I couldn’t help but notice the package. It was thick and bulky as I separated it from the other envelopes. I knew it wasn’t a check or a personal note, but I opened it first anyway. Inside I found a complimentary pen with my company name on it…a marketing gimmick to get me to buy. And although I didn’t feel compelled to make a purchase, it did get me thinking about the power of reciprocation.

To reciprocate means to pay back a mutual or equivalent exchange to someone who has done something for you or given you something. It’s a powerful tool that most people believe is absent outside the human experience. But the reality is reciprocity is everywhere in nature.

A recent study has revealed that North American Grey Squirrels retrieve only about 77% of the nuts they bury. Maybe they’re just forgetful. Or maybe it’s reciprocation built into their DNA, an inescapable force that causes them to be an unwitting partner in reforestation, giving back to the trees they pilfer.

In Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence The Psychology of Persuasion” he recounts a story of a man who conducted an experiment on the nature of reciprocation. The man sent Christmas cards to a sample group of random strangers, and in return, the majority of the recipients sent cards back without even inquiring as to the identity of the original sender.

Dr. Cialdini explains that it’s innate…when someone gives us something, we can’t help ourselves. We feel compelled to even the scales.

As I stood over my trash can, ripping at the envelope to get to the nutty nugget inside (the free pen), I felt above it all. This was old news…I’d read Cialdini’s book way back in 1997 and believed I had the power to see behind the curtain…you know… name my demons, and escape my nature. I pictured myself above it all, leaving me free to resist the free pen “scam.”

But the free stuff didn’t stop. Many times different items would arrive. A free leather-bound calendar, a day planner, a keychain with a flashlight, and more pens. But I never took the bait.

Surely they were losing money. “What a waste,” I thought.

The cost of postage, packaging, and the production of the pen, had to be upwards of a dollar, maybe two. Now…these were nice pens…
Who knows how many thousands they sent out each time? And I was sure most of the recipients were just like me…having no interest in the ad copy, just the free pen.

I almost felt bad for the company and all the money they were spending, as I received a different colored pen or keychain every month, for at least a year. Couldn’t they tell, by my refusal to make a purchase, that their marketing efforts were not working?

Then Summer came, and I was again reminded of the power of reciprocation when I saw one of my drivers wearing a hat from a body shop. I asked him what was wrong with the hat I gave him…a company hat? He came back with the argument that the body shop hat was breathable…more comfortable. But I believe it was something more.

The body shop was giving away hats, not only so the wearer would be a walking billboard for their company but also because they hoped the wearer would feel special by the gesture and therefore be driven to even the scales and send business their way.

In a moment of inspiration, I realized that it didn’t matter if I knew how it worked. It was like the hairs that stand up on the back of your neck when you’re scared…they’re there for a reason, and you don’t have any control over it.

The company sending me the free pens knew that I’d purchased pens for giveaways in the past. Maybe they got my name from a list, or maybe I purchased directly from them…No matter. They were using sophisticated psychology and a consistent message of availability, betting that because I’ve purchased promotional items in the past, I understood and valued reciprocity. They were biding their time until I decided to cash in on it again.

So I did it. I gave in and sent in an order for 5000 pens and some hats too…the breathable kind.

4 Pointers on How to Make Reciprocation Work For You

1. Give Without Expectations.

I know it may sound contradictory to say, “How to Make reciprocation Work for You” and then immediately start my list with, “Give Without Expectations,” but it’s the only way you should give. For starters, if you give, fully expecting to be repaid, you’ll immediately be taken as a phony. And when you give to someone without expecting anything in return, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you are repaid.

2. Give in small amounts

You cannot continue to make a good living if you’re constantly giving away the store. An inexpensive item or kind unexpected gesture will work wonders.

3. Make giving a habit

When you make giving a habit, only then does it cease to look and feel contrived. As you become more comfortable providing a kind gesture or item of value, those doing the receiving will begin to feel more comfortable and respond with gratitude.

4. Let others give to you

By graciously accepting someone else’s kind gesture, you’re doing them a favor. It may seem the other way around, but you’re allowing them to “put money in the bank” and have the ability to expect “payment” one day. Besides, down deep, people love to help each other out. It creates endorphins in our brains, giving us a feeling of well-being. When you allow someone to give to you, or help you out, in one way or another, they feel a special kinship to you. And remember, people don’t do business with businesses; people do business with the people they like.

Be likable…Give, and your business will thrive.