The Business of Asking for Favors

I recently intercepted a memo from a partner of mine.

It appeared to be a nothing-much memo regarding a not-all-that-important request for a favor from a business associate – but I intervened because I thought it could ultimately be damaging.

Mutual back-scratching, as I’ve often said, is a big part of good business.

All the successful business relationships I know of – at least the ones that last – involve a lot of back-and-forth.

I do such and such for John, and sometime in the future he will reciprocate. If he doesn’t, I cross him off my list.

Unless I’ve done him a foolishly big favor in the first place, losing my good will costs him more than he gained from my initial service.

It’s All About Give-and-Take

Smart businesspeople (those who think long term) don’t demand an immediate quid pro quo. They are happy to let the credits add up by helping out where they can. But unless they are saintlike, they do keep a running tab in their heads.

And when the time comes to ask for service in return, they expect it.

That’s the way it should be. And when businesspeople act that way, they prosper. Just as important, the products and services they offer tend to improve because of the exchange of information and technology. And this benefits their customers.

But not every businessperson is that smart. Many fall short when it comes to cooperation in general and favors in particular. If you randomly selected a dozen business owners and lined them up against a wall, you’d find a considerable range of enlightenment as far as cooperation is concerned.

And that’s why you have to be careful when you ask for favors. Because the person from whom you are requesting the service may not think of it the same way as you do.

Such was the case with the favor my partner was about to ask in the memo I intercepted.

The favor was for the other company to do some printing and mailing for her – things she would have been happy to do for them.

What I think she failed to understand was the reaction her request was likely to cause. I happen to know the people who run that business. I’ve worked with them for years. And though they are good people, they have a tendency (in my view) to overvalue their work and undervalue that of others.

There was another factor, too, that she failed to take into consideration.

My partner’s view of the favor she was asking was somewhat distorted. Because she runs a smaller business, it would have been fairly easy for her to personally manage the printing of a job for them. But since their operation is larger, a similar task would have involved several people… and required checks and double-checks… with no organized way to account for the work done.

Between my partner’s honest misunderstanding of what she was asking and the tendency of those she asked to overvalue their contribution, trouble was brewing. They would have done what she asked, but my partner would have incurred a big “You owe me” – a debt she wouldn’t recognize, which would have made matters worse.

My advice to her? “Take care of the printing yourself, even if it costs a little more. If you are going to ask for a favor from these folks, make it a good one – because in their eyes, any favor will be a big one.”

It’s too bad it sometimes has to be that way, but that’s life. You can’t expect everyone to see things the way you do, especially when it comes to valuing personal efforts.

My own policy is to help others as much as possible. Mostly what people want from me is knowledge or access. How to do something or an introduction to someone. When I’m asked, I generally give. But I almost never ask for favors in return. And I don’t keep a close count. I simply notice when someone is always asking… when the relationship has become a one-way street.

When that happens, I don’t drop them. I sometimes – rarely – refuse their request and explain why: That I think they are abusing our relationship.

But most of the time, I take a softer approach and gradually become less and less responsive till the relationship dies out. I do that, I think, because I realize that people who are myopic in that way will never be able to admit the truth to themselves. They will, instead, consider my telling them the truth to be an insult they will not forgive.

There’s no advantage to causing hard feelings in those whom you don’t plan to have anything else to do with.

The way I look at it, finding out the character of a person is worth something. And I’ll pay that price in advance. But I won’t overpay.

So do favors. Keep a rough count. And always keep in mind that the size of the favor is a matter of perception.

Do you agree that favors – especially in business – should have a give-and-take? Let us know your thoughts at

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