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Worldly Wise


Service and the Power of Reciprocity

By Janelle Barlow, Ph.D.

1490872516_61596Next time you receive excellent service, notice if it creates a healthy feeling of obligation to return the favor. Psychologists call this effect “reciprocity.” The obvious way consumers can reciprocate a favor to a business is to return, purchase more, and then say good things about the establishment. Reciprocity can also be a useful psychological tool when a customer complains. It might even be more powerful than offering discounts or reduced fees for future services.

For example, I recently attended an international meeting in Madrid, Spain, and stayed in a very nice hotel. Not only was the material service of the hotel superb, but the personal service matched it in every way. Small complaints were handled exceptionally well, and everyone in our group was treated with the utmost respect. 

There was, however, one waitress during the breakfast shift who was not very friendly during our time at the hotel. At one point, I thought to myself, “How could we make her day better?” It wasn’t until we left the hotel that I realized how strange my thought was. What made me look upon my experience with this one waitress as a personal challenge rather than as an indication of bad service?  

Clearly, we received great service throughout our stay, even more than we expected. We had our needs met with attentiveness and speediness. As I was leaving the hotel, I even mentioned to the receptionist that their hotel was truly one of the nicest I have ever stayed in.

And it was! The suites were spacious, well designed, complete with evening turn-down service, and free wireless broadband hookups for our computers in all the public areas of the hotel. Every room had spacious storage closets and drawers. The rooms were insulated from any surrounding noise, and the public spaces were clustered to encourage group or small conversations. Nothing was overdone. Breakfast, which was included in the room fee, was tasty and presented beautifully. All of these factors created a sense of reciprocity on my part, and a willingness to be more than tolerant of the lone non-friendly waitress.

After I told the front desk what a magnificent hotel they had, she asked me if I would be back. I told her I definitely would. And I wasn’t lying! When I return to Madrid again, I will select this hotel. I feel as if I owe the company something because of the superb treatment we received. This is reciprocity as it plays out in everyday situations with businesses.

Reciprocity works well when service is outstanding. It works particularly well when a customer complains and the situation is handled quickly and fairly.

On our way back from Madrid, we transited through Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) Airport. We were concerned about getting through security with our hand-checked luggage. In my experience, the CDG airport is notorious for making passengers go back to their airline ticket counter for special tags to place on hand-carried luggage. That is exactly what happened when we went through security. This meant we had to go back to the United Airlines check-in desk and wait in line to receive tags before we could proceed to the departure gate. 

Sensing our concern that we would miss our flight after we received our tags, the United ticket agent accompanied us to a special line nearby where security guards waved us through for our flight. Imagine that!

On our way to board the plane, we talked about the treatment we had just received. “That’s why I fly with United Airlines,” I said. “They always come through at just the right moment. I feel indebted to them.”

How could anyone not want to positively “pay back” service that is totally outside normal standards and offered with grace and care? United Airlines could send me dozens of emails, introduce me to their new TV advertising campaign, or plaster their name on billboards and buildings around the world to increase brand awareness, but none of that would be as powerful as a single UA representative doing something personal for me—especially when I faced a problem.

Think about that. Talk with your team members and invite them to think of ways they could surprise customers with something extra and unexpected. Take advantage when the customer is facing a problem. Reciprocity works particularly well then!