Being Gifted in Gifting a Competitive Plus

With the holidays approaching, and in many business milestone contexts, customer-centric entrepreneurs can engage in gift giving for their client base (and employees), an exercise in relationship-building that often falls through the cracks. As is the case with personal gift giving, those who work in the awards and recognition industry say a little creativity and some thoughtful presentation go a long way in business, especially on an entrepreneurial budget.

"It's not that the gift needs to be expensive, as long as it's well-executed and well-thought-out to make sure that there is a personalized note that accompanies it, and to make sure the gift is relevant for you as a business to be distributing," explained Sue Ann Kaestner, owner and president of the The Widget Source.


Better to give

Start-up business owners should not hesitate to use whatever data they have collected on customers, whether in the course of conducting business or in casual conversation, in order to personalize a gift. Everything is situational, but it depends on your relationship with the individual. Kaestner recommends a variety of personal gifts or practical business tools, depending on the circumstance. "If you have a business and personal relationship that first started you with the [client] business, then I think you can make it more on the personal side of things," Kaestner said. "If your business entity is really giving the gift, then I think it needs to be a little bit more professional."

Vicki Gray, a vice president who heads the donor division and the promotional products division for Total Awards & Promotions/, prefers personal gifts. In terms of corporate clients, she agrees that some creativity is in order, which is why the cultivation of business relationships is so important. Practical, business-related gifts might be appropriate in narrow circumstances (it certainly is a default position for those lacking in creativity), but they are not appreciated as much. She sees employees receive corporate gifts all the time, but some have all the sentimentality and demonstrate all the thankfulness of a company coffee mug.

"When you open your cabinets, you probably have coffee mugs from every company in the world," she joked. "If you really want to make an impact, you have to do something that's personalized and different or desk-worthy, something that really makes an impact and says, 'I recognize that you are more than just my client, you are a real person.'"

Not to mention something appropriate. Since start-up businesses are unlikely to have thousands of clients, and since the 80/20 rule applies to gift giving, entrepreneurs can certainly find appropriate gifts for the 20% of their clients who represent 80% of their business. "The [gift-giving] advantage of being a start up is that you don't have a lot of clients, so you can really make something meaningful and personal for that situation," Kaestner said. "There were certain things on different projects that you did for a client, so really focus on what made that project or that business deal really important.

"Let's say your client is a fitness center," Kaestner added. "If you delivered a cheesecake, fitness people would really sort of wonder why they were getting a cheesecake. If you were a business customer, I think you could do a really cool water bottle. You could do interesting healthy snacks that are in containers that are fancy on the outside to make it fun and colorful."

Does there have to be an emotional connection? That depends on whether you've made enough of a relationship investment. If you know your client is a bird-watcher, you might buy him or her a pair of binoculars; if the client is a dog owner, think about providing canine-related gifts. If your clients are avid readers, you can really wow them with a Kindle or other e-reader. Over the course of time, you learn such things about clients that open up opportunities for a personal touch. "It's a matter of personal touch sometimes," Gray noted. "I recognize that you are really real and that you are not some corporation, and I appreciate you as a person and I appreciate your business."

Gray said recognition of any form during the holiday season is important on a number of levels. One of the things Gray tells her nonprofits is that the majority of funds are raised between the months of October, November, and December. "A thank-you gift in November or a holiday gift in December is another way to spur those people's attraction to you and help them recognize you by increasing your donations," she noted.
Not only is autumn the time of year when business budgets are being formed for the next calendar year, it's the time any unspent funds might be put to good use. "When the end of the year comes up, and they have more money to spend and they have to get rid of it – it's a terrible thing to say, but that has happened – that's the time of the year they realize that 'if we're going to make a contribution to anything, we have to do it now,'" Gray said.

Don't forget your workers

Corporate executives need to think about their employees, especially in this job market and especially if they are start ups whose workers perform a variety of tasks. Gray notes that hiring new employees costs a business more than losing one, so employee retention is important and employee recognition helps your workforce feel valued. "In this economy, a $100 bill isn't going to be as effective as a thoughtful gift," Gray said. "Even though $100 is a great deal of money to some, it's not as good as a real thank-you, and if you gave me a choice between an embroidered beach blanket or a cash amount below $50, the beach blanket wins."

Getting employees involved in charity is another form of gift giving. Madison is home to many nonprofits that have been challenged in this economic environment, and Gray cited one approach at her store where a different cause is featured on a given day. "Each one of the charities have a day where they are featured in our store, and during that day, when clients come in and spend the money they will spend anyway, 5% will go back to that particular nonprofit," Gray said. "It gets your customers involved, it gives back to the community, and we're not adding 5% to the totals."

Gift timing

The holiday season isn't the only context for gift giving. A client could be approaching a career milestone that even his or her employer isn't aware of, an oustanding quarterly sales performance could provide an opportunity to say congratulations with a gift, and special occasions like company anniversaries or client birthdays always are important to track.

"It's really important for you to figure out why you are waiting until the end of the year to recognize or thank that client," Kaestner said. "It could very well be much more meaningful to give gifts at the end of projects, or a month after you've completed a job for that client."

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