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'Tis the Season for Business Gift-Giving

Don't have a lot to spend? With a little creativity, you can still let your business associates know you care.

Q: Is it a good idea to send gifts to customers this holiday season? This has been a tough year for us, and we're not sure if we should take on the added expense. What do you think?

A: Gift-giving is an excellent way to make a personal connection with your customers or clients, and it can play a strong role in building long-term relationships . While some companies may go to the extreme with lavish gifts and parties, according to entrepreneur Corinne Dalby, giving gifts doesn't have to be expensive. Her company, Media Specialists Inc., makes a practice of sending gifts to 300 of its best customers four times per year--spring, summer, fall and at holiday time--for a total cost of just about $1,000.

Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Media Specialists (877-622-0077) distributes professional audio and videotape and equipment, computer data cartridges and magnetic opticals to broadcast facilities, production houses, corporations and ministries. With the help of her four-person staff, holiday gifts are created by lining clear video boxes with Mylar, stuffing them with different kinds of candy and tying them with a decorative bow. Since most of her customers are in the video business, "They just love it," says Dalby.

The boxes may only cost 50 cents to $1 each, but customers have come to expect the gifts, which Dalby delivers personally to local customers and ships to others nationwide. It's this individual connection with customers that makes Dalby's company stand out and her gifts so well-received--even expected and missed when absent.

Last year, I didn't send my gifts out after 9/11 and during the following economic crunch, and I had customers get very upset about it to the point that they started using someone else as their supplier," says Dalby. Since then, she has resumed her quarterly program.

Etiquette Counts
The cost of your own holiday gift program will vary based on the number of customers or clients you have and your type of business. But to keep it affordable, you may want to send gifts to your best customers and cards--signed by you and your staff--to the rest. The key is to reinforce the connection you have with the people on your holiday list, so sending a holiday card imprinted with your company name, but lacking a personal signature, is a faux pas.

To avoid other breaches of etiquette , it's best to stay away from religious or even Santa images and focus instead on the spirit of the season with nondenominational cards and gifts. And some major companies have no-gift policies, so before sending holiday gifts, you may need to confirm that your customers can accept them.

Share the Spirit
Online shopping can take some of the sting out of the time-consuming task of selecting the right gifts. It's fast, and you won't have to wade through the holiday shopping crowds. This year, there are so many brick-and-mortar retailers with fully functional presences on the Web, in addition to the proliferation of quality e-tailers, that now you can buy anything for your clients--from inexpensive gift baskets to monogrammed golf clubs.

You can even contribute to your favorite charity while adding nothing to your gift budget at sites such as GreaterGood.com , where you can shop from more than 100 leading online merchants, including Sharper Image, L.L. Bean and Harry and David, and up to 15 percent of your purchase costs will go to the charity of your choice. You can support the Humane Society, The Nature Conservancy or Special Olympics, for example, or you can enter a specific organization in GreaterGood.com's database and search to see if they are affiliated. What better way to share the holiday spirit?

Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.
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