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Company Gift Programs

Thanks a Million

A thoughtful gift helps build customer loyalty,
but what's appropriate and how much should you pay?

Follow these tips to avoid gift gaffes

By Laura Williams-Tracy

Two chartered buses from Charlotte rolled onto the manicured grounds of The Old North State Club at Uwharrie Point near Troy on a spring morning with 128 eager golfers onboard.

Though they were preparing for a tournament, none was playing to raise money for charity, and the men weren’t necessarily each other’s business associates. Their common link was a financial advisor named Larry Carroll who was picking up the full tab for the day as his signature way of saying thanks.

“When you figure out that a client is worth more than a prospect, you refocus your efforts on taking care of existing clients,” says Carroll, president of Carroll Financial Associates, a financial planning and investment management firm in Charlotte.

For almost a decade, Carroll has been pulling out all stops when it comes to thanking his top clients. The outing includes a deli lunch before golf and a cookout afterwards. Participants usually walk away with a Cutter & Buck-brand golf shirt.

Afterwards, Carroll asks for nothing in return. There is no marketing hook — just gratitude.

If the rule in business is that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your clients, then it makes good business sense to pay attention to top-tier customers with regular showings of appreciation.

“Companies are definitely doing more corporate gift giving,” says Duane Pitman, executive director of the N.C. School of Etiquette and Protocol in Greenville. “People have realized that showing appreciation for who they are working for can make or break their company.”

You probably agree, even though it’s likely your company can’t afford to treat its best customers to a round of golf at one of the state’s top private courses. But everyone likes to receive even inexpensive gifts as long as they are tasteful and, most importantly, useful.

Your challenge is to locate those appropriate gifts, and hopefully this story will help.

Avoid the Christmas Rush

Most gift giving happens in the fourth quarter when everyone is focused on the holiday season. But experts say companies should give gifts to their customers throughout the year to mark such occasions as the anniversary of a business relationship, to celebrate a product launch, to thank someone for a business referral, or to offer congratulations.

“More companies are trying to strategize in when they give a gift,” says Jim Grainger, vice president of business development for Bluegrass Promotional Marketing, which has offices in Charlotte and Raleigh. That means giving gifts at different times of the year in hopes that their receipt will receive more notice when not included with many other seasonal gifts.

Grainger’s firm specializes in customizing business items with company logos that are then given to customers and associates as gifts or rewards. Popular items include jackets, shirts, duffel bags, leather pieces, pens and coolers.

Such an item can express thanks but also serve as a marketing tool by putting your company’s name and logo on something a prospective client often might use.

Evans & Wade Advertising in Raleigh offers a Select-A-Gift program to companies that want to give their employees the opportunity to choose their own gift. Companies with commissioned sales people often use such programs to reward the sales staff for reaching certain sales levels.

The program includes a catalog with gifts such as electronics and kitchen products grouped according to value, says Clarence Mitchell, sales and office manager for Evans & Wade, which offers more than one million products. “When someone receives your product with the logo on it, they think of you and your company each time they use it,” he says.

Though there is no one gift that is appropriate for all purposes, some highly regarded gift items include desktop items, gourmet food, wine and golf accessories. Grainger says customers enjoy receiving full-color coffee table books on such topics as the national parks or atlases. To personalize the book, Bluegrass can imprint a company name and a message on the inside front cover.

Gift With a Tar Heel Taste

A gift that a small office can share is a popular choice, and that’s why gift baskets often do well. North Carolina companies often like to extend gifts made by other local companies, and there are a host of options to choose from.

A Southern Season in Chapel Hill is known for its gift baskets, many of which feature North Carolina-themed gifts. Debbie Fuller, executive gift services manager for A Southern Season, often handles requests for employee appreciation week or for client appreciation purposes. Fuller assembles custom food baskets or she helps corporate customers find one within the catalog selection that meets their criteria.  

Many customers come to A Southern Season looking for a gift that is distinctly North Carolina, she says. A Southern Season offers Moravian cookies from Winston-Salem, homegrown peanuts, North Carolina wines, a variety of cheeses and — not wanting to get in the middle of a fight — varieties of barbecue from both the eastern and western parts of the state.

T.W. Garner Food Co. in Winston-Salem, the maker of Texas Pete hot sauces, offers gift boxes via its web site that are sure to put a little kick in your business relationship.

Likewise, Mount Olive Pickle Co. in Mount Olive calls its gift boxes “picklephernalia” and offers everything from midgets and bread and butter pickles to kosher dills and hot pepper rings.

Ford’s Fancy Fruits & Gourmet Foods in Raleigh is now a fourth-generation gift foods company, offering a wide selection of North Carolina food items. Ford’s is the master distributor of the ever-popular Bone Suckin’ Sauce, and offers specialty baskets tailored to please corporate customers.

Original Creations Stand Out

Gifts that have meaning to a particular region are well thought of, especially gifts that are locally handcrafted and of high quality, says Amy Edwards, director of the Protocol School of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based instructor of corporate etiquette. Many North Carolina artists will take commissions and throw a new line of pottery for a particular group of clients or customize gifts in other ways.

Melanie Dennison, owner of The Village Pottery Marketplace of Seagrove, represents 146 artists and their pottery, glasswork and basketry, and has seen a growing business in corporate gift work.

Dennison and her husband recently produced 70 clay mixing bowls with whisks and matching egg separators for a food industry company that planned to give them as gifts. Another company in the egg business commissioned a series of small omelets bowls.

If you intend to have artwork created for clients, begin planning early, says Dennison, so that the artist has time to create the product. And because you are buying in volume, Dennison says many artists will sell their product wholesale.

Such handmade crafts carry a special meaning as gifts, and that’s the best-intentioned meaning of corporate gifts, notes Edwards. “A gift is about the person receiving the gift,” she says. “And you tell that customer what you think of them when you give a tasteful, well-researched gift.”

Before the first payment even comes due, customers who buy a new car from Folger Buick in Charlotte get a more tantalizing surprise in the mail.

A tin full of cookies arrives courtesy of the 65-year-old dealership with a note of thanks for their business.

“Years ago we used to send a dozen red roses to the ladies,” says owner Pete Williams. “We think it’s a good way to make buying a car a pleasurable experience and it’s a good way to keep customers — especially in hard times.”

From accountants to attorneys to sales staff, many companies find that gift programs that automatically send customers a box of chocolates or some other token of remembrance are a valid way to say thank you — and as an added benefit, keep your company name on your customers’ minds.

The key to getting a program for managing corporate gifts off the ground can be found in the annals of your client database or billing department records. There you’ll find names, addresses and sometimes birth dates of your best clients.

Every customer who buys a car at Folger Buick, whether they finance or pay cash, goes through the billing program, and there the pertinent information is collected. Folger faxes those names and address to a cookie manufacturer each week and the cookies are mailed within days.

“Once it’s set up it’s seamless and painless for the company buying the program,” says Jim Grainger, vice president of business development for Bluegrass Promotional Marketing, a company with offices in Charlotte and Raleigh. Grainger’s company represents many gift companies who manage such ongoing gift programs. 

Once you’ve picked which of your best clients will receive a gift, the gift company will maintain a database of names, and at the appropriate time will package the gift, include a card with your company’s name and logo, and ship the product, says Grainger.

Such programs can be valuable to recognize a client on his or her birthday, to send immediately after a sale, to thank a customer for opening an account or starting a new business relationship, or to commemorate a special date between companies.

Gifts can range from as simple as a $5 box of peanuts or hard candies to a basket of gourmet foods. Whatever your budget, there is a gift to fit it. “Once you’ve gotten your ducks in a row, it’s really easy,” says Grainger. “You make an impact on the recipient and they are going to remember you.”  

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