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Your Questions about Corporate Gifts for the Holidays-Answered!

The winter holiday season may seem a long time off, but if you're interested in making an impact on customers or clients with creative, appropriate gifts, the time to plan your strategy is now. Relying on the advice of business etiquette experts, our Holiday Gift Giving FAQ resolves common dilemmas like how to choose gifts that send the proper message and ensure that they make a positive impression.

Q. Should we plan on giving gifts to all our clients/customers?

A. All your best clients or customers, certainly. But before making up a gift list or selecting gifts, make sure that recipient organizations allow their employees to accept presents. About 10 percent of American companies have a "no-gift" policy, disallowing even a lunch treat or a gift basket, according to Hilka Klinkenberg, author of At Ease...Professionally and director of Etiquette International in New York City. Other organizations may have a dollar limit for acceptable gifts or allow gifts that can be shared and enjoyed at the office but not gifts for individuals.

"Just call and ask your client's assistant or call the human resources department about a company's gift policy," Klinkenberg suggests. Keep in mind that a new policy might have been put into place since the previous year. By checking, you avoid embarrassment for all concerned.

Among the strictest policies are those at news-gathering organizations. "We had an absolute ban on expensive gifts," says Dan Hamilton, former editor for two Cape Cod community papers, "and unsolicited stuff like fruit baskets or food were always given away to charity after notifying the giver that that was our policy."

However, it's not possible to generalize from the policy of one company that another of similar size and type would have the same rules. Mary Lou Andre, president of Organization by Design in Needham, Massachusetts, found that Nordstrom's prohibits gifts while Filene's allows them. Don't assume -- check!

Q. Should the gifts be directed to individuals or a group?

A. If the corporate gift policy you've checked on doesn't settle this issue for you, consider your sense of how intimately the office in question functions as a team. Marjorie Brody, author of The Complete Business Etiquette Handbook, recalls the time her printer sent restaurant gift certificates to her and to the staffer who handles Brody's publicity and promotion. "This excluded everyone else in our 12-person office, so Miriam was uncomfortable receiving that," says Brody. Being singled out might have a different impact at a larger company.

When you wish to acknowledge your relationship with specific people at a firm, send a slightly nicer gift to the boss than to the sales representative or manager with whom you've had regular contact. Consider sending something small to each of your contacts, then a larger gift for the whole department.

Q. How much should we spend on holiday gifts?

A. Hilka Klinkenberg suggests these general spending guidelines:
  • For assistants or supervisory staff, up to $25
  • For mid-management, $25 to $50
  • For senior management, $50 to $100
  • For executives, $100 and up
"The industry of your clients makes a difference, too," Klinkenberg adds. "For instance, retailing and advertising are more lavish and entertainment oriented, and gifts should reflect that atmosphere."

Q. Must we send holiday gifts at all?

A. They're probably expecting gifts, and it's nice to meet their expectations. But the holiday season is not the only time to send gifts. "We send thank-you gifts year-round," says Marjorie Brody.

Q. What are the biggest no-no's in choosing a gift?

A. "Anything that touches the skin is too personal," replies Klinkenberg, "which includes no fragrance, and definitely no lingerie. Food items are good so long as you know their taste. Liquor is passé unless you specifically know that someone is a wine aficionado, and then you can buy them a rare bottle of wine or champagne."

Brody agrees that most clothing is too personal and advises you to stay away from any gifts with religious connotations, such as Christmas tree ornaments, unless you're positive of someone's religious orientation.

Be mindful of the gender factor, too, especially if most of your recipients fall into one category and the ones who don't might not appreciate getting something more appropriate to the opposite sex. Gender-neutral gifts like desktop items and business travel accessories are popular corporate gifts, partly for this reason.

Q. Is it a good idea to imprint our company name on the gifts?

A. Think this through strategically, advises Mary Lou Andre. "An item with your logo is great if it's creative and not completely self-serving. It's smart in today's competitive economy to add your branding to an item that's truly useful." For her personal-image clients, she is considering ordering nightshirts bearing her company's URL: "Dressingwell.com -- Don't get dressed without it!" Note that this item can break the rule against gifts that touch the skin because it perfectly fits Andre's line of business.

Except where there's such a perfect match among the item, the company's line of business and the logo message, keep the logo small and subtle, say the experts. For your best clients, you can sometimes turn a promotional item into a treasured, customized gift by tastefully imprinting their name as well as yours. For instance, the most terrific gift I received last year was a glass mug with my name engraved on the outside and the giver's name etched less obviously into the bottom.

Q. What are some knockout ideas for unusual holiday gifts?

A. These five items are just about guaranteed to impress your gift recipients.
  • The Cross Morph Pen. Ergonomically designed, technically superior, it sends a message with its respected brand name and twenty-first century style. It writes beautifully, of course, too.
  • Translucent Jelly Mouse Pads. Help brighten up the offices of those on your gift list with translucent mouse pads in bright, fruity, "in" colors like tangerine, blueberry and lime.
  • Tube Photo Frames. Recipients insert a family photo, then use this aluminum tube as a pen/pencil or flower holder. Classy!
  • Aluminum coasters. Anyone with nice wood furniture will want to keep these around to place under coffee mugs or brandy glasses. Made from aircraft aluminum with leather inserts, these are a far cry from the dowdy coasters you may remember from childhood.
  • Greyson Travel Duffel. A thoughtful gift for executives and managers constantly on the go. This grey flannel travel bag is built to last.
Q. Any final thoughts on ways to make an impression through gifts?

A. Quality counts, etiquette experts agree. "We usually go for a well-known and prestigious brand name or retail source," says Dick Weltz, president of Spectrum Multilanguage Communications in New York City. "This protects the giver against negative feelings in case the item turns out to be somehow defective."

When feasible, handing the gift to its recipient in person has the greatest impact. A messenger service carries cachet also. Last year Mary Lou Andre received a box of nuts at her home, delivered by a courier from a colleague to whom she had referred lots of business. "It came the day before Thanksgiving, beautifully presented and really appropriate," she says.

"Personally signing a card to go along with the gift is compulsory," adds Klinkenberg. "Don't enclose your business card with the gift instead of a note. People forget that the way something is wrapped and presented is the first impression someone has of a gift. The way it's wrapped and the way it's handed to the recipient make an important difference."

COPYRIGHT © 2000 Marcia Yudkin. All rights reserved.

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