How the rule of reciprocity affects word of mouth

by Kristofer Mencák on December 19, 2008

What is it that actually drives word of mouth?

One obvious driver is that people like to talk, and actually benefit from it. Throughout history, communicating good and bad helped our close ones learn things that were important to survive in hard times.

Our survival is not as dependent on it anymore, and whether we get the Samsung or Sony flatscreen TV is definitely not one of those big important decisions, from an evolutionary perspective. So, asking friends and family for advice about stuff like that is less important.

However, we still ask for advice from time to time, and the ones who are in the know about something will still happily tell us. This is deeply rooted in us. So, survival and evolutionary advantage of communicating good and bad is probably still one reason for word of mouth, even though it, from certain perspectives, is not as important as it once was. It makes life a lot easier though, as there is just too much information out there. Sifting through it takes time, so we need help.

Another possible reason that I have been thinking about is the rule of reciprocity. Basically, it is:

“…the social expectation that people will respond to each other in kind — returning benefits for benefits, and responding with either indifference or hostility to harms.”

When people do good for us, we reciprocate. When people do bad, we are indifferent, or respond in kind. My thinking is that the same goes for companies.

And I think this is tightly connected to customer satisfaction.

A rough measurement of customer satisfaction is:

“…by using the gap between the customer’s expectation of performance and their perceived experience of performance. This provides the measurer with a satisfaction “gap” which is objective and quantitative in nature.”

So, if the customer gets more than expected, they might feel inclined to reciprocate. It is very probable that they do it partly by becoming more loyal, spending more money, more often. It might also be that they decide to return the favor in the form of positive word of mouth for the product or service.

On the other hand, if they got less than expected, they will be disappointed, probably take their business elsewhere, and might want to “return the favor” in the form of negative word of mouth.

Of course, the willingness to help out, and give the people we know good advice probably still plays a big role in this.

What do you think?

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