Last week we looked at the inevitability of the holiday gift to customers. This week, let’s navigate those tricky waters that divide Cape Inappropriate and Are You Kidding Island.

On the left, we have things like the $300 scotch my very pregnant ( and incidentally tea-totaling) friend received from an agency one year. Turns out the distributor was a client. Now there is nothing wrong with a nice bottle, and I will be happy to help you should you find yourself infested with such things, but a gift like that violates two rules: first, nobody gave the slightest thought to the person receiving it, and second it’s too much money. Most companies have rules about what and how much their employees can receive in the way of graft; you might want to make gentle enquiries about it before you lob Superbowl tickets over the wall.

Other things you’ll find on Cape Inappropriate include:

  • car blankets with your company logo
  • anything else with your company logo
  • your products
  • make up
  • jewellery
  • small animals
  • large animals
  • golf club memberships
  • airplane tickets
  • real estate

These are not things most of us are in the position to give or receive. The real action of the holiday season takes place on Are You Kidding Island. This is the home of disorganized, misinformed and innocent gift-pickers. This is where ideas that sound inspired in October don’t look so nice when the shipment arrives in early December. Here are some souvenirs I have personally received from Are You Kidding Island:

  • A hockey puck with Canadian and U.S. flags on it
  • A toque
  • A gift certificate for cheese
  • A bouncy ball with a flashy light and the logo of a long-past trade show on it
  • A hugely inappropriate calendar
  • A Santa key ring

The problem with Are You Kidding Island is that nobody there spends a lot of time actually thinking about gift recipients. They are too busy sampling the delights of supplier catalogues and washing it down with Budget Juice. A few hours of that produces statements that sound like these:

“Let’s just clean out the trinket closet this year”

“Who doesn’t love chenille?

“My cousin has a store that sells those.”

“Let’s think outside the box this year.”

If you’re hearing that, you’re on Are You Kidding Island (AYKI). My first whiff of AYKI came many, many years ago when, on returning to the office after the holidays we were greeted to a vile, vile odour. Convinced one of our senior execs had crawled under a desk to die, we started opening offices. Sure enough, after about a dozen offices, we found our victim. One of our customers was thinking outside the box (and the cranium, it turns out) and had shipped ducks he’d shot himself to his executive buddies. Naturally, he didn’t label the gifts, just wrapped up a bunch of frozen ducks and couriered them out. Never, obviously, considering that some people would be away and their gifts would languish, thaw and rot. Fowl play confirmed.

Another mistake that wanders around on AYKI is the one-gift-fits-all philosophy. That may make sense where you sell one thing and the value of the sale doesn’t vary a lot. But most businesses have a pretty great range of customers and their attendant LTVs (lifetime values). So why would you send the same thing to a customer who produces $1,000 in revenue per year as you do to the customer cranking over a few hundred thousand?

I received this beautiful calendar last year from a supplier that pockets seven figures from my company. Granted, not just from me, but if this is what you think of my $200,000 contribution to your top line, then I am not feeling the love, guys.

My advice is to come up with three tiers of gift baskets for your Sales Squirrels. Something tasteful and small for your newer or lower value customers, something that looks a lot more expensive than it is for your top customers, and a thing in the middle. And I recommend you make it edible, non-perishable and outsource the whole thing.

If you’ve ever received a gift basket, you know they look more expensive than they really are. Plus there are dozens of companies with the ability to put them together and ship them to arrive in decent condition and on time. No more cellophane parties for you! Just put in your order and send over the shipping list.

Here is another reason why I like gift baskets: they can be shared. When you send a big, juicy basket of gourmet stuff to a customer, if they’re any kind of decent person at all, they’ll open it up and share it with their whole team. The vegans, allergics and pregnant people each get a little something they can use and nobody feels left out. Remember, these are the people who will be signing your contract a few years down the road. A little tin of fois gras now, can pay off later.

My final bit of advice about the whole thing is to let the Sales Squirrels decide who gets what. I know, I know, they’ll want everyone will get the biggest, nicest basket but they will also know (or ought to) who is considering a supplier change just now and might need a nicer-than-called -for gift. They will also know who can’t accept gifts under any circumstances and who is about to fire your company and needs either a bribe or a punishment.

And isn’t that what the holidays are all about?