Avoid These 4 Business Gift-Giving Faux Pas

"Don'ts" include gifts for your recipient's kids and encroaching on his or her personal style.

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By John Ruhlin • Jul 7, 2015 Originally published Jul 7, 2015

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In the business world, gift-giving provides incredible intrinsic and financial rewards. But finding the perfect gift takes a considerable amount of thought -- even for those of us who develop gifting plans for a living.

Related: 3 Secrets Behind the '80/20 Rule' of Giving -- and Getting More In Return

Here, a little imagination can pay off big-time: One of our clients was struggling to get in touch with the president of Target's electronics division, so we did some digging and discovered that he's a big University of Minnesota fan. We carved the lyrics of the school's fight song on a 50-inch slab of cherry wood and included a personalized note. The executive set up a call for the following week.

The Target exec's gift was an example of the personal element a tailored gift adds to cold business interactions: You're delivering more than an engraved knife set or sports memorabilia: You're providing a human connection. But even the most well-intentioned gift can miss the mark. To wow your potential clients, avoid these four gifting faux pas:

1. Don't go beyond your recipient's assistant or spouse.

Social media sites and Google can tell you almost anything about a person's career path and interests, but your contact's assistant is an underutilized resource. Assistants aren't gatekeepers; they're trusted partners who know the person and his or her family intimately. So, send the same -- or a better -- gift to your recipient's assistant to earn trust and strengthen your relationships.

Spouses are also fair game. But sending gifts to kids makes recipients uncomfortable. Spare the kids unless you've met them -- it's better to appreciate the inner circle than invade it.

2. Don't try too hard.

People love persistence, but going 10 extra miles can seem desperate. Don't spend beyond what you would on a nice dinner, a round of golf or sports tickets. If you fork over an amount more than $100 to $1,000 per gift, people will think you're trying too hard.

I have sent large personalized gifts in the thousands of dollars to try to land a meeting with a large prospective university client, only to have the gifts sent back. They were labeled "too nice and over the top," and I got a "we're going in a different direction" response. It was a blow to the ego and the wallet.

Related: For Entrepreneurs, The Gift-Giving Season is Year Round

Instead, focus on practical luxuries. One of my favorite gifts to send is a Code38, a wine tool from Australia, which I've had personalized with the client's name or signature. The gift works because it's universal and world-class without being outrageously flashy or expensive. Seek to provide the same experience for your contacts.

3. Don't encroach on personal style.

While your gift should speak to the person, some items can be too personal style-wise. It's hard to gauge a person's taste, size, preferred color scheme or mood. Sending jewelry, high-fashion clothing or accessories that totally miss the mark could lead to an awkward interaction.

In an attempt to wow the CEO of a big construction company, I sent him and his wife expensive leather laptop bags. I didn't hear anything and couldn't keep myself from asking him about it. He said that the bag wasn't really his style; he couldn't see himself carrying it. I was disappointed -- I loved the costly bag, and it was now going to sit in a closet and go to waste. It was a good lesson that style items can backfire.

The same rules apply to sports merchandise. I recently received some Ohio State University clothing that was thoughtful and expensive, but I'll never wear it. It's too bright, the logo is too big, and it doesn't look good on me. You don't want your gift to receive a one-way ticket to Goodwill. Choose a world-class item that your recipient and his family will use often so your name frequently comes to mind. Sending a $50 tumbler that is best-in-class and represents you well is better than a mediocre $100 Fossil watch that will never be worn.

4. Don't plaster images onto items.

People love seeing their names on customized shirts, license plates and college buildings. But that excitement doesn't extend to photographs or other personalized images. Placing an image on a gift can look strange, and people will generally be picky about which images immortalize them. Leave the person's vacation photos to social media; stick with names and initials.

Once you've sent a personalized gift, follow-up is equally important. Get an email confirmation from the company that helped you execute your gifting campaign. Look for a thank-you note, but know that clients who love their gifts will post about them on social media, comment on the gifts months later and take photos of themselves with them. A response like this is a sure sign you nailed it.

Related: Office Etiquette: The Rules of Saying Thank You

John Ruhlin

Founder and CEO of the Ruhlin Group

John Ruhlin is an entrepreneur, international speaker and author of Giftology. More relationship and referral strategies can be found at Giver's Edge.

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