Use Reciprocity to Get and Keep
Long-Term Consulting Clients

Dr. Cialdini is a world expert on Influence, Persuasion, and Pre-Suasion. His books, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, and Pre-Suasion, have sold over 7 million copies. He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. 

This video is excerpted from How to Get People to Say "Yes" (03:47 - 22:02) with Robert Cialdini in The Knowledge Project, #122.
The commentary below is from my 30+ years of consulting.


The principle of "Reciprocity" plays a crucial role in your daily interactions with people, building strong bonds, and building your consulting business.

Dr. Cialdini, a world expert and best-selling author on persuasion, explains that as a consultant, you can create reciprocity. It's something humans are naturally inclined to do - return a favor. When someone does something for us, we feel compelled to do something for them in return. This feeling can be a powerful motivator for action.

The concept of reciprocity is deeply ingrained in social norms and expectations. By offering your consulting prospect something of value first, be it an insightful report, a free consultation, or even a meaningful piece of advice, you make them more likely to give back in kind, possibly by choosing your services over others.

However, it's important that your initial gesture is genuine, relevant, and meaningful. Inauthentic or purely self-serving acts can backfire and result in loss of trust. Remember, reciprocity is about creating a two-way relationship based on mutual respect and benefit.   

Case Study: Using Reciprocity to Win, Nurture, and Retain Clients          


Jane Weissel, an experienced consultant in supply chain management, wanted to expand her client base into the rapidly growing eco-friendly apparel market. (Clothing is the largest source of primary microplastic pollution, accounting for 35%.) Jane identified GreenThreads, a startup with potential but struggling with supply chain efficiency, as a prospective client.

Step 1: Offering Value Upfront

To initiate the relationship and leverage reciprocity, Jane offered GreenThreads a complimentary assessment of their current supply chain strategy. This gesture was not an in-depth analysis, nor did it go into detailed solutions, but it was a high-level overview identifying potential areas of improvement. Jane showcased her expertise and the potential value she could bring by providing actionable insights in her gratis report.

Step 2: Creating a Trusted Relationship

During her meeting with GreenThreads, Jane presented her findings and listened actively to the startup's challenges. She offered advice on some immediate changes without expecting a return favor.

Jane's approach made GreenThreads feel valued, and by delivering on her promise of a complimentary review (and case studies that illustrated her authority), she also showcased her reliability. This established trust, a crucial foundation in any consultant-client relationship.

Step 3: Turning GreenThreads Into a Long-Term Client

Capitalizing on the initial trust she built, Jane proposed a 3-month trial consulting contract, emphasizing the areas she could assist in revamping. She and her primary contact selected short-term, high-value projects with measurable impact. The shortened timeframe reduced the risk for GreenThreads. The measurable value highlighted Jane’s contribution.

Throughout the trial period, Jane consistently demonstrated her value, providing solutions and helping GreenThreads recognize tangible improvements. But more than that, she kept offering insights and knowledge beyond the contractual obligations, further strengthening the bond of reciprocity. She held team meetings to keep everyone in synch and short executive briefings for visibility and to build her trust and authority.

As the trial period concluded, Jane proposed a long-term consulting contract and illustrated her proposal with success stories from the past three months. Given the rapport built and the measurable results, GreenThreads readily agreed.

Step 4: Building a Long-Term Relationship Through Continued Value

Even after securing GreenThreads as a long-term client, Jane provided insights, industry updates, and personalized recommendations without always tying them to a price tag.

She built her network within the client and was able to work closely with marketing to help them build an eco-oriented brand that wasn’t “greenwash” like a few of their competitors. She also built ties with new product development managers that turned into additional long-term projects incorporating an entire line of groundbreaking new eco-friendly fabrics.


The reciprocity approach allowed Jane to:

  1. Win a new client by offering upfront value.
  2. Build trust by consistently demonstrating her expertise and exceeding expectations.
  3. Secure a long-term contract after proving her value during the trial period.

Take-Aways Critical to Success                                                 

  • The principle of reciprocity asserts that people feel an inherent need to return a favor.
  • Offering value to clients can make them more inclined to engage with your services.
  • Initial gestures should be genuine, relevant, and meaningful if they are to truly engage the principle of reciprocity.

Take-Actions Critical to Success                                                 

Scenario 1

You're attempting to win over a potential client.


Offer them a complimentary Discovery/Strategy Session or an insightful whitepaper addressing a key challenge. This demonstrates your value and authority while triggering the principle of reciprocity, making them more likely to engage your services.

I’ve found that I can build trust and better grasp the prospect's situation by conducting a Discovery Session with the key stakeholder and then interviewing some of the other pivotal stakeholders. Follow a process with questions like that described in Do Your Discovery and Strategy Sessions Use the Best Questions? Don’t be afraid to ask your clients for advice based on their experience; that can build trust.

Once you understand the situation and potential solutions, you can present a free executive briefing to review your findings and potential solutions. Of course, when you describe solutions, you cover the Why and the Impact but not the How. It’s also a great time to include case studies to demonstrate your authority.

Scenario 2

A regular client is considering expanding their contract with you.


Provide a free audit or review of a business area you could help with. This act of goodwill can induce a sense of reciprocity, pushing them towards expanding the contract.

I’ve often used free Lunch ‘n Learns, lunch-time seminars, webinars, or Question and Answer sessions at a prospect or client's office to build trust, and it’s a chance for us to learn more about each other. Most of the time, these turn into engagements.

Scenario 3

You want to boost referrals from existing clients.


Set up a referral program that offers meaningful incentives for each successful referral. The incentive works as a reciprocity trigger, motivating clients to refer more contacts your way.

Monetary referral fees can range from 5% at the low end to 15% or higher for large projects. An alternative to a direct payment is a discount on future work, retainers, or targeted project/research for the referrer.

Your Call to Action                    

Reciprocity is a potent tool in the consulting arena.

By offering initial value and consistently over-delivering, consultants can establish trust, demonstrate their worth, and foster long-term client relationships.

Scan the following bullets, grab a pen and paper, and note how you can use reciprocity to build your consulting business,

  • Offer Proactive Value: Don't wait for a client to approach you. Use the techniques we teach in Critical to Success to find highly targeted prospects. Reach out to them with customized advice or a free resource that addresses their current challenges. Read your local Business Journal for prospects going through change and think about the second and third-order consequences you can advise them on.
  • Actively Listen: During initial meetings, focus on understanding the client's needs rather than hard-selling your services. Genuine interest sets the stage for trust. Check out the Critical to Success blogs on conducting Discovery Sessions and writing Proposals.
  • Deliver Unexpected Extras: Whether it's a bonus report, an additional strategy session, or a free workshop, unexpected extras can create a memorable impact.
    I remember one instance where I had given a couple of free lunchtime sessions to corporate finance people. After two months and (?) three free sessions, I asked to see their Director of Training and Development. As I walked into her office, before I could say a word, she said, “Let’s talk about some work we want you to do.”
  • Introduce Trial Offers: If a potential client is hesitant, consider offering a short-term trial or a pilot project at a favorable rate to showcase your value. Make sure these projects are well-defined with short-term but measurable, high-value results.
  • Stay Consistently Generous: Even after securing a contract, occasionally offer insights, updates, or suggestions without additional costs. Keep the reciprocity cycle alive and your client relationship strong.

The power of reciprocity is not about manipulation but about building genuine, mutually beneficial relationships.

Start today by identifying one potential or current client you can offer proactive value to and watch the reciprocity principle unfold in your favor.


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