The math of favors

One of three things is going on in your head when you're entering into a transaction of any kind:

  • I'm doing you a favor, bud
  • Hey, this guy is doing me a favor
  • This is a favorless transaction

It's interesting to think about how this internal monologue affects the way we do business. A favor, after all, is an investment in a future relationship.

At the famous old-school pizza joint, they act as if they're doing just about everyone a favor. No need to answer the phone nicely or smile or add just a little bit extra to that pie. (Godin's first law of pizza joints: quality is often inversely proportional to niceness). Whether or not they are actually doing you a favor by selling you this pizza, they believe they are, and act accordingly.

On the other hand, when your buddy Lorne Michaels does you a favor and gets his friend Steve Martin to stop by your kid's birthday party, it's really obvious that a favor is being done. So you bend over backwards, you're dancing at the edge of obsequiousness, putting as much extra on the table as you can get away with. After all, he's doing you a favor.

And most of the time, it's the third category: business as usual. My hope is that during business as usual, you're aggressively overdelivering, but still, it's not like they're doing you a favor by transacting with you. It's an exchange, a sustainable transaction, where both sides win.

The disconnect happens when one party in the transaction thinks he's doing the other guy a favor… but the other guy doesn't act that way in return. In fact, when both sides think they're doing the other a favor, it's a meltdown. (The flipside, on the other hand, is great–when both sides act as if the other guy is doing them a favor.)

The shortcut to success is this: why not always act as if the other guy is doing the favor?