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Can the principle of reciprocity improve your customer communications?

Can the principle of reciprocity improve your customer communications?

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is a fascinating book about how to convince people. Supported by numerous studies into human behaviour, Influence provides plenty of ideas for anyone who wants to communicate or convince.

With that in mind, we’re going to review the six principles of persuasion outlined by author Dr Robert Cialdini, and consider how they can be applied to customer communications.

The first principle is reciprocity. In simple terms, people are more likely to do something for you if you do something for them first. People feel a degree of obligation to reciprocate – or to repay a perceived debt. This principle is something that many of us use instinctively; we know that gifts, trials and other freebies are a great way to start a relationship with a new customer. But knowing about the reciprocity principle means that we can make sure we give before we take, in every interaction.

Small gifts make a big difference

A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that diners tip more generously when their waiter gives them a small, unexpected gift, such as mints, when delivering the bill. Waiters can also encourage more generous tips by smiling broadly, making brief physical contact, crouching at the table, and personalising the bill by adding a note or a smiley face. The size of the tip increases according to the number of sweets given. Giving chocolate – or something otherwise perceived as special or unique – also increases the tip.

These studies show that people are likely to give more after receiving some kind of gift. The value of the gift is less important than the nature of the gift. It should be unexpected – and preferably personalised to some degree (or at least feel as though it is just for you). You don’t have to shower customers with valuable gifts in order to earn their affections; you just need to give a little to foster an atmosphere of generosity.

Give first, get second

To benefit from this principle, you need to be the one to initiate the giving. And it’s not usually enough to promise something – you really need to give the thing first. For example, if you offer someone a free trial, you must make it incredibly easy for people to sign up and start using whatever you’re offering – otherwise they will feel like they’re working and giving you their time.

If you’re offering people a free sample or a piece of content, make sure you give it to them before asking for anything else – otherwise they will not feel as though they’ve received anything, and the reciprocity principle will not apply.

Minimise your demands

We all know that the more we ask for, the less likely we are to get anything. So although we can improve our chances of getting what we need from our customers by giving them a small gift, we must also reduce the size and complexity of our demands. This might mean asking for less personal information, using auto-complete technology in forms, and generally trying to do as much for customers as possible. Take the work off their hands, and you’ll get more people accepting your gifts.

Be nice

If you’re giving people gifts, then you’re being inherently nice. But it’s important to carry this feeling through every stage of an exchange. Make sure your copy, design and branding is consistent with this atmosphere of friendly giving. For example, interrupting the gift-giving with legalese, terms and conditions, or just a long and tedious sign-up form can be enough to shatter the perception that you’re just being generous, and suggest to people that the gift is nothing but an attempt to manipulate.

Reciprocity and customer communications

This principle has many applications in customer communications, particularly when we need to ask for things from our customers. But perhaps the time to start being generous is before we need to ask for favours. You can’t really go wrong with initiatives that cultivate better customer relationships.  

Customer communications and DocCentrics

If your business has a large group of customers to communicate with, we can help. Our cloud platform allows you to send brilliantly engaging communications by email, text, post and more. And you can create all these communications from a single intuitive interface. If you would like to know more about our customer communications management (CCM) platform, contact us today.


The next principle in this series will be: scarcity.