Business Gift Etiquette

shopping for gifts
Picking the right gift.

Gift-giving is a cherished tradition in sales. It ranges from 'freemiums' – like getting a free toaster when you open a new checking account at your bank – to expensive gift packages for your best corporate client. Unfortunately, the wrong gifts can get a careless salesperson into a lot of trouble.

If you're a B2B salesperson, you should be aware of your clients' corporate rules on accepting gifts.

Most companies have certain limits as to the value of gifts that their employees can accept. You will usually be safe if you don't give corporate employees anything that costs more than $25. If you feel the need to give something more impressive, make it a group present. For example, you could send an extravagant food basket for everyone in the Purchasing department to enjoy.

When you're pricing gifts, stick to a value that's appropriate compared to how much your customer spent on your products or services. A customer who bought $100 worth of products this year shouldn't receive a gift worth $200 or even $75. And never give any gifts to a prospect! Even if you intend it simply as a kind gesture, your prospect will probably see it as a bribe – and so might her lawyer. For the same reason, don't give a gift to a customer who is in the middle of contract negotiations with your company.

Adding a personal touch can give a small gift a much bigger impact.

For example, if you hand-deliver your gift to your customer's home or office instead of sending it in the mail, your gesture will give that present much more meaning. A card with a personal message and hand-written signature is more meaningful than a pre-printed card with a generic 'Thanks for being our customer' message.

As you get to know customers, keep notes about their preferences and use that information to choose just the right gift.

On the other hand, if you don't know much about a customer, you're better off sticking with a generic gift than sending something that might be considered offensive. For example, sending a bottle of wine to a customer who is a recovering alcoholic will not be taken well. Common business gifts include calendars (especially at the end of the year), flowers or plants, food baskets, gift certificates, and charity donations in the recipient's name. All of these types of gifts are generally safe, although you might want to confirm food likes and dislikes before sending anything edible. Sending a basket of nuts to someone who is allergic to them, or a pack of gourmet sausages to a vegetarian, can have unfortunate effects on your customer relationships.

Be especially careful when choosing gifts for a customer located in a different country. A gift that seems perfectly benign to you might send exactly the wrong message from the viewpoint of a different culture. For example, in China it's inappropriate to wrap a gift in white wrapping paper for anything but a funeral – because the color white is associated with death in the Chinese culture.

Again, when you are in doubt, stick with a generic gift such as a gift certificate for a major retailer.

Many salespeople send gifts to mark certain events in the customer life cycle: when a customer first purchases from you, or on their one-year anniversary, etc. It's also appropriate to send gifts on the customer's birthday or during the holidays. But you can stand out from the crowd by being a little more creative in your timing. For example, if you have a number of small business customers, you might send a card or gift on the anniversary of the day your customer's company went into business.

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