You've handpicked the perfect gift. You've written a thoughtful note. You've presented it to the client -- only to see your generosity rejected.
You may be red-faced, but the client feels the need to turn down your gesture for fear of violating company policy on accepting gifts.
In fact, some companies do prohibit gifts, on ethical grounds. But these clients will typically make up only a tiny segment of your client base: Of the tens of thousands of gifts my company has sent, a mere 1 percent have been returned. So, don’t cater to the minority and miss out on deepening your most important relationships -- your competitors certainly aren’t.
And, besides, most organizations build leniency into their policies; so you can still make a powerful impression while operating within the rules.
That's important, because people base their business decisions on relationships, and thoughtful gifts enhance clients’ sense of loyalty. You’re not “buying” their business; you’re staying top of mind by letting them know that you value them. As a bonus, they’re more likely to forgive occasional mistakes.
Strategic appreciation and relationship-building 101
Despite all this reassurance, you, like many executives, may still be at a loss when it comes to corporate gifts. Without rules, gift-givers worry about giving inappropriate objects and then appearing silly, cheap or fixated on bribes.
They should worry. Missing the mark on a business gift can be much more damaging than giving vegetarian Uncle Bob a steak-of-the-month club subscription. In business, impersonal or tacky gifts create tension and can cost you valuable relationships.
Fortunately, anyone can perfect the art of gift-giving, because the best gifts aren’t always the flashiest or most expensive. Even something as simple as a personalized symbol puts your company top of mind and creates a positive association.
So, show your clients some love -- without breaking the rules. You'll come out a winner with these five tips:
1. Create a positive memory point.
Working with national or global clients doesn’t give you many opportunities to make an in-person impression. A gift can serve as a stand-in that creates the world-class experience you want the recipient to associate with your brand.
For example, my company worked with the Miami Dolphins to select gifts for the team’s suite owners. Anyone could give them a nice dinner or round of golf, but instead the team sent personalized Cutco carving sets. The suite owners loved these unique and tasteful gifts.
2. Give throughout the year.
Even the most personalized items get lost in the December gift-giving frenzy. Instead, give on a “planned randomness” schedule. If you’re planning to play golf with key clients, don’t just give a box of balls on the course. Send personalized leather toiletry bags two weeks in advance, with a handwritten note saying, “Pack your bags -- we have an amazing weekend planned.”
And don’t wait for an excuse for gift-giving; the element of surprise is always on your side.
If you’re worried about gift selection, partner with a company to set up an automated system that sends items once a quarter (or as frequently as you’d like). Take a page from Keith Ferrazzi’s Relationship Action Planning creed and make sure you’re regularly appreciating your most important clients.
3. Focus on the inner circle.
Executives’ assistants and families are often overlooked. Send gifts that include them, such as personalized leather tote bags or gifts for the home. Win the inner circle’s loyalty, and you’ll win the client’s, too.
4. Take care of your clients’ tribes.
Along those same lines, your clients' marketing, IT and sales teams are integral parts of their organizations, but these teams also receive less appreciation than they should. By sending gifts, you acknowledge their value and signal that you’re paying attention to your clients’ tribes.
5. Keep it simple.
People won’t know what to do with another padfolio or decorative plaque, but they’ll remember you when they grab their engraved smoothie containers. These $40 pieces will stand out from the $10 throwaway pieces they’ve always received.
In sum, corporate gifting can seem expensive and time-consuming -- not to mention risky. But thoughtful gifts lead to referrals, more business from clients and great word-of-mouth marketing. So, don’t wait for a milestone -- celebrate your clients all year.
Related: The 10 Weirdest Office Holiday Gifts