you don’t follow these points, you’re trying to abuse the law of reciprocity. That’s the kind of sales tactic that’s likely to burn more bridges than it builds.

Firstly, most people can smell this kind of ploy for what it is and they’re simply going to walk away in the first place. They’re probably also going to tell other people about how they felt and that’s going to make it even harder to win business in the future.

Secondly, a few people may still feel obliged even though they feel cheated. They will become customers but only begrudgingly and they’re going to be much harder to satisfy than your ordinary customers. Basically, a lack of good faith is a way to generate resentment and customer complaints before you even began your customer relationships.

Andrew Hackett, Teacher, Seminar Leader and author of “Free From Fear”

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