Give Before You Take: Utilizing the Law of Reciprocity in Networking

As a small business owner, you have to show that you’re one of the good guys.

It’s what gets you loyal customers and heartfelt referrals. That being said, when you’re trying to grow your small business, it’s important to build trust and rapport. In essence, growing your business means growing your network.

One way to win over potential customers and business allies is to utilize the Law of Reciprocity. It’s a universal principle of mutual give-and-take, and it crops up often as an unspoken societal norm. Think about it: When a friend takes care of the first round at the bar, the next one’s on you.

These situations arise organically every day, but if you’re cognizant of it, the Law of Reciprocity can also be used as a shortcut to persuade others and grow your network.

The Law of Reciprocity at Work

NetworkingTo get a grasp on this law, let’s take a look at a common occurrence in restaurants: the after-dinner treat. Your server will likely bring you a little gift when she brings the bill.

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found that even a gift as tiny as a mint makes a surprising difference in the amount customers leave for a tip. For example, when one mint was given, research found a 3 percent increase in the tip; when two mints were offered, there was a 14 percent increase.

But it’s not just about what’s given; it’s about how it’s given. The study found that if the waitress provided one mint, started to walk away, and then stopped and said, “You’re so nice. Here’s an extra mint,” the tip increased by 23 percent.

So make sure your gift is pretty and personal. Receiving a gift — tangible or not — can make anyone feel appreciated, and your contact will want to return the favor.

If you’re in the early stages of your business, you may question whether you can afford to buy an expensive gift or give away your product. But luckily, there are a number of ways to add value without breaking the bank, including:

  • Solving a problem. This can be as simple as offering to share a creative brainstorming session or quick anecdotal advice.
  • Offering access to your resources. “Resources” is a broad term that can include anything from your equipment to your audience. Do you have access to anything this person might benefit from? If so, offer it up.
  • Giving rewards. Offer discount coupons, or send a personalized invitation to an exclusive event. Any pleasant surprise will make the person feel valued.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

While there are many ways you can give without making things difficult, you need to remember that reciprocity, by definition, is a two-way street.

If you find yourself on the receiving end, know that the other person will probably expect a favor down the line. What’s more, if you decide not to reciprocate, don’t expect him to help you in the future. Use these three tips to conduct an effective, mutually beneficial exchange:

1. Don’t get in too deep. Be careful whom you say “yes” to when you’re offered help, and make the other party aware that the Law of Reciprocity applies in your situation.

2. Be the first to give. One of the easier tricks is to be the first to give. However, in the world of business, there may come a time when someone does something nice for you first. 

3. Know how to respond to a favor. When people thank you for doing them favors, it’s important to respond in a way that will keep the energy of reciprocity flowing. The absolute worst thing you can say is “Yeah, you owe me one!” The runner-up for worst response is “Think nothing of it.” Instead, try “It was my pleasure; I’m glad I could help you. I’m sure that if the situation were reversed, you would do exactly the same for me.”

I’ve seen this law take shape in my personal experience with great success. For example, I follow a radio talk show host on social media, and when I see a worthy post, I share it. After I did this a few times, the host reached out and asked if she could interview me about my company. Her asking me to come on the show (and the great exposure we received as a result) was reciprocity for spreading the word about her show. 

Seeing returns on your good deeds won’t happen overnight. After all, you’re building a network of allies, and that naturally takes time. But be nice, and people will like you. Give, and they’ll give back.


About the Author

Emily Egbert, headshotEmily Egbert is the spokesperson for HitUp, a newly launched business app designed to make giving and receiving business gifts simple and easy. HitUp is seeking to build its business relationships in the business gift-giving market. Inquiries welcome at