The holidays can be stressful enough without having to worry if the wrong gift will damage your relationship with an important client or about what is expected of you when attending a client party. We've asked Barbara Pachter, a business communications and etiquette expert and co-author of When The Details Count and They Always Count, which will be released in January, for tips on how to polish up your holiday business etiquette.
Entrepreneur.com: How can a small-business owner determine how much he or she should spend for business gifts?
Barbara Pachter: It's hard to give dollar guidelines. It really depends on your industry and the relationship [you have with each of your clients]. You do have to be careful not to overspend because it may look as if you're trying to put undue influence [on your client].
The main thing about a gift is that it be special for the client, and the cost of that really isn't the issue. If you know your client loves black vases, and you happen to be in Mexico on your vacation and you pick up a beautiful black vase that costs only $20, that could be incredibly valuable to your client. If you know your client likes rare editions of certain books and you find one, that may cost a little more money, but what you're doing is buying a gift that's really appropriate for the client. It shows that you really know the person and thought about him or her when you went to get the gift.
The other thing about buying client gifts is you have to respect client guidelines. If they work for a company, often there are very specific guidelines from corporate purchasing that say employees can't accept gifts [that cost] more than $25, for example.
Entrepreneur.com: Do you have any other suggestions for client gifts?
Pachter: Simple often works best. You want to choose a quality item, but that doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune or buy something complicated.
If you're uncertain what to buy, here are some business gift ideas. Food is generally appreciated, like homemade cookies. A business book, pocket calculators and plants [are other ideas]. Sometimes taking your client to lunch can be a really nice and appropriate gift.
Also, don't exaggerate. Don't put a gift that you bought at JC Penney in a Tiffany box. Don't recycle gifts or be really cautious if you do.
Entrepreneur.com: Should you give a present that has your logo on it?
Pachter: Generally it's considered tacky, but it [does] depend on how big the logo is and what the logo is. But usually logo gifts are giveaways so it doesn't have quite the same affect as if you go to a store and buy something. And internationally, logo gifts are [very frowned upon]. It's not [seen as] a gift; it's seen as an advertisement.
Entrepreneur.com: Are there any other matters of etiquette business owners should be especially aware of during the holidays?
Pachter: There are lots of holiday parties, so you need to be on your best party behavior. [One story I've heard is about a business owner] who was taking two clients out to a ball game. There was a lot of drinking going on, and the business owner got drunk. He was smart in that he had arranged for a van to take everyone back to their central location-but he was so drunk, he threw up in the van on top of his two clients. Never, ever get drunk in front of clients.
Also if you're invited to a client's home, you need to bring a hostess gift, which is different than giving a gift for the holidays. Sending flowers ahead of time is a lovely hostess gift. A box of chocolates also works well. Make sure you attend if you're invited to your clients' holiday parties. Sometimes you [may be very busy during the holidays], but you really should be there.
Prepare conversation topics ahead of time if you're not really good at small talk. Look at the newspaper and know what's going on so you won't be caught off guard. Make sure you mingle. Don't just talk to the head person; some of the other employees may be there and you can establish relationships that can last a long time. Dress appropriately. You don't want to be remembered as the one who showed up in the completely wrong outfit. Prepare your spouse. If you go with your spouse to your client's home, he or she is an extension of you for that moment. Make sure you say thank you and send a thank-you note.