If you missed the chance last Christmas to send gifts to your favorite customers, you're in luck. "Your gifts can get lost in the holiday shuffle, along with all the fruit baskets and boxes of candy," says Cheryl Schroeder, a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, gift consultant. "It's best to give when your customers least expect to receive something. Then your gift will be noticed and appreciated even more."
When is a good time? Any time you want to thank customers for their business or referrals, or just to let them know how much you enjoyed working with them. "You can tie your gift-giving to a special day, like the first day of spring or Groundhog Day, or to a special event in your industry," says Schroeder. Your customers' birthdays or your business's anniversary are other good times to present your customers with gifts.
Before you start shopping, consider these buying tips:
Set a budget: Decide how much money you'll spend each year for gifts. The IRS will let you deduct up to $25 for the cost of each gift as a business expense. Treat the rest of the gift cost as a direct out-of-pocket expense.
Make a list: You'll want to send gifts to repeat customers and to those who send you referrals. You might also send gifts to customers who represent the greatest dollar amount of revenues for your business, or those you like the best and find the easiest to please. "You can also send gifts to people you want as customers," Schroeder says.
choose gifts wisely: Gifts should always enhance your business relationship, not detract from it. To play it safe, avoid items related to a person's bedroom, bathroom, personal care or religion. If you're uncertain about a customer's taste, call his or her office assistant or spouse to find out what type of gift might work. Is your customer interested in sports? Does he or she have a special hobby or interest? If you plan to send a vase, bowl or other accessory, find out what color scheme his or her home or office has.
Evangelia Biddy, 30, co-owner of literary management firm Pushkin Management Group, makes an impression by sending personalized gifts. "We can't compete with the big publishing houses by giving expensive gifts," says Biddy, whose Jersey City, New Jersey, firm promotes minority authors and artists. "So we give thoughtful and memorable gifts based on each individual client relationship."
One client, a gourmet cook, received a cookbook. Another, who had recently bought a home, received a small vase from Tiffany's as a housewarming present. Even when you're on a budget (Biddy sets a limit of $60 per gift), "a personalized gift shows you took time to consider your client as an individual," she says.
Promote yourself: Gifts with your business's name or logo--mugs, small clocks, pen and pencil sets--can make great gifts as long as they're useful and appropriate. Says Schroeder, "Your gift will be a constant reminder to your customer about your company."
What gifts are "hot" right now? "Books are a great gift and very affordable," says Schroeder. "You can make a great impression for under $25." Consider giving your customer a hot new business book, a selection off The New York Times bestseller list, or a book about the person's hobby, such as gardening, history or cooking.
Carla Goodman (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes about small-business issues and successful entrepreneurs for several national business magazines.