By John Ruhlin
Corporate gift-giving is a delicate act. Whenever I see companies hand out low-quality (but personalized) engraved pens and paperweights, I think, “OK, you’ve slapped someone’s name on it, but do they actually like it?” You can engrave whatever you want, but if it misses the mark, it’s useless.
Gifts are a great way to sustain event momentum, but they should be artifacts of the experience—not cheap afterthoughts. My gift-giving company has had clients come to us and say, “We don’t really have a budget. What can you do for 10 bucks?”
We can’t do anything meaningful for 10 bucks. If you want your gifts to make a splash, you need to budget for them at the start of each year and make them a meaningful part of the event planning.
A well-made, unique gift has a stronger impact than a tchotchke that collects dust on someone’s desk or gets thrown in the trash. You spend thousands of dollars to fly people out to corporate events—don’t skimp on the post-conference remembrances. Use the following guidelines to give gifts that will wow your clients and attendees.
Strive to Be Best in Class
I don’t often recommend giving coffee mugs or other obvious gifts, but if you’re going that route, go big. Give the $50 hand-crafted mug that says something meaningful instead of a $5 screen print your attendees can order from Etsy.
When I gave my wife a mug, I asked a potter to create an original piece that she would treasure. The mug cost $200 and is a work of art that depicts our family’s story. Yes, it’s a simple coffee mug, but the quality makes it remarkable. Whatever gift you choose, it should be exceptional and express how much you value the relationship.
Give the Gift of Practicality
People detest clutter, so it is no wonder that The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever by Marie Kondo sold more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. The last thing anyone wants is a gift that takes up space but doesn’t enhance our lives. That’s why vases, plaques, and paperweights make terrible gifts, no matter how elegant the engraved calligraphy.
When you’re sending gifts to conference attendees, think about who they are: They’re ambitious and hardworking, with schedules packed from morning until night. What could you give them to make their lives easier? To take a page from Kondo’s book, what would spark joy for them? Quality loses its impact when the gift isn’t also useful.
Personalize Your Gifts
People give us clues about themselves all the time. A brief conversation with a business associate might reveal her passion for playing guitar or his interest in skydiving. Noting those details will help you knock gifts out of the park.
I scheduled a get-together once with a prospective client who loved Brooks Brothers. He mentioned that he’d meet me after he visited the store to buy a new suit, but travel delays changed his plans. Knowing he wouldn’t make it to the shop, I took Brooks Brothers to him—literally. He arrived at the hotel to find every piece from the new fall collection in his size—$7,000 worth—just waiting for him to try. Eight years later, the client still talks about it and even mentioned my company in dozens of interviews and in his own books when asked about the best customer experience he’d ever had.
Include People’s Spouses
I always advise clients to appreciate people’s partners, because there’s no better advocate than a client’s spouse. My company once worked on a four-day event attended by leaders from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Chevron. On the second day, we sent $250 gifts and handwritten notes to the executives’ spouses back at home, thanking them for supporting their partners.
The attendees were floored. They were receiving texts and photos from their spouses showing off the gifts and encouraging them to attend the event the following year. Appreciating people’s spouses is a great way to gain powerful allies from their inner worlds.
Surprise and Delight
A simple gift makes a big impression when timed correctly. A friend of mine has a painting and moving business, and his clients rave about him because of his penchant for surprises. He’ll leave fresh flowers in the home after a job or bring clients their favorite Starbucks drinks the morning of the move. Small surprises like these can generate long-lasting goodwill.
Seasoned conference attendees expect to receive the standard swag bag, so why not delight them with a pre-conference treat? We once worked on a real estate conference and sent invited VIPs a gift beforehand. In one case, the person was up for an award but hadn’t planned to attend. When his wife saw the gift, which was personalized to both of them, she insisted that he go. “I travel a lot, so the last thing I thought she’d want me to do is travel again,” he told us. The gift made all the difference.
Selecting gifts is challenging, and it can turn into a full-time job when you’re buying for multiple clients and conferences. If you’re stumped, you can hire an expert gifting company. But whether you hire external consultants or select gifts on your own, make sure you prioritize gifting in your budget and are strategic about what you invest in and give.
John Ruhlin and his firm, The Ruhlin Group, are considered to be the foremost experts on developing relationships with key executives and on the topic of appreciative leadership. He speaks nationally on the topic, is the bestselling author of Cutting Edge Sales, and is the No. 1 distributor in the 60-year history of CUTCO Cutlery.
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