Give, and Ye Shall Receive

Some simple dos and don'ts regarding holiday gift-giving.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the December 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

Over the years, I've been the recipient of some mighty crappy holiday gifts from business associates. There was the heartfelt card from the CEO, thanking me for my one year of service (I'd been with the company nearly three years); the bottle of scotch (never touch the stuff, but an excellent regifting candidate); and endless promotional tchotchkes (Happy Holidays! Rejoice the birth of our Lord with our emblazoned logo!). The nicest gifts have not been high in monetary value-a wreath for the office door, homemade cookies, a brilliant poinsettia-but were appropriate for the business relationship and my personal tastes. I don't expect a vendor to present me with a Coach bag, but I do appreciate it when some forethought is shown.

Giving holiday gifts to your clients and employees is tricky, expensive and fraught with faux pas potential. But there are plenty of relatively simple solutions. Dottie DeHart, 34, principal of Rocks DeHart Public Relations in Hickory, North Carolina, came up with a unique solution to the gift conundrum for the 1999 holiday season. Since many of her clients are quite wealthy, DeHart decided to go for the personal touch by giving gift baskets. Her staff picked out tins, and each member of the team came up with a contribution to the baskets. While DeHart baked chocolate chip cookies, other associates added homemade fudge, party mix and potpourri. If their clients had children, the group also included goodies for the kids. DeHart added personalized cards to each basket and shipped them to arrive ahead of all the other holiday gifts.

"Our clients loved it and thought it was extremely thoughtful that busy professional women took the time to fix a homemade basket," says DeHart. "We got personal calls from everyone, thanking us for all our creativity and hard work."

If you're struggling to come up with fresh gift-giving ideas, can help. The New York City company provides promotional products to midsized businesses and is adding a section devoted to selecting gifts appropriate for any clientele. Founder Jason Robbins, 32, says it's extremely important to recognize clients on an individual level. "A nice holiday card just gets lost in the pile," says Robbins, adding that it's a mistake to give just one gift without considering other people at the company who are involved with the account. And although he owns a promotional products company, Robbins also discourages gifts that are "too much of a billboard for the giving company."

Still feeling mystified? Never fear: We spoke with etiquette maven Dana May Casperson, author of Power Etiquette: What You Don't Know Can Kill Your Career (AMACOM), to get some simple do's and don'ts of holiday gift-giving:

How important is it to give holiday gifts to clients?
Dana May Casperson: It is important to acknowledge your clients and express appreciation for your friendship and association with them. Make your clients feel special, cared for and valued by you. A gift, no matter how small, is an expression of appreciation. The value is in the heart behind the gift.

How much should a business owner spend?
Casperson: The "value" depends on your business, your budget and your association with the client, and how involved you are on a regular basis.

What are some common mistakes of holiday gift-giving?
Casperson: You blow your budget needlessly trying to impress your clients; your gift is too personal (as in intimate or perceived as such); your gift is really an advertisement (has your logo and name all over it); your gift is your idea of a joke (but is not perceived as funny).

Is giving liquor OK?
Casperson: Not unless you are in the liquor business. With [many people] struggling with addictions, you [won't] know if your client is a recovering alcoholic. So avoid the issue by giving another type of gift.

What makes a great gift?
Casperson: Something edible-I personally make and send peanut brittle, locally made chocolates, fa-vorite local bakery goodies, products made or grown in my area, gift baskets that reflect my service/product, or a CD of music about my region or by someone I know.

Any other insights?

Plan early, and budget for your gift-giving.
Make all the gifts the same value unless you have distinctive levels of clients.
Make sure the gift is appropriate and reflects the service you provide.
Ask yourself "Will my clients accept this as a token of our relationship?"
Be sensitive to your clients' [religious preferences]; emphasize the message of appreciation without a heavy religious message (unless you are known for your spirituality).
Think through your gift-giving; use common sense; send yourself [that gift], and decide [whether you like it].
Be absolutely sure the gift reflects you and your company image!

So as you run down your list of clients and ponder what to give them this holiday season, keep in mind how you feel when you get a gift that obviously hasn't a shred of thought behind it. Remember the individual you are buying for and the significance of his or her business. And know that giving good value year-round is more important than any gift. The snazziest fruitcake in the world won't eradicate shabby service.

Kimberly McCall is the president of McCallMedia & Marketing Inc., a marketing, public relations and business communications agency in Portland, Maine. Contact her at (207) 761-7792 or visit

Put It On Paper

Let's not forget about another potential holiday gift: gift certificates. "They used to be seen as impersonal," says Michael Dermer, co-founder with Dan Dermer (his brother) of 1-800-GIFT CERTIFICATE (, an online/offline gift certificate shopping center. "But it's really the best gift-it's like sending someone on a personal shopping spree."

Don't rule out the other possibilities for client gifts, especially if you can think of a personalized gift to give. But gift certificates can help you avoid a PR fiasco-Dermer, for instance, recalls one story of a client who was provided with tickets to a Las Vegas show-that is, a burlesque show, nudity and all.

So how do you select the right gift certificate? "Find something unique, something that says I understand your needs and business," says Michael, 32. "Use gifts to help build and retain relationships. It's an investment to thank and reward customers and employees."

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