For small business owners, perhaps the most delicate part of the holiday season is gift giving. That’s especially true when it comes to finding presents for clients. The right one can help solidify your relationship, while the wrong choice can hurt it, perhaps forever.
“It’s important to do, but easy to get wrong,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, a business etiquette and protocol expert in Palm Beach, Fla. What’s more, in today’s tough economy, making the best choice might be even harder, since it’s likely you’re on a tighter budget.
There are some rules that can make the process easier—and ensure your presents hit the mark.
Customize your gifts—carefully. The general rule of thumb is to send personalized presents to all your clients. That way, your gift is likely to make more of an impact. If you’re not sure what to send, check your client notes or talk to employees who may also have dealt with the customer.
For many businesses, customization is just not practical. The alternative: Give personalized gifts to larger clients and a nice card with a hand-written note to everyone else. Take Mandee Heller Adler, who runs International College Counselors, a five-employee college admissions advisory firm in Miami . She’ll give her most important clients personalized gifts like a Florida Panthers jersey with the individual’s name on the back. Most other clients receive a card.
In some cases, going the customized route has the potential to backfire, however. Pierce Mattie, CEO of New York City-based Pierce Mattie Public Relations, for example, usually gives all his current and prospective clients a ballotin of chocolates and avoids more individualized choices. “Because our clients talk to one another at conventions and during fashion week, if we gave something to one person and not another, it could blow up in our face,” he says. Instead, each gift is personalized with a note from his executive team.
Don’t step over the line. It is best to stay away from items that could seem inappropriate, especially if you’re giving something to a person of the opposite sex. That means men should eschew such presents as perfume or spa kits for female clients. “You wouldn’t send a dozen red roses,” says Ann Marie Sabath, who runs At Ease, a Cincinnati-based business etiquette and protocol consultancy. “It has romantic connotations and that type of thing wouldn’t do.” As for alcohol—say, a nice bottle of wine—that’s ok, but only if you’ve investigated the individual’s background. Should you suspect there are religious or health reasons that keep the client from drinking, then alcohol is to be avoided.
Check out clients’ policies. Your customers may have rules regarding the type of gifts they’re allowed to receive or how much you can spend. Make sure you comply with those policies. And don’t go overboard. “A gift that’s too costly or too high quality can be misconstrued as a bribe,” says Sabath.
Give items with a company logo—sometimes. When it comes to gifts sporting your logo, says, Sabath, “There’s no black or white answer.” On the one hand, avoid low-quality paperweights, pens, calculators, or other items that look like something you’d give away at a trade show. On the other hand, something that’s functional and made to last can work.
Debbie Fay, for example, runs Bespeak Presentation Solutions in Fairfield, Ct. She gives clients presents with her logo, but she has them specially made for the purpose. This year, she’s sending journals embossed with her logo. The year before, she gave flash drives. And three years ago, she opted for long sleeve t-shirts with the logo on front and her tag line on back. “I just spoke at a conference a few weeks ago and one of the attendees was wearing his,” she says.
The best presents are ones that are both useful and memorable, so when the customer reflects on their gifts, they also reflect positively on your brand.