"There's only so low you can go on price. There’s only so excellent you can make your product or service. There’s only so far you can stretch your marketing budget. Your heart though—that’s boundless." Gary Vaynerchuk's comment captures the essence of the humanization of business: treating our business relationships as we would our personal relationships, showing the customer that we really care. It's about applying the timeless principle of reciprocity.
Reciprocity—giving in exchange for receiving—is one of the most powerful tools for building customer loyalty. In Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Robert B. Cialdini talks about the importance and universality of the norm of reciprocity, which makes us feel obligated to repay others for what they have done for us. The norm drives us to be fair and equitable in our everyday social interactions, our business dealings and our close relationships. It engenders trust with others.
Reciprocity sometimes gets a bad rap. It's seen as a mercenary act—a "you owe me" kind of exchange, or a form of manipulation. But the other side of the coin is that reciprocation can be a genuine act of caring, a way of showing up in the world. It's about cultivating business relationships in a manner that is not different from the way we cultivate personal relationships that matter to us. When done genuinely, from a natural desire to be of service, the rewards are high.
How can you make use of the principle of reciprocity to make true connections? These 8 tips will help.
1. Conduct an audit of all your business relationships. Are you taking any business relationships for granted? What can you do to rekindle the initial interest you showed in the relationship? This could be as simple as sending a handwritten note to thank customers for their continuing support, or giving them an unexpected bonus such as free shipping or a special deal. It could be recommending their business to others, or providing them with some free information that is particularly useful to what they do. Nurture existing long-term relationships the way you court new ones.
2. Adopt the motto: "No Interaction Left Behind." The motto comes from Vaynerchuk. Small businesses that are active on social media have a tremendous opportunity to connect with their customers. Take every chance to be responsive to all interactions, not just complaints. Respond appreciatively to positive customer reviews, or any comments left on your site. Use the many digital tools of reciprocity, such as retweeting, liking, commenting, sharing, replying, adding to Google circles or recommending by clicking +1, the digital shorthand for "this is cool." All of these actions signal: I appreciate you.
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3. Be generous. We will never known what opportunities we may have missed in life by showing up tightfisted. It's hard to receive anything if we don't open our hands to give. This is true in our personal life as it is in business. Take the example of a travel agency. You book a cruise with one agency and you get good service, but nothing else. Another travel agency also provides good service, but goes the extra step of having a bottle of wine to greet you in your cabin, with a personalized note. Sometimes the difference between keeping and losing a customer in a competitive market is nothing but the cost of a $30 bottle of wine.
4. Give 'em the pickle! Take an inspiration from Bob Farrell, restaurant owner who pioneered the "Give 'em the pickle" customer service concept. The program started when a disgruntled customer sent a letter to complain that he was no longer going to patronize the restaurant because for years he had received an extra pickle with his food, but when a new waitress joined, he was asked to pay for the extra pickle. Since then, the war cry of Farrell's company has been "Give 'em the pickle." It's about ensuring that every employee in your shop or company makes serving others their number-one priority. Find out what the customers want and make sure they get it. That's the pickle. The pickle is the extra thing that you can do to make people happy. What's the pickle for your company?
5. Reward referrals. Referrals that translate into a business deal not only generate revenue; they also save you time and money in your sales expenses and sales cycle. For a small business, in particular, they are golden currency. It's surprising how many individuals don't reciprocate beyond saying thank you in an email that requires less effort and energy than the person expended in providing the referral. A handwritten note to let the person know how much you appreciate the referral is a more caring way of responding. Add a small gift certificate to Starbucks, some theater tickets or a box of chocolates—any token of your appreciation. If the business deal was substantial, make it more personal with an invitation to dinner to genuinely show your gratitude. It's the old school way of doing business. It's being human.
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6. Add value through quality content. Don't tease people by providing some small content and monetizing the rest. Freely share quality content, on a regular basis, to engender good will and develop a following. It will come back to you in different ways. Ask your followers online what information would be most helpful to them. Research problems your customers might be having in their business and publish answers on your blog. Zach Davis, from Tech Cocktail, suggests that you use the Twitter Advanced Search feature to research people's complaints and solve their problems whether or not their issue is directly tangible to your business model. As he puts it, the mere act of doing this favor is enough to trigger a sense of reciprocity.
7. Listen, listen, listen. Editorial cartoonist Frank Tyger once said, "There is no greater loan than a sympathetic ear." In today's noisy world, filled with distractions, people are starved for someone who truly listens. Listening is one of the kindest reciprocal activities. Give your employees and colleagues the gift of your attention by carving time to listen to their problems, hopes and aspirations.
8. Give without expectation. Despite what the principle of reciprocity dictates, give without any expectation. A common Chinese proverb says, “Forget the favors you have given; remember those received.” When we do favors, or go the extra mile with the intention of collecting later, something inevitably leaks through in our interaction with others. People can smell this a mile away. Making people feel obliged backfires, as they resent it, and it also diminishes the initial act. Finally, give to those who can be of no use to you. John Wooden put it beautifully: "You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you."
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Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books, Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations, and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.