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Obligation and the Principle of Reciprocity

February 29, 2024
Obligation and the Principle of Reciprocity

Have you heard about the principle of reciprocity? It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s like the old, “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” type of thing. In other words, you do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor.

And it’s a very, very powerful motivator for people. In fact, if you ever talk with an older crowd, you might hear a word you don’t hear otherwise – oblige. Instead of saying “Thank you,” they will often say, “Much obliged” or “Much obligated.”

Drinks Are On Me

People feel obligated to return a favor. There’s a very famous study called the “Coca-Cola” experiment where a university researcher invited students to participate one at a time. It was run by the researcher’s assistant Joe, who invited a participant to come look at art and tell him what they thought. That was simply the setup.

Half of the time, Joe would allow the participants to overhear a phone call he was on where he was rude to the caller, and the other half of the participants would hear him be nice to the caller. This created two groups – those who liked Joe and those who didn’t.

Also, half of the time, Joe would leave the room and bring back 2 sodas – one for himself and one for the participant. The other half of the participants would see Joe re-enter the room empty-handed. Now we have a total of 4 groups:

  • Those who liked Joe and received a free soda.
  • Those who disliked Joe and received a free soda.
  • Those who liked Joe and received nothing.
  • Those who disliked Joe and received nothing.

For the final step of the experiment, Joe would ask the participant to purchase raffle tickets for him so he could win a prize. What do you think happened? Did they all behave the same way?

The results were astounding in one aspect. The participants who received a free soda bought twice as many raffle tickets as the ones who did not receive a soda. It didn’t really matter if they liked Joe or not. They felt COMPELLED to return the favor of receiving a gift (the soda).

Spreading Christmas Cheer

In another experiment that yielded similar results, a sociologist named Phillip Kunz addressed 600 Christmas cards (including a note and family photo) to complete strangers. In return, he received over 200 cards, notes, and photos back in the mail, written by those complete strangers addressed to Phillip. They received something and felt the need to reciprocate, plain and simple.

That reminds me of a sales call I was on several years ago. I had a sales trainee with me on the home visit, and the homeowner happened to mention that her garbage disposal was not working because a tiny fork was stuck down inside there and jammed the whole thing. Now I’m not a mechanical guy, and I’m especially not very good at plumbing, but I try to help people as much as I can. So I spent an hour underneath her sink. I took the whole disposal down. We got the fork out and put the disposal back together.

And it was amazing because once we got that done, we all moved to the kitchen table. As soon as we sat down, she said, “Well, you fixed my disposal; now I guess I have to buy from you.” And I had to laugh to myself because my whole reason for doing it was out of kindness. But to her, reciprocity was the first thing she thought of.

Reciprocity in Action

So how do we use this as a service technician, as a comfort advisor, etc.?

We basically do something nice and unexpected for the homeowner. It could be bringing in the trash can from the street, picking up the newspaper from the yard, or pulling weeds out of a flower bed; it could be anything helpful, really. I’ve seen guys go inside and change light bulbs because it was difficult for the homeowner to reach.

Just by helping however you can will automatically make a good first impression. Even if no sale comes from it, it most certainly improves the odds. The reality is that it can create an obligation, right? It creates this feeling of the need to reciprocate. You’re nice to me, I feel the need to be nice to you. So it’s very subtle, but it’s also very, very powerful.

I remember a recent marketing and social experiment performed by a well-known HVAC business that is respected for its company culture. They set up cameras in a breakfast restaurant. At the end of the meal, when the customer went to the cash register to pay, they were informed that the HVAC company had already paid for their breakfast.

The number of people who received that free breakfast and later called that HVAC company for services is amazing. So, it’s a very powerful principle. Do something nice for people, and they will return the favor.

Do what you can do for your homeowners, and you will see the favor will oftentimes be returned. This could come in many forms, including them agreeing to say yes to you and taking your recommendations. So reciprocate. Get out there and do some nice things, and some nice things will happen to you in return.