The Surprising Trick that Successful Businesses Use

The Surprising Trick that Successful Businesses Use

The Surprising Trick that Successful Businesses Use

Picture this.

You walk into your favorite megastore.

You came to pick up a few essential items for the weekend (solo cups, beer, munchies).

As you make your way through the titan-sized isles, the delicious smell of chocolate baked goods hit your nose. Sure enough, at the end of the isle is the bakery. Tempting, but nothing you can’t will yourself to avoid…

Until you see an employee smile at you from ten feet away and ask if you want to try a free sample.

Free, delicious baked goods? Who can say no to that?

Of course, we know how this ends.

You still wind up with the essentials for the weekend…but you also come out with a bit extra (like a dozen chocolate cookies that your fat gut doesn’t need right now).

What happened?

The Most Powerful Influence Tactic in the World

You’ve probably heard this story before, or you’ve been a victim of it yourself.

This might sound like a classic case of “lack of willpower”:

If only I had better habits, grew up with a better family, had more discipline, or wasn’t so weak-willed, right?


There’s nothing wrong with you if this has happened to you (although marketers selling habit-forming products will promote it as a defect).

No, what really happened here is something closer to marketing magic than anything else.

What the store did was specifically designed to get you to buy those treats (or whatever it is they’re peddling), and they used the oldest trick in the book:


Let’s take a closer look at what happened.

The Situation

In this case, you needed the solo cups and beer for the massive beer pong tournament you’re putting on for your son’s Bar Mitzvah or whatever.

Because you were focused on one outcome and hadn’t considered possible obstacles to your objective, the smell of baked goods pleasantly surprised you.

You were figuratively caught you with your pants down and unprepared for the sensorial assault.

The Trigger

Smell is a powerful sense, the only one directly linked to our memories.

So when you smell mom’s baked cookies, a rush of good memories flood your brain. This smell is associated with good feelings.

When the nice, smiling lady offers you a free taste, how can you say no?

You enjoy the sample. You’re happy you stopped. Time to head off and find the weekend essentials, except…

Free Cookies

Photo courtesy of James

The Sale

The lady starts telling you all about the cookies you just piled down your mouth.

Like a proper gentleman, you listen politely. After all, she just gave you delicious cookies. You can’t just leave.

As she continues to talk, you get increasingly uncomfortable. You have things to do, time is limited, but you also feel obliged to be kind back to this woman…after all, she was kind to you first.

She tells you the product is on discount and you grab a box so you can end the awkward conversation and get on with your day. And now you’re at home eating your box of cookies while reading this article.

All because the woman, and the bakery / company / megastore she represented leveraged generosity to make the sale.

Why Generosity is the Most Powerful Sales Technique

There are a dozen reasons why generosity is so powerful, but most powerful reason from the standpoint of a businessperson, entrepreneur, or marketer is this:

Generosity elicits generosity.

When people are generous to us, we feel OBLIGED to be generous back…

And oftentimes, our generous response is MORE generous than the initiating gift (is a free sample equal in value to a box of cookies? Of course not).

Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of the perennial marketing classic: Influence, states that generosity or “the rule of reciprocation” is “one of the most potent of the weapons of influence around us…”

Wow. A powerful claim. But why?

Dr. Cialdini explains:

“By virtue of the reciprocity rule, then, we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like. So typical is it for indebtedness to accompany the receipt of such things that a term like “much obliged” has become a synonym for “thank you,” not only in the English language but in others as well.”

This feeling of obligation created from another’s generosity has seriously far reaching consequences and influences all our decisions.

We all want to be generous, or at least be perceived as generous. So we go out of our way to make it happen:

“Because there is general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered one of their number.”

Think about it: nobody likes a person who takes and doesn’t give.

These are the freeloaders of the world; the squatters, the leaches, etc. (there are probably a hundred bad names for people like this, but they all have one thing in common: they take but don’t give).

So being the humans we are, we have to deal with our brain’s automatic response to generosity (and whatever it brings).

Good news is, as an entrepreneur, business owner, or marketer, there are ways you can use generosity in completely authentic and honest ways, yet still elicit the same response for your customers.

Generosity Pays Off

Cover photo courtesy of Buglugs

Putting Generosity to Work in Business

Putting the rule of reciprocation to work in your business is simple:

Step #1. Create a free offer

No matter what type of business you have, there’s a way to give something away for free.

It doesn’t have to be a sample (although this is extremely effective). It could be a brochure, a training video, free bonus upgrade, a free month of access to whatever, etc.

The point is, you need to initiate the gift giving.

Step #2. Give the gift

Nothing special here. Just give away the free gift to whomever will accept it.

The key here is: they must take the gift (otherwise the rule of reciprocation doesn’t come into play).

Step #3. Pitch your product

Yes, it’s that simple.

Once the gift has been accepted, the person will now feel obliged to support you.

You have leverage here because the generosity is fresh in the customer’s mind, they feel obligated to return the favor, and now you’ve set the terms of the return gift.

Dr. Cialdini explains:

“Although the obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit. The obligation to receive reduces our ability to choose whom we wish to be indebted to and puts that power in the hands of others.”

If you come off as a pushy salesman trying to close, most people will look right through the generosity and see it as a sales tactic. If, however, you’ve given the gift freely and merely offer a chance for something more (ownership, additional products or services, etc.), many people will feel great about the opportunity to support you (and may even thank you for it).

Wrapping Up

Can the power of generosity be abused?

Yes, and it has by many snake-oil salesmen in the past.

But that doesn’t mean we should avoid being generous. The most successful businesses in the world use generosity authentically and transparently, and more and more are jumping on the generosity-bandwagon each day: whether it’s the Buffer blog giving away incredible educational material every week, or Mailchimp giving away a free service for up to the first 2,000 email subscribers on your list (this is amazing for any bootstrapping entrepreneur), or Tom’s Shoes and their use of generosity to push and promote a social agenda.

The point is, generosity is powerful and it’s present in many businesses already.

Question is: when are you going to join in?

My challenge to you: start giving today and see how your relationships with your customers and your business improve.

p.s. if you enjoyed this article, please share it with someone you know who’s business could improve with the use of a little more generosity in their sales approach.

Cover photo courtesy of Jesslee Cuizon

Tom Morkes is the founder of Insurgent Publishing, the author of The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing, and a startup strategist and consultant.

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