Ben Franklin was a nobody when he pulled this relationship coup. What worked 287 years ago, can it work in this age of social media?
Ben Franklin had very humble beginnings. In his early days he was running for office. One particular person, with wealth and fame, did not know him. He learned that this person had a rare book in his collection. Ben wrote a note to the wealthy man expressing his desire to read the book and requesting a favor of lending the book. The rich man sent him the book. A week later, Ben returned the book and sent a thank you note along with it. The next time, when they were both at the legislature, the rich man, on his own accord, spoke to Ben with great civility. That was the first time, they met in person and it was a beginning of a great relationship between an underdog and an influential person.
Conventional social decorum would have strongly suggested building social capital through goodwill gestures before asking for favors. For example, asking cold favors like a referral comes across as crass and almost always ends up being ignored. How did asking for favor first help Ben Franklin?
The four conditions for the story to work for you.
Dissecting the story, four conditions come to mind
- Ben Franklin focused his research on knowing the rich man’s personal interest. Most cases, this is easier said than done without meeting the person. Social media and digital approaches have made it easier in this day and age. Still, the age old intelligence through people networks works as well.
- He first asked for a favor before earning the rich man’s goodwill — counter-intuitive and contrary to accepted civility. The conventional accepted social norm is that you do nice things to people before asking for favor. The general premise underlying this approach is that you help people and they in turn like you enough to help you. The reality is that you start to like people you help. Numerous psychology studies have validated this statement. An experimental study by Jim Jecker and David Landy , in 1969 quantified the impact. Best summed up in the Benjamin Franklin’s words, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” In other words, it is may be prudent to ask a customer or a hiring manager to help you!
- He asked a favor on what is of least cost to the rich man. Lending a book does not cause monetary or reputational risk for the rich man. This is key condition especially in combination with the first one.
For example, asking for referrals may not be construed as a least cost option especially when the referrer perceives that their reputation is at stake.
- He sent a meaningful, handwritten thank you note. Given that the story occurred in 1730’s helped the case for a handwritten note. Nevertheless, the impact of a personalized thank you almost always creates wonders. Campbell Soup’s former CEO Douglas Conant is a big advocate of handwritten thank you note and by his count has written at least 30,000 thank-you notes to employees over the course of his 10-year career.
The Takeaway: Asking and Giving
On the surface, Franklin’s approach appears to be asking for favors first. But digging deeper you see the remaining 75% of the conditions became critical to his success. In tandem with a thank-you note, the Ben Franklin effect is yours to replicate. It is cost effective, thoughtful, yet counter-intuitive — all ingredients for success when building healthy, meaningful relationships.
This whole experience gave a new perspective on the asking side. In tandem with the giving side, the balancing act of building relationship is presented below.
What worked 287 years ago, can work in this age of social media? How do you feel about that?