Ho Ho Ho-ld the corporate Christmas cards, please

I may be the biggest Grinch on the planet, but every year, my insurance agent sends me a fancy, heavy, gilt-edged Christmas card and I think "I must be paying too much for insurance if this can afford to send these expensive cards to clients he barely knows."

OK, I may be the biggest Grinch on the planet.

But every year I’m enraged when I receive a fancy, heavy, gilt-edged Christmas card from my insurance agent.  I think I met him once 20 years ago, so when he sends me seasons' greetings, I think to myself "I must be paying too much for insurance if this guy can afford to send these expensive cards to clients he barely knows."

I’m not always Grinchy — I was quite grateful to receive a crisp new $50 dollar bill every Christmas from CTV, as all employees did, when I worked there many years ago.  And I do enjoy giving gifts.  I’ve been known to buy drinks for various colleagues and teammates at seasonal celebrations.

Giving thanks

Of course I know that the holiday season does present an opportunity to show gratitude to important people in our lives, from family and friends to professional associates.  Clients, suppliers, distributors, manufacturers; most days we’re too focused on doing what needs to be done to spend a lot of time expressing our appreciation.  

And showing gratitude is important in business. As Joey Faucette wrote recently in an article for the California-based magazine Entrepreneur, "Study after study reveals that when you say "Thank you" to your customers, they both spend more money and tell their friends about the exceptional service and products you deliver, increasing your profits. Volumes chronicle how employee productivity zooms when appreciation is expressed, raising your margins. Vendors go the extra mile to extend credit and deliver 'just in time' when they hear gratitude regularly."

Regularly.  Maybe that’s why I’m put off by my insurance agent’s holiday card.  I suppose it seems to me that seasonal gifts and cards are just 'the thing to do' — and I prefer more sincere, meaningful gestures.  

Stephen Jagger feels the same way.  This Vancouver-based entrepreneur splits his time between B.C., Silicon Valley and Manila, running several dot-com enterprises, UbertorOutsourcing Things Done and Payroll Hero

"We’re not anti-Christmas or anything," says Jagger.  "We do stuff with our staff.  It’s just that I keep getting random, generic emails from suppliers of ours and other business contacts, and it just seems to be a bunch of the same old stuff.  I think any messages at this time of year get drowned out because everyone’s doing the same thing."

Jagger and his partner don’t typically send any sort of holiday greetings.  He says they believe a gesture of appreciation has more impact when clients don’t expect it.

"One January a while back we sent most of our tech-savvy realtors video cameras.  It was when the flip camera was coming out.  We gave out 100 cameras, and the idea was 'We think you’re a tech-savvy agent and we think video is the future,' but it wasn’t tied to Christmas.  It was more out of nowhere.  I think a lot of them liked that.  It’s good to be different."

Entrepreneurs who do want to mark the occasion with clients should remember there can be risk in sending an unwanted or inappropriate gift.  One of CBC’s long-time business anchors Fred Langan once received a gift of cuff-links and a matching tie from a finance professional.   This gentleman wanted to show his appreciation for Fred having interviewed him on television. 

Fred opened the gift at the courier desk, and then left it there, deciding on the spot he wouldn’t book that particular guest again. "Not only am I super fussy about what I wear, I thought he shouldn't be trying to curry favour with me," he explains.

Currying favour, as Fred puts it, is indeed an issue for journalists.  There’s a CBC policy  that we don’t accept gifts.  Our independence could be viewed as compromised.  No one ever wants it to appear they can be 'bought off' — the public airwaves aren’t for sale.

"You have to be sensitive to the receiver’s situation, and how they perceive the gift," says Wendy Cherwinski, a freelance speech-writer and communications consultant in Ottawa. 

"I do a lot of work for people in government, and a lot of them wouldn’t be comfortable with a gift.  I do take clients for lunch, but I’m careful to position it as a thank-you for work I’ve already done for them, not as a treat that I hope will result in future work."

Proceed with caution

Cherwinski is a dedicated holiday card-sender.  The afternoon I phoned her she was just finishing off her new database for keeping track of who will receive seasons’ greetings from her. 

"I tick off names all through the year of names of people I want to remember at Christmas," says Cherwinski.  "Because if you just do it at Christmas you don’t do a good job."

December is a relatively slow time in her business, so she has time to take clients out for those thank-you lunches, and to do a thorough job with her cards. 

"I send cards assiduously," Cherwinski said proudly. "I'm of the school that says the more often you touch your customers or the people you want to turn into customers, the better. But you’ve got to do that with some sensitivity and not just bombard them with stuff." She also sends a regular e-newsletter and promo’s for her workshops and webinars.

As Cherwinski talked about how she always enjoyed receiving Christmas cards when she worked in an office prior to starting her own business, and her heart-felt belief in the importance of showing appreciation, I suddenly felt very guilty for my own distinctly un-gracious attitude.  When I told her my insurance agent story, there was a bit of a pause — it seemed she didn’t know what to say in response to my crabby, cynical attitude. 

"Well I hope no one feels that way about my cards," she said finally, making me feel even more Grinchy. 

As I apologized for being such a Christmas killjoy, questioning the wisdom of seasonal greetings in the business world, Cherwinski diplomatically suggested I’m really doing a good thing:  "It's always good to make people think about what they’re doing."

Right!  That’s what I’m doing here.  Sharing some hopefully thought-provoking ideas about how to impress your business associates — now, and at any time of year.  Just don’t send me a card.