Small Favors, Big Success


Most of us need to persuade people that we don’t know personally to do things. A salesperson wants to close a deal. An office worker needs to persuade the new computer guy to fix her computer first. A fundraiser wants to get a potential donor to make a pledge. Our natural instinct in such situations is to avoid asking the individual we want to persuade for any favors other than the one that’s important to us. After all, the only thing worse than being asked for a favor is being asked for multiple favors, right? As you might expect here at Neuromarketing, the obvious and logical conclusion is wrong. Behavioral research shows us that sometimes asking for one favor first can greatly increase the probability of success with the second favor!

My first encounter with the counterintuitive concept that asking for one favor improves the success rate when asking for a second favor was when I read about a study conducted on a city street. A researcher asked passers-by for complicated directions. Not all subjects bothered to help. Some subjects were asked first for an extremely small favor: the researcher inquired as to the time of day. Virtually all of the passers-by checked their watch and provided the time. Here’s the interesting part: subjects that complied with the small request were much more likely to respond to the more time-consuming one. The psychology seemed to be a sort of subconscious feeling that having granted one request, it would be consistent to grant a somewhat bigger one. (Unfortunately, I no longer have the reference for this study and even a bit of determined Googling didn’t turn it up.)

Signs of Success

I was reminded of that time-of-day study when I read Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldsten, and Steve Martin. They describe an experiment in which homeowners were asked to display a large 3 foot by 6 foot “Drive Carefully” in their front yard. Only 17% of homeowners in an upscale neighborhood agreed to do so, despite being offered the slightly scary assurance that the sign installers would take care of all digging needed for the holes for the support posts. Amazingly, the positive response rate increased to 76% among a similar group of homeowners who, two weeks earlier, had been asked to put a tiny “safe driver” sign in their house window. The latter request was a tiny inconvenience, and virtually all homeowners agreed to it.

I find the idea that three quarters of the second group would agree to having people come out, tear up their lawn, and install a big sign quite surprising – in fact, even the 17% number for the first group was a bit of a surprise. That the response rate could be more than quadrupled by such a simple step as an insignificant earlier request is quite amazing.

Foot in the Door

The data doesn’t stop there. Cialdini describes another study involving homeowner inconvenience. Researchers asked subjects if they would be willing to allow 5 or 6 researchers to come inside their house for two hours to root through their closets and cupboards and classify the goods found for a study. An astonishing 22% of the households contacted agreed to this invasion – clearly, a fifth of the population is either unable to say “no” or so bored that they’ll agree to anything for a break in their routine. A second group of households was first contacted with a request to answer a few survey questions by phone on the same topic, a simple favor to which almost all agreed. Three days later, the phone survey group was asked to participate in the invasive, time-consuming study, and the positive response rate more than doubled to 56%! Clearly, the initial “foot in the door” approach of the simple survey caused many more households to throw the door completely open for the nosy researchers.

Door Openers in Marketing, Sales, and Fundraising

The message in all this is clear. Making a small initial request of your targets won’t turn them off. Rather, if it is small enough to be granted by almost everyone, it will make them more likely to respond positively to your ultimate request.

So, accept the cup of coffee offered by your prospective client. Get a trial order, no matter how small. If you are raising funds, get the donor to make a trivially small donation before you make your real pitch. Ask a prospect to complete a short survey. The variety of small setup favors is endless. Regardless of which approach you adopt, that initial “foot in the door” will greatly increase the odds of success later.

  1. Shyam Kumar says

    This is interesting and counterintuitive.

    But one thing to be noticed is that in all of the above examples, the second favor being requested was an extension of the first one.

    So for favors of the same kind (need a better word here), the odds of success in subsequent favors increase. (Obviously there’s a threshold for this number)

    For most marketing campaigns, this hold true, but once the kind of favor varies, my intuition tells me that this would have an inverse effect.

    So the favors need to be built around a consistent theme to get the desired effect.

    Would that be right?

  2. Josh says

    I think all humans are altruistic. This trait is also seen in our primate relatives.

    Altruism combined with getting someone to say “Yes” for whatever reason will normally lead to good things.

    In your examples, when people say “Yes” to a small favor, this is the beginning of a relationship. Once a relationship is established, it seems people are more willing to grant a second favor…if it is only one order of magnitude greater.

    Good piece.

  3. Jorgen Modin says

    I do not think the results are counter-intuitive: It is all about cognition, and I do not think researchers weigh in the costs of changing how you think. If the small favor works well, the person giving the favor has established that the person who asked for the favor is not a lunatic, and behaves in a predictable way when given the favor, and seems to appreciate it. This is all new information, generated by that small favor So it is a start of a relationship. When I do consulting work and a new customer wants some job done, I suggest we start with something small, to see that it works out.

  4. Scott says

    I am not sure that a change in favor would lead to a decline in response. In sales they teach the process of Yes. Get your customer in the mindset of agreeing with you even if it is on unrelated subjects and it increases your likelihood of closing the sale. I remember reading a study that showed that response.. I think it was about college students but won’t swear to it.

    I would suggest that a lot of the response increase is the same concept of “sunk costs” in a project. Even though you know you should kill the project you continue because of the money already invested.

    Because of the time and commitment already made to helping someone, you continue even though rationally you wouldn’t normally do it.

    Just my thoughts/


  5. someguy says

    I think of it as a “might as well matter” when you start something and have already invested effort into it, most people would want to finish it. Example: As a child i would always start cleaning up my room after starting out on a little bit, like picking up something from the floor.

  6. GirlPie says

    I couldn’t read the middle of your wonderful post because the stupid amazon pop-up trying to sell me the book titled YES sat over the text and wouldn’t move, despite repeated attempts. Unless it makes you as much money as a lost reader is worth, I’d suggest you get rid of it, because it’s getting rid of your readers. I’ve been your RSS subscriber for months and put up with the lack of a full feed so I come to your posts all the time. But if they’re not readable…?

    This was the first time I encountered such an irritating obstacle, hope it’s the last.
    If there’s somewhere your text of this post is available to be read in full, please let me know. And I made a screen shot to send you if you care — yes, I have better things to do, but this was beyond stupid and I thought you’d want to know.

  7. Doug says

    I think commenter Josh is on the right track, It is counter-intuitive only if you approach it from an economics perspective of scarcity & market forces. Try looking at it from the point of view of our ancestors who lived in small groups foraging on the savannah, frequently interacting with neighbors with whom resources (including mates) were often shared.

    I believe the first favor (or salesman’s gift) establishes a psychological in-group bond with the subject, creating in them an expectation of future reciprocity. To test this hypothesis, I predict the positive effect to be highly dependent on the subsequent request being made by the same person who made the first request. Failing that, the success of a different person making the subsequent request would likely be increased by their association with a name, organization, or brand familiar to the subject. I would even bet that continued requests are likely to be granted, even in the absence of any reciprocal gesture, if the subject is simply thanked, or told that their effort has made an important contribution to “the cause”.

    People want to belong to groups and to feel needed.

  8. Brett says

    On a simpler level, I’ve heard it related to inertia. Get a prospect to start nodding their head, and they find it hard to stop.

    Fascinating research.

  9. bonnieL says

    The Chinese believe that once you save someone’s life, you are forever responsible for the same action.


  10. Success Professor says

    Excellent post. Very interesting. Thank you for your thoughtful articles.

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