Small business owners with cash flow problems might be tempted during yet another difficult holiday season to forgo gifts for clients or customers. Many look at gifts as budget items that just aren't critical.
There's another, bigger-picture way to look at business giving.
Gifts selected with care convey to customers how important they are, and how much an owner will continue to value their relationship going forward.
They also don't have to break the bank. They can be very small but still be meaningful. Or an owner can splurge on just a few of his or her biggest customers.
Spending as an investment
Many company owners see holiday gifts as an investment in their companies, one that will continue to pay off as business gets better.
Even in a difficult economy, Terri Slater doesn't think it's a good idea to skimp on client gifts.
"I know it's rough out there and people are cutting back, but this is one area where you really say, you can't afford to" stop giving, said Slater, who runs Healthy Lifestyle Publicity, based in Boca Raton, Fla. "I think it's important to acknowledge the people you work with and who are contributing to your success."
"I've never missed a year. I've never cut back," she said, and explained that while she did briefly consider not giving client gifts this year as she lost some revenue, "I wouldn't feel right about it."
Slater tries to match the gift with a client's personality, so one might get a tower of chocolates, while another will get a high-quality pen.
Magnets, discounts are good bets
The pens, mugs and calendars that used to be staples of companies' gift-giving have been falling out of favor in recent years and cost is just one reason. Many small business owners have tried in recent years to give clients and customers gifts that help build or cement a relationship, and a mug or a pen just doesn't do that.
Of course, if you run a retail business or a service business like a gas station or dry cleaner, handing out these smaller gifts is more feasible than giving personalized ones (although you might want to make an extra effort for some of your very best customers). And if you're aiming for name recognition or making sure your phone number is easy for a customer to find, refrigerator magnets can help you achieve that goal.
But you might want to give something that your customers will appreciate even more — a discount. Giving customers 10 percent off their dry cleaning bill or a free oil change is a great way to strengthen the relationship with them and keep them coming back.
Gifts with a dual purpose
Some owners are giving gifts that are more than relationship builders. They also help sell a client's products or services.
Caroline Lubbers has always devoted a great deal of time and energy to finding what she calls cool presents for her marketing firm's clients. "I'd usually pick different things for different personalities, and it's very time consuming," said Lubbers, whose company, Goldfish Marketing Communications, is based in Chicago.
Not this year.
"I have to work harder, so I have less time to seek things out," Lubbers said. So she got the idea to make gift baskets that contain the products of her clients, who include specialty food makers. It takes less time than shopping and helps do some marketing for her clients. Lubbers is also including products made by some of her friends who are entrepreneurs.
It's also cheaper. "I looked at the amount I budgeted for holiday gifts and I realized I could probably save hundreds of dollars," Lubbers said.
The gift of face time
A material gift isn't the only way to go. Some owners have been making donations to charitable organizations rather than buying gifts.
Maureen Rothman used to give traditional gifts like candy or cookies, but this year she's taking clients to lunch, making face-to-face contact that is as much networking as it is celebrating.
"What I've done is really focus on the people I have done work with throughout the year and have helped keep my business afloat," said Rothman, whose Philadelphia-based firm, Rothman Associates Inc., is a manufacturers representative for the furniture industry that serves hotels and other hospitality companies.
"I really want that one-one-one that I think is more important this year than ever."
Rothman is also finding opportunities to give what she calls spontaneous gifts, in the form of buying another business associate a drink at holiday networking parties. If she knows that some furniture designers are struggling, she'll offer to pay for their tickets to the events.
She believes even such small gestures during the holidays will have an impact on her business.
"For those of us who understand small business, networking is more important now," she said.