Reciprocity: the Golden Rule Applied to Customers

Martha Rogers, Ph.D.
Founding Partner
Peppers & Rogers Group


Don Peppers
Founding Partner
Peppers & Rogers Group

To earn and keep the trust of your customers, your company must become a kind of advocate for the customer, and this means applying the philosophical “principle of reciprocity” to all customer dealings. Known to Christians as the Golden Rule, this principle figures prominently in every major religion and humanist philosophy. Applied to your business, it simply means treating a customer the way you yourself would like to be treated if you were the customer.

Feel free to take this approach out of religious conviction, but realize that applying the principle of reciprocity to customers is also the easiest, most direct way to maximize the shareholder value your customers are likely to create for you. Either way, if your business is to earn and keep the trust of customers, then your employees must constantly take the customer’s point of view. What’s it really like to be the customer? What is the day-in, day-out “customer experience” your company is delivering?

As we tested the training tools, managers started asking great questions about their role in bringing this initiative to life. This team of managers had always used a control-and-command style, but they knew that this would no longer work. They wanted to know how to connect this idea of brand and customer service to hourly workers in a way that was tangible, actionable, and measurable. They wanted to understand their role and what they needed to do differently.

  • How does it feel to wait on hold on the phone? To open a package and not be certain how to follow the poorly translated instructions? To stand in line, be charged a fee, wait for a service call that was promised two hours ago, or come back to an online shopping cart that’s no longer there an hour later?
  • And what’s it like to be remembered? To receive helpful suggestions? To get everything exactly as it was promised? To be confident that the answers you get are the best ones for you?

For a business, reciprocity means operating in a way that constantly looks out for the customer’s own interest, putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, and seeing things from the customer’s own perspective, whether that puts your company and product in a good light or a bad one. Honestly taking the customer’s perspective is really at the heart of understanding and managing the customer’s experience with your brand or product.

Of course, this is already an important objective for any company implementing customer relationship programs with newly available technologies. It’s called many different things, including customer-centricity, CRM (customer relationship management), customer intimacy, customer focus, customer experience management, and one-to-one marketing, but the common thread uniting all these ideas is the belief that a business can compete more effectively by seeing itself through its customers’ eyes.

Research clearly shows that companies with reputations for respecting customers’ interests, get a disproportionate amount of additional business from customers. A Forrester survey of 6,000 North American consumers, for instance, found that companies with a reputation for “customer advocacy” (defined by Forrester as “the perception by customers that a firm is doing what’s best for them and not just for the firm’s bottom line”) tend to outperform other companies when it comes to generating cross-sales and repeat purchases.

If you think about it, this is only logical, because when a customer perceives you to be acting in his interest, he benefits every time he deals with you, which makes it more likely that he will want to do more and more business with you in the future, and tell his friends good things about you too.

Excerpted from Rules to Break and Laws to Follow: How Your Business Can Beat the Crisis of Short-Termism (Wiley, 2008) by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.