The 10 Best Business Giftsand How to Give Them
Business gifts can help cement a relationship between your company and its customers or clientsor at least help them remember your name. But sometimes it's a chore to figure out what someone you don't know very well might appreciate as a gift. U.S. News has identified 10 popular business gifts with the potential to grow your businessand their potential pitfalls.
Cards and calendars. These are the most popular gifts from small-business owners to customers and clients. Fully 48 percent of small businesses planned to mail cards or calendars to valued clients, according to an American Express survey last fall of business owners. But just because everyone's doing it doesn't mean it's the correct choice for your company."If we're just talking about sending out a calendar with your company name on it, to me it says the lazy way out," says Alice Bredin, an adviser for Open, the small business division of American Express. "It's a pretty easy thing to send, and therefore it's going to show a very minimal amount of creativity and initiative on the part of the giver." Jeanette Martin, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi School of Business and coauthor of Global Business Etiquette, adds, "It's like one company gets on the bandwagon, and then they all do that. It's overkill."
But if you do want to send out company cards or calendars, try to make the tradition your own. "Giving a gift at holiday time is great, but a gift at another time of year might make even more of a splash," says Bredin, who recommends a midwinter celebration card. "Find something that is uniquely yours, and do not copy what every other company is doing." Pay attention to color choices when selecting cards, especially when sending them abroad. "There was a company that sent out Christmas cards, and they were all printed in red," says Martin. "And the only thing in Japan that is printed in red is funeral notices."
Gift cards. Eric Winegardner calls himself a "gift-card kind of guy." As director of product adoption for job search website Monster.com, he frequently sends gift cards to clients as business giftswith good reason.Gift cards or certificates allow the recipients to pick out what they want, provided you choose an appropriate restaurant or store. Some 29 percent of small-business owners planned to give cards or certificates to clients and customers, American Express found.
But recently, some of Winegardner's gift cards have been coming back to him with handwritten notes saying the company no longer allows employees to accept expensive gifts. Some companies have a ceiling on the cost of gifts that employees can receiveoften around $25or require that gifts valued above a certain amount be disclosed to management. And nowhere is the cost of a gift more apparent that when it's a gift card. "If you want to give more than $25, give four $25 gift cards," advises Winegardner. "It makes it so much easier for the person receiving the gift to say, 'I'll take one and give the rest away, and then I can sleep well at night.'" There are also tax incentives to keep the price tag under $25. The Internal Revenue Service allows a tax deduction of up to $25 for each business gift you give. Incidental costs like engraving, packaging, insuring, and mailing are not included.
Company branded items. "Somebody doesn't always like to receive something with your company logo on it," says etiquette expert Peggy Post. But a company-branded item can be a great gift if it is something your client would like. It's also a great way to keep the name of your company and your phone number in plain view. "It needs to be a gift that the receiver is going to like and appreciate first and foremost," says Bredin. "If that is true with a gift and you want to brand it, that's great." About 24 percent of small-business owners in the AmEx survey planned to give company-branded or monogrammed items as gifts.
Bredin advises against giving away thoughtless company branded items like mugs and T-shirts. "If it's a mug with your company name on it, that's not really giving thought to the recipient, and it's not really in the true spirit of giving the gift." Post recommends making sure that all company-branded items are well made in tasteful colors with an understated logo that doesn't look like an advertisement. Winegardner admits that no one wants to receive a gift of the Monster-branded sweater vests they sometimes give away "It's important to separate your marketing from your gift giving," he says. "The point of giving is to thank you for your business, so try to be as personal as you can."
Food. You might prefer sugary, salty, or savory foods, but almost everyone likes to indulge in a favorite treat from time to time. The trick is to know what food your recipient will appreciate. Among small-business owners, 22 percent planned to give food as a gift. Bredin once had a vendor catch on to the fact that she loves Danish pastry. "I got a Danish that was the size of a wall clock. It was heaven on earth," she says. And the giver's thoughtfulness left a lasting impression. "I'm not going to ever hire the wrong person for the job just because they sent me something, but human nature is that you are more positively inclined toward people who are nice to you and take an interest in you," she says about the vendor. "All things being equal, I might be more inclined to work with them in the future just because I'll enjoy the interaction more."
For Leah Ingram, a gift of food produced tangible results. Ingram, author of Gifts Anytime! How to Find the Perfect Present for Any Occasion, sent a box of chocolates in December to a company she had not done business with in two years. In January, a project came up, and people at the company thought of her. "Perhaps if I hadn't sent that box of chocolates in December," she muses, "they would have gone with someone else."
Of course you'll want to be aware of food allergies and dietary restrictions. "Many Asian people have a lot of lactose intolerance, so milk chocolate is not a good gift," says Martin. And you never want to buy candy for a diabetic unless it is specially made for them. But you need not limit your food gifts to chocolate. You could also send a fruit basket, cheese, steaks, nuts, spices, olive oil, preserves, maple syrup, or any food the recipient has expressed an interest in. "Food rarely offends," says Bredin, "unless someone is trying to watch their weight and you give them a bunch of chocolates."
Donations to charity. Some companies like to contribute to the greater good by making a donation to charity on a client's behalf. About 19 percent of small-business owners planned to do so, American Express found.
But picking the correct charity can be tricky. "It's a great idea if you're pretty darn sure that the person who is receiving the gift feels the same way you do [about the charity], and you're very confident that the organization you are making the donation to is not controversial," says Bredin. But people differ in the charities they deem most worthy. "One of the traps that the giver can fall into is thinking, 'I'm into this organization, and therefore I'm giving gifts to you to that organization,'" says Bredin. Consider how someone would feel having a donation made to a charity in his or her name.
Some might cherish a donation to medical research, while others would prefer to focus on feeding the hungry. To make your gift have a strong meaning, you can personalize it. "If you know your client had a premature baby or your other client's mother died from breast cancer, then by all means make a donation to that charity," says Ingram. "Anybody who knows me knows I love animals. If they made a donation to the Humane Society, I would think that is so cool."
Plants. Whether a potted plant, a vase of flowers, or garden herbs, plants tend to make fantastic gifts. Michelle Bogan, a strategist at retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates, says one of the best business gifts she has ever received is flowers delivered to her at home. "That was really nice to get flowers at home because that is something you would only normally get from family or a significant other," she says. But some people find it inappropriate to have flowers delivered at home, especially as gifts from a man to a woman. "It has to be clear that there's nothing else implied by it," says Bogan, who advises against sending roses as a business gift. "Roses can be misinterpreted."
Other countries may have different cultural norms concerning flowers. So, you'll want to look up a flower's significance in a foreign country before you send it. "If you're going to get in the flower-giving business, you have to know what you're doing," cautions Lillian Chaney, professor of management at the University of Memphis and coauthor of Global Business Etiquette. "In some countries like Japan and Korea, you would not give multiples of four of any gift, including flowers." The number 4 is associated with bad luck much like the number 13 is in the United States. You should also make sure a given flower isn't hazardous to kids and pets.
Many people choose potted plants over flowers because they tend to last longer. "If it is a perennial," Bredin says, "every year when it blooms maybe they will think of you."
Wine or liquor. Giving wine puts you in the illustrious company of kings going back as far as 5500 B.C. And the tradition of bestowing wine and liquor continues to this day (about 7 percent of small businesses planned to give wine or liquor), with a few caveats. You need to make sure that the recipient enjoys alcohol, isn't a recovering alcoholic, and has no dietary restrictions on alcohol.You shouldn't give alcohol in Islamic countries because some versions of the Koran are interpreted as prohibiting its consumption.
Buying a libation made in your hometown can add charm. "The gift has got to have a little personal touch to it," says Chaney. She recommends purchasing good liquor or wine from your home state. "In Tennessee, we have the Jack Daniel's distillery, and everybody recognizes that," Chaney says. But you also don't want to force your homegrown drinks on someone from a locality where, perhaps, better drinks are made. "Even though wine is a great gift, if you go to France, you can't bring them a bottle of California wine and say mine is better than yours," says Chaney. "You can't give a gift that is that country's specialty."
Books. For some, there is nothing more fun than an evening spent with a good book. But the hardest part about giving a book is picking a subject. "Match it up with what you know about your client or customer," advises Post. So, try a cookbook for foodies, a travel-related book or foreign dictionary for frequent fliers, a gardening book for those with a green thumb, a sports book for football fans, or even a history or business-related book. Just try to make sure the person doesn't have the book already. Coffee-table books full of beautiful photographs or art are also sure to please. "If a person goes to the Kentucky Derby every year and you find a great coffee-table book on horses, the gift has personal meaning," says Ingram.
But you should stay away from self-help books, political books, or joke books, even if you think the person might like it. "I always appreciate when someone gives me a book as long as it doesn't have a message," says Martin. "I don't want to get a book about how to lose weight."
Office items. When Bogan was first promoted to manager, she received a Tiffany pen engraved with the letters MGR, short for "manager," to commemorate her promotion. She still smiles every time she recalls the gift. The key to a good business gift, Bogan says, is choosing brand-name, high-quality merchandise. Ingram also fancies a high-end pen. "In this day and age of E-mail and BlackBerrys and PDAs, people sometimes forget the beauty of the written word," she says. "They're pretty to look at and they feel good in your hand, and it's such a change from our keyboard-driven world."
But you need not restrict yourself to pen and paper. For frequent travelers you can thoughtfully give items to make travel easier. Preprinted luggage tags, travel alarm clocks, document holders, cellphone or BlackBerry holders, and a folding umbrella all are sure to assist a weary traveler. More officebound workers might enjoy knickknacks like paperweights, business card holders, pen and pencil sets, bookends, a desk caddy, or a datebook. And the office worker with pictures of his or her children and grandchildren everywhere could always use another picture frame.
"Most people would say that little electronic gadgets would be a good choice: little calculators or a little flashlight," says Chaney. John Lostroscio, vice president of technology merchandising for Office Depot, likes to give thumb drives, a small memory drive for your computer that can be used to transport work files, photos, and data. "They are well under $50, have 1 or 2 gigs worth of storage or memory, and people appreciate the fact that it is a compact product," he says. Lostroscio also recommends wireless mice and Bluetooth headsets.
Tickets. Lost somewhere in the frenzy of late nights at the office, commuting, and family is the desire to go out and enjoy quality entertainment. So, give favored clients an afternoon of baseball, an evening of theater, or a night of their favorite music. You can even buy movie passes for use any time.
But tickets to a popular event or show often aren't easy to come by and sometimes carry a hefty price tag. "They are committed to doing whatever it is you bought tickets for on that day at that time," says Ingram. "What if that's not convenient for them?" You'll want to be certain the recipient will enjoy and be able to attend a particular event before your splurge.
And if you plan to attend the event with the person you buy the tickets for, it's not exactly a gift. As far as the IRS is concerned, if you go to the event, it is an entertainment expense and you no longer qualify for the $25 business gift tax deduction.
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