Yeah, And You Owe Me One!

Five ways to effectively leverage the law of reciprocity and improve just about every dimension of dealership life.

Your focus may be on selling or you may be trying to get coworkers to collaborate. No matter what your objective, you still need to make something happen.

One of the most powerful forces encouraging social exchange is right in front of us. Better yet, it doesn’t require one dime of capital investment! However, as business people, most of us don’t utilize it at all. This powerful tool may just be the most important component to your sales, marketing and management success.

What is this incredibly powerful force? It’s the law of reciprocity. You know how when someone remembers your birthday with a gift you feel compelled to remember theirs with one, too or when someone invites you to their party, you feel it important to invite them to yours. Guess what? That’s the law of reciprocity at work.

This law has been tested time and time again. One of the most cited pieces of research was a study done by BYU professors Kunz and Woolcott in 1976. They picked names at random from the phone book and sent people Christmas cards (back in 1976 the notion of PC police enforcing the concept of "holiday" cards rather than Christmas cards was not yet in the public’s consciousness).

The professors wanted to see if in fact recipients would be compelled to reciprocate. They expected to get some cards in return, but the professors were unprepared for the tsunami of cards they received in return! Why did they get a flood of so many cards from people whom they didn’t even know? Quite simply it’s the rule of reciprocity.

Robert Cialdini, whom I’ve cited in previous columns, points out that in our culture we have names for those who don’t follow the rule of reciprocity: moochers, freeloaders … teenagers!

Study after study proves this rule, so we won’t take the time to review them here. Just be assured that this rule is as immutable as the law of gravity. The most obvious use (and sometimes abuse) of the law of reciprocity is the notion of giving gifts.

Often in business situations people will use gift giving as an attempt to manipulate a person into giving them some sort of preferential treatment. It couldn’t be more obvious but yet in a survey done by Inc Magazine back in 1996, purchasing agents agreed they are more inclined to buy from vendors who give gifts. Dealers often use gifting, and those that don’t, should.

For example, if someone visits your dealership for the first time to look at some motorcycles, you should give them something. Typically a small item like a "dip dot" or "Stolen From" pen or a nice key fob work wonders.

If you want to be a bit more proactive, dealers can even have different items depending on the visit. First timers get the dot, come-backers get the pen, third timers get the fob and so on.

This is a great approach because it enables salespeople on the floor to engage prospects and get some approximation as to where they are in the process. For example:

"First time here?"


"Terrific. For first time guests we have …"

"First time here?"


"Terrific for our repeat guests we have some very special items. Did you receive your dealership pen yet?" No. Give them the pen. Yes. Ask about the fob.

Your creativity is the only limitation to this approach.

Please don’t misunderstand my point. It is not my contention that once you give a customer a pen they are going to say, "A pen! That’s incredible. We’d like to buy your most expensive motorcycle!" That’s not really how it works.

Customers won’t fall all over your every offer after receiving a small gift from you, but they may be more inclined to spend more time, give more attention or come back again. And that’s the name of the game. Keeping customers engaged until they buy.

Okay, so that’s the obvious — and yes, unsophisticated — use of the law of reciprocity. Do you want to "kick it up a notch!" ala Emeril Lagasse? There are two fundamental mindsets you need to have if you are going to maximize the idea of reciprocity.

  • Whether you are working with customers or coworkers, the first thing you should do is develop a service orientation. Meaning you should enter into every situation not thinking what can this person can do for me, but rather what can I do for this person?
  • You should adopt a long-term orientation. Meaning reciprocity doesn’t always work immediately. There’s a great aphorism — if you help enough others get what they want, ultimately you will get what you want. You have to have faith that reciprocity will happen eventually.

A workshop participant recently relayed a great story that illustrates these two points perfectly. A salesperson engaged a couple on the showroom floor. Immediately they informed the salesperson that they had fallen on hard times, had just filed bankruptcy and were really just looking at the motorcycles for fun.

Now a typical "what’s-in-it-for-me" salesperson would have dropped this couple like a hot rock. But this sales professional who had a service orientation and a long-term view said, "Hey, no problem. We’re not busy. What questions can I answer for you?" And he proceeded to spend some quality time with the couple.

Two weeks later the down-and-out pair returned with another couple. Turns out they couldn’t buy, but they had friends that could. And to return the favor of being treated well and with respect, when they found out their friends wanted to buy a motorcycle they wanted this salesperson to get the sale. He did.

This is not to say that you should be spending a disproportionate amount of time with unqualified buyers, but it is a great story about how a little empathy, with a service orientation and putting material self-interest on the back burner paid off.

You’ve probably even had this happen to you in one fashion or another.

There are some ways for you to give to customers and coworkers enabling you to effectively leverage the law of reciprocity to improve just about every dimension of dealership life. Here are the first five that come to mind:

1) Provide an unexpected service or favor: We used to have a cleaning person (I said a cleaning person not a butler) who would do something extra every time she cleaned the house. Whether it was doing the windows, cleaning the fireplace or folding the laundry, she would always do something unexpected. Did it pay off for her? We kept her on for almost a decade until she moved away to be with her grand kids (now I do the windows, the fireplace and the laundry).

So if you are working with customers — whether you do unexpected detailing, delivery or filling the tank —small things like that can pay big returns. If you are dealing with co-workers, helping to move the motorcycles, carry in the UPS shipments or cleaning the restrooms can work wonders.

2) Give information: Do you have a bit of information that the customer needs or would find interesting? A comparison of torque, horsepower or braking distance might be a great reason to send an e-mail, a handwritten note or even make a phone call.

Keep in mind information is more like bread than wine: It is best served warm and fresh. And unlike good wine, it doesn’t get better with age! So the moment you get a piece of fresh information one of your customers may find interesting, give it to them!

3) Demonstrate trust: This is a great gift for managers to give employees. Giving someone the responsibility and the freedom to head up a department or an initiative is the embodiment of trust. Often times, for many, this can be even more motivating than money.

4) Be cooperative: This is also a great way to work with coworkers. Your dealership operates more effectively when you work together. When you can display a willingness to cooperate between people and departments. Cooperation begets cooperation; the opposite of a vicious cycle, this is a virtuous cycle.

5) Exhibit empathy: This is the idea of understanding of another’s situation, feelings and motives. When you spend the time, energy and effort to see things from the other person’s perspective it will pay big dividends.

Next time we will cover more ways to effectively leverage the law of reciprocity as well as introducing the concept of "Concessions." Hmmm… this is pretty important stuff, and I’m giving it away for free?

Come to think of it, you just may owe me one for divulging the power of reciprocity!

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