Learn About the Principle of Reciprocity in Business

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A basic tenet of the psychology of relationships is called the principle of reciprocity. This principle defines the human need and tendency to want to give something back when something is received. This need is strongest when the gift is given without expectation of return.

But even at the lowly (but important) level of simple social graces, a “thank you” in response to an act of kindness or compliment is still followed by another reciprocal gesture of accommodation “you’re welcome.” Not only are we compelled to give something back when a gift is received we are also compelled not to feel indebted to others.

The strongest and longest-lasting interpersonal relationships are based on the principle of reciprocity, and this extends far into the best relationships between sellers and buyers.

Key Takeaways

  • The principle of reciprocity is an innate human nature that expects relationships to be about both giving and receiving.
  • This principle can be applied to business interactions to help bond a customer to your business.
  • Some ways to utilize reciprocity in your business include offering incentives and resolving complaints through good customer service.

How the Principle of Reciprocity Applies to Business

Reciprocity is often used in sales, advertising, and marketing techniques to forge a bond between the customer and the company. Reciprocity helps the customer feel they are getting something in return for their business.

Reciprocity Marketing Questions

  • How can I make my customers feel as though they are being given something of value so that they do not feel like they are the only ones giving me something? Can I offer coupons, bonus points, special discounts, or privileges?
  • How can I let customers know the best way to “thank” my business for providing them with a positive experience?

Business Ideas Based on the Principle of Reciprocity

  • Be the First to Give Something: Give something, such as a gift, bonus points or discounts, to the customer without the perceived expectation of return. Offer some “gift” incentive upfront, rather than at the end of a sale. Your gift should be offered first, before the buyer’s “gift” of giving you their business. However, to further capitalize on the principle of reciprocity offer another incentive when the sale is made for future business or the customer’s friends.


Make the initial gift something exclusive that is not publicly available.

  • Offer Customers Ways to Show Their Support: Tell your customers how they can thank you and help your business grow by including volunteer opportunities; “tell the media,” “submit your story,” “link to us,” and “email a friend” are all good link options. Some companies now offer blogs and forums where happy customers can report or rate their experience with your business.
  • Keep the Relationship Going - Thank Your Customers in a Meaningful Way: Include a personalized thank you when the order is sent and whenever possible. Do not just say “Dear Customer; We thank you for your business.” It seems like a token gesture and is not sincere enough.


This is especially important if you use the services of volunteers or rely on donations to support your organization.

  • Be the Last to Give: You first gave an incentive, then the customer gave you their business. Give your customers the option of staying in touch and showing their ongoing support by offering a free newsletter or being added to a mailing list for coupons, product updates, etc. While this is not a “gift,” and, you are expecting something in return (the prospect of future business) it allows customers who identified with your business to stay connected.

Building Successful Ongoing Business Relationships on Trust

The principle of reciprocity describes a human need for a give and take in a relationship. For the “gift” to have the most meaning, it needs to be offered in a way that seems genuine, without the expectation of return. But in business, there is an expectation of return; therefore, the principle of reciprocity should be built on trust by offering incentives to customers, but also by offering customer service and complaint resolution policies that inspire that trust.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The American Psychological Association. "Reciprocity."

  2. BehavioralEconomics.com. "Reciprocity."

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