Key Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the law of reciprocity as it applies to your business.
  • Determine that people will generally honour a commitment whether oral or in writing.
  • Understand the concept of “social proof” or evidence that other customers are using or buying the same product or service.
  • Learn that building rapport with your customers will increase the likelihood they will say “yes”.
  • Recognise that the scarcer a product or service, the greater your customers’ demand for it.


The six principles of influence and persuasion are the work of Dr Robert Cialdini, author of one of the most famous books on the topic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion written in 1984. His work is based on extensive scientific research and the principles can be applied easily and successfully to any business. The principles can be used to influence the people you deal with and to get them to say yes more often. It is important that you apply them ethically and not use them to deceive or mislead people.[wlm_ismember]


The law of reciprocity is simple: when someone does something nice for us, most of us feel the need to do something in return. If someone gives us a birthday present or invites us to a party, we feel obligated to return the favour and invite them to our next party or get them a gift for their birthday. Next time someone says to you “I owe you a favour”, you will recognise this as the law of reciprocity in action.

In business, every time you receive a free sample, the marketing department is looking to take advantage of this principle of reciprocity. Cosmetic houses, for example, use this effectively. A client will receive offers to come to the store to pick up a free gift or perhaps have a free make-up session. Such businesses are working on the principle that the majority of us will feel obligated to make a purchase while we are there.


Cialdini’s research shows that people feel a need to behave consistently; once they have made a commitment they feel obligated to honour it. We have all experienced this at one time or another when we have said yes to doing something that we later regret, but do not feel that we can go back on our word. The science shows that the principle holds whether the commitment is oral or in writing.

This principle is very useful in sales as long as it is used ethically. It is important that you do not try and push someone into doing something they are not comfortable with, or hold them to a deal that they do not want to follow through on. It can be particularly powerful in industries where there may be a delay in seeing the client before actually performing the service.

For example, a real estate agent may see a potential client who will not be ready to sell for several months. If the agent can gain a verbal commitment from the client that they will be the agent of choice when the time comes to sell the property and the agent backs this up with good service, it is unlikely the client will go back on their word.

Social proof

“I’ll have what she’s having”! People are confident in their decision if they see others doing or buying the same thing. You can have two restaurants side by side; they both may offer the same quality of food and the same level of service. The only difference may be that one is full of people and the other is empty. While logic would say that with everything being equal, if you go into the empty restaurant you will be served faster, the way our minds work means that you are more likely to choose the busy restaurant.

Look for ways to provide your customers with social proof, especially in the early stages of building the relationship. Testimonials from satisfied customers or evidence that the product is popular with others can work well, or launch a new product with an event for a large number of clients to create excitement. Social media can be extremely effective in providing social proof, engaging your customers who will help spread the word. Again you need to be ethical and be able to back up what you are saying or offering.


There have been a number of studies that have tested the theory that people tend to obey figures of authority. A famous experiment conducted in the early 60s by Stanley Milgram proved that the vast majority of people feel the need to follow a figure of authority even if they do not morally agree with what they are doing. Therefore in business, you need to be careful how you use your own authority and learn how you can use the authority of others to your benefit.

Cialdini found that if someone is recommended as an expert or figure of authority before presenting to a client, there is a vast increase in the number of successful conversions. The interesting thing is that it does not matter if the person who is doing the recommending stands to profit from the deal. For example, you are thinking of buying a new car and speak to the owner of a multi-franchise business. The owner recommends that you deal with Bob because Bob has vast experience, is an expert on that brand and has the highest customer satisfaction rating in the business. The science tells us that you are much more likely to seek out and buy from Bob than from another salesperson you meet when you walk in. This theory is why you will see businesses using doctors, dentists or other experts to promote their products.


In general people are more likely to be influenced by, or say yes to, someone that they like. It is important to spend time building rapport with someone you are trying to do business with. Look for opportunities to offer compliments to the other person or to find some things in common. It is important to remember that you need to be genuine as people respond poorly to someone who is superficial trying to influence them. You will find there are some people who are easy to deal with. These people are likely to be similar to you. As we know, ‘like likes like’. However, as we usually deal with someone who is not like us, we need to be flexible and alert for opportunities to build on our relationships with clients.


People tend to find things more attractive if they believe that the availability of the item might be limited or if there is a time limit. This is why you often see advertising and promotions with deadlines, suggesting that they are available for a limited time only. Or why you will see items that are offered on a very limited and exclusive basis with a long waiting list. The rarer it is, the more people want it. In business we can use this to our advantage, so long as the limited offer is genuine. We have all seen stores with a ‘closing down’ sign displayed for months or even longer. You will lose credibility with your clients if you are not clear and ethical with your offers.

Think about each of the six principles to see how you may be able to make some changes or implement some new ideas in your business.[/wlm_ismember]

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