'Tis the Season: Top Tips for Managing Customer Gift Giving

Every year, the holidays seem to come earlier and earlier and now they are approaching fast. As a business owner, it’s important to get ahead of planning as there are several big decisions and considerations when it comes to how to approach the holiday season. Whether it's holiday parties or corporate gift giving, the holiday season is an important time to show appreciation for employees and clients alike, but it can be tricky. There are cost dilemmas, the challenge of finding the right, gender-neutral gifts and ethical considerations as to what is appropriate to give and receive. 

Client hospitality is certainly important, and it helps strengthen business relationships. Clearly, most businesses agree. A 2012 report from American Express OPEN Small Business Holiday Monitor states that small businesses (those with fewer than 100 employees) are spending an average of $958 on corporate gifts for the holiday season, up from $827 last year.  

However, when is the line crossed between corporate kindness and a bribe? Should you really accept those Omaha steaks or Yankee tickets? Is there a difference between a gift that’s part of a marketing campaign and a personal gift from a sales rep? When are the ethical guidelines blurred?

Here are the top three considerations to take into account for corporate gift giving:

Determine Gift Context 

Gifts are typically given as an expression ofthoughtfulness/ kindness, but too often businesses think gifts are a means to garner new/more business or to influence a customer decision. This should not be the case. 

A gift to a client should be given to show appreciation or thanks. In the case of event tickets or lunch outings, this may be a way to meet with the client in a fun, more relaxed setting where you may actually discover more information about your client/ account than you would in a conference room. In fact, you may want to make it a marketing event, and rent a space to have multiple clients at the same event. This can still give you the low-key face time with your client while alleviating any of the pressure or awkwardness of receiving the gift.

In terms of perspective clients, do not send a gift while you are in the bidding or proposal process. Potential customers need to be sold on your product or service, not on a gift. A free trial period of your service or samples of your product are the only gratis items that should be exchanged. 

Consider Corporate Policy 

Some businesses have a corporate policy that forbids corporate gifts completely, and others will allow employees to accept gifts priced under $25. Often times, gifts above $25 are accepted but must be disclosed to management. 

To avoid awkward gift-giving exchanges, either opt for a gift below the $25 price point (to be safe) or check with your client’s HR department about their gift receipt policy. You don’t want to send a gift that a client is unable to accept. Also, be sure that your gift follows your own company’s policies and procedures for corporate gift giving. 

Know Your Audience 

Fruit baskets, chocolates and baked goods are always appreciated, and are wonderful gifts to be shared by a team, but do they really show your customer(s) that you know them? Does the gift feel personalized? 

While your gift shouldn’t be over the top, it should establish a genuine connection with the recipient. Has your client mentioned a book he/she wants to read? Mail the book with a personalized note. Are they passionate about running? Sign them up for a magazine subscription to a running magazine. 

As a general guideline, charitable donations are a great way to recognize your client. If you know your customer is passionate about animal welfare, consider donating to a rescue organization in his/her name. Your client will appreciate the recognition and the support of a cause that is important to them. 

I don’t want to discourage corporate gift giving. It is an incredibly valuable tool for direct, personal marketing and customer relations. Just remember to send gifts for the right reasons — gifts that are personalized, adhere to corporate policies and don’t breach ethical guidelines. Easy enough, right?

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