Holiday Gift-Giving: Do’s and Don’ts


By Lin Grensing-Pophal December 12, 2012

It’s that time of year again; the time when e-mail and snail-mail boxes are full of holiday greetings, missives and gifts.

For HR consultants, the question of whether—and what—to send to clients during the holiday season can be a vexing one. With many organizations clamping down on staff’s ability to accept gifts, there is the opportunity for well-intentioned, and sometimes expensive, gifts to go unused. Plus, consultants may risk offending clients with their gift choices; or, on the flip side, by not recognizing them during the holiday season.

Here’s what creative HR consultants are offering their clients this holiday season.

Penny Miller, SPHR, with Venture HRO LLC in Wichita Falls, Texas, gets a jump on the season by sending out Thanksgiving cards (she also sends New Year’s cards) to clients. “In the Thanksgiving cards, I place a letter with an opportunity for them to choose a local nonprofit for a donation,” she said. “I find my clients really like that.” She offers a choice of six nonprofits, including her own nonprofit clients, and a few others that she knows are “near and dear to some of my clients.”

Sherrill A. Curtis, SPHR, the principal and creative director of Curtis Consulting Group, LLC in the New York City area, believes in the personal touch. “As each client is unique, I ensure that a personalized, handwritten sentiment for the year-end is on their holiday card,” she said. She takes the personal touch one step further, and delivers the card to local clients along with a gift of homemade chocolate chunk biscotti. “I have other flavors, yet the chocolate with dried cherries and chocolate chunks seems to be the favorite year after year,” she said.

Some of her clients receive homemade cranberry sauce, “maybe with a combination of any fun add-ins, such as walnuts, pears, currants and cinnamon,” she said. For long-distance clients, it’s a holiday box of something that is meaningful for them. “A client who loves gardening and shared many photos of her extensive work to create her special gardens at home received a copper garden ornament,” for instance. “Save the pre-printed materials for marketing campaigns at other times of the year,” she said. The holiday season is about making personal connections.

Food is certainly a popular choice for holiday gift-giving. “Last year, we sent coffee cereal to our clients with a handwritten note that told them we hoped this would give them some extra energy during the holiday season,” said Kelsey Meyer, president of Digital Talent Agents in Columbia, Mo. “The gift cost us less than $10 a client, but it tasted delicious, was made in our hometown and was unique.” As Curtis noted, though, while the food was a hit, it was the personal touch of a handwritten note that clients respond to most. “They were all impressed that the CEO and president of the company took the time to write to each and every one of them,” Meyer said.

Darcy Eikenberg with Red Cape Revolution, an executive coaching firm based in Atlanta that serves primarily consultants and professional services leaders, said the question of “what—if anything—do I give my clients for the holidays” has come up several times in the last few weeks. She says that these are the most popular gifts sent to clients:

  • A gift of service. “Personal donations of time to a client’s key causes hit two marks,” she said. “One, they show appreciation and attention to the client as a person—not just as a checkbook—and two, they provide a business-based reason for increasing the volunteer activities many busy professionals want to do anyway—but have not made time to do.”
  • A gift of career support. “Career coaching or books are hot right now since no matter what your status or role, all professionals need to be managing their career,” said Eikenberg.
  • A gift of freedom. “Many consultants are opting to push anything ‘holiday’ at work into the New Year, freeing December for family and friends. This also provides a built-in reason to reconnect with clients—and prospects—in January, giving your 2013 sales cycle a kick-start.”

Despite these creative efforts, Alice Heiman, a national sales expert based in Reno, Nev., said that many of these gift-givers may be wasting their time—and money. Why? During the holidays, everybody else is doing the same thing. “Many companies like to give gifts during the holidays to show their appreciation,” said Heiman. “And believe it or not, this is a tradition I have avoided.” Heiman said that while she is as thankful as the next person, giving gifts to clients during the holiday season is a bad idea. “As in sales, we always want to differentiate ourselves,” she said. “When we send a gift or card during the holidays as a thank-you, we risk getting lost in the sea of gifts and cards that everyone is deluged with.”

Instead, Heiman suggests, get creative and think about how you might recognize clients during other—less cluttered—times of year. “I love the element of surprise. People don’t expect to get a gift on Valentine’s Day, or the Fourth of July or in the middle of March,” she said.

Finally, she notes, for HR consultants it’s important to thank clients—and others—on an ongoing basis. She sends two or three positive notes each day to someone, whether clients, friends or others. Ultimately, though, she said: “I feel very strongly that the best gift you can give them is to wow them—give them outstanding service. If you’re not doing that, a little gift at Christmas time doesn’t make any difference at all—who cares?”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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