The idea is simple enough: you want to buy a present for an employee's birthday or find something special to thank a client.
The solution can be complex. How do you decide what to buy? Which gifts will be used and appreciated, and which will be tossed into a drawer, never to be seen again? What's the difference between a personal gift and one that crosses the line of propriety?
"There is a fine line and there always will be," says Colleen Kvetko, president of Fifth Third Bank in Florida. But politically correct concerns haven't kept the business-gift industry from expanding. "The market is definitely there, and it's growing," says Kyle Campbell, president of MediaSource, a creative merchandising and promotional company based in Fort Myers. "People will spend money-there's no question about that."
The trend seems to be moving away from the generic, one-size-fits-all, fruit-basket school of thought toward a more individualized way to show appreciation. "It's evolved into a whole culture of making people feel welcome," says Jeff Marculaitis, vice president of construction and quality control at U.S. Homes.
Most executives and business owners seem to agree that it's not how much you spend, but how much thought you put into the present.
Kvetko says she shops year-round for gifts to please the seven people who report to her. For one woman who has two adored poodles, for example, Kvetko may pick up a poodle-adorned purse or notepaper. "I tie gifts to their personality, and I think every employer should do that," she says.
Kvetko believes that translates to good business. When Fifth Third's recent acquisition of First National was announced, Kvetko says she knew exactly how each one of her staffers was going to react. "That's why it's important to know your people so well . to know their strengths and weaknesses," she says.
Eileen Duff Elliott, president of Alpha Title in Naples, says she also scouts out "tiny mementos" for employees based on their personalities, hobbies and interests.
She knows the difference a personal touch can make. On an anniversary at her previous company, employees presented her with an engraved silver clock. "That made it so special," she says.
Lucy Costa, co-owner of Promotional Incentives, a Cape Coral consulting service and distributor of promotional products and corporate incentives, says that the more personal approach is a growing trend. "It needs to convey the sentiment you're intending to show," she says.
For example, if an employer knows an associate collects Waterford crystal, a small piece is an elegant yet personal way of showing appreciation. If your purpose is purely to thank someone, the personal approach is correct, but if your purpose is marketing and public relations, then gifts might best be tailored for everyday usefulness, Costa says.
Gifts with a company logo and giveaways have long been effective ways to show appreciation to clients, and these days almost anything can come with a logo, Campbell says. "If you're not logo-ing you're losing a huge identity. It's a marketing strategy that's kind of a necessity," he says.
But pens and pencils are no longer the sure-fire way to make sure a client remembers you. Many businesses are incorporating the marketing benefits of a logo into practical gifts that clients will use and also remember.
U.S. Homes' gift-giving policy evolved from a desire to present new-home buyers with thank-you gifts that could be useful as soon as they moved in. "We wanted something [our customers] could use again and again and again," Marculaitis says.
Marculaitis first considered a toolbox, but then he pictured an empty house on move-in day and thought of the perfect gift: chairs. Through MediaSource he obtained fold-up canvas chairs with the U.S. Home logo to present to buyers. He says the payoff came when he attended last summer's Fourth of July fireworks display in downtown Fort Myers and saw that more than two dozen of the chairs were brought to the event.
U.S. Homes also creates picnic baskets filled with silverware, dishes, glasses, napkins and, of course, the company's logo. It's a way to say thank-you and a successful marketing ploy, says Marculaitis, who estimates that 30 percent of his company's business comes from repeat buyers.
That type of personal, thoughtful treatment of customers may help businesses hold on to clients, Costa says. She notes that even small mementos that serve as keepsakes from special events or dinners can serve as a catalyst for remembering the whole event.
"You want to subliminally get into their heads-but they're still going to remember you for a job well done," Elliott says.
Taking Care of Your Own
Gifts of any variety can help build employee morale and loyalty.
"Employee turnover is one of the costliest aspects of a business," says Costa. "Appreciation is the biggest motivator. People want to know they matter, they make a difference, they have a role."
Kvetko says she keeps a stash of pick-me-ups such as movie tickets, restaurant gift certificates or knickknacks chosen with certain employees in mind. This way, when a newly licensed employee sells her first annuity or if a human-resources person has a difficult week, the gifts serve as a thank-you from her. "Those kinds of things cheer people up," she says.
New employees at U.S. Homes are welcomed with rulers, levels, hats, tape measures, pads and pencils decorated with the company logo. Marculaitis says these serve as tools of the trade to help new employees feel welcome and prepared.
"If they're happy, our customers will be happy," he says.
His company is also aware of the value of nonmaterial rewards in boosting employee morale. U.S. Homes holds monthly department pep rallies and luncheons for employees.
The idea of recognition is addressed early on. Marculaitis says new associates watch a video called The Gift, which addresses whether a gift has to be something of monetary value or whether it can be an acknowledgment that an employer cares about its workers. His staff also serves refreshments to vendors and suppliers at picnics in their honor so they will feel appreciated, Marculaitis says.
In the end, gifts don't take the place of good service. Like the gifts themselves, the practice of gift-giving is an accessory to the main event-the business side of the business.
"I know I don't have to give [presents] because I'm going to keep them with good service," says Alpha Title's Elliott. "But I'd still like to give them something as a thank-you."