Christmas Gifts for Clients: Strategies and Pitfalls

business giftsIt’s almost December, and that means it’s time to start thinking about business Christmas gifts. Gift-giving can get complicated fast. There are thousands of websites and stores that offer gift ideas for businesses, but just because you can give your clients a tub of tootsie rolls with your logo on them, does that mean you should? Here are some thoughts on the why, the who and the what of giving.

The Why

You need to be clear about why you give before you can properly decide on what to give. We give gifts as a simple expression of goodwill and to thank our clients for their business, of course. But if it was no more than that a standard gift basket would suffice for everyone. For a business, especially a small business, there are two additional reasons for giving:

  1. To remind clients that you are there. Your favorite project manager at the agency or contact person at your client’s company may move on, and they won’t necessarily leave a memo telling their successors in bold print that you are the one to call.
  2. To remind clients why you are special. Why should they keep calling you rather than that new translator who just contacted them? It’s wise to remind your clients of your unique value on occasion. This is a prime opportunity; don’t miss it.

The Who

Make a list of who should be included on your gift list before you order that jumbo pack of personalized pens. (In fact, don’t give cheapie pens at all; more on that later.) Obviously, the list should include any client you want to keep working with. But also think carefully about who you address the gift to. Even if you always work with one particular person at an agency or a direct client, he or she is most likely part of a team that works on the same projects, so you might want to address the gift to the team, or to “Elsa and her amazing team”, for instance. In the case of a direct client, it doesn’t matter if the other team members are not involved in the translation aspect of the project, because by including them you subtly position yourself as a contributor to the team rather than a supplier of a commodity.

The What

Nothing you can order by the barrel for $4.99. Branded pens, notepads and the like are fine to hand out at conferences or in the course of day-to-day business, but for actual gifts you need to go beyond the obvious and the mass-produced. You’re trying to build a brand here, and you presumably don’t want to be associated with “cheap commodity” and “poor craftsmanship”.

It doesn’t have to be expensive; it just can’t look cheap and it has to show some thought. In her blog post, Judy Jenner mentions two Dutch-English translators who gave their clients beautifully crafted USB drives embedded in wooden shoes. That’s a good example of intentional gift giving that doesn’t break the bank.

Along the same lines, presentation is important. First impressions matter, so give some thought to the way the gift is packaged or wrapped.

The most bizarre example of “think before you communicate” I ran into is of a freelancer, who shall remain anonymous, who recommended something called “the ex pen holder” as an excellent business gift. The holder is shaped like a human figure and it looks like it’s being impaled by the pens. It’s memorable, I’ll give it that, but I don’t see “voodoo-revenge fantasy” as a good brand-association for your average freelancer looking to strengthen business relationships.

Here are a few more things to avoid.

The Don’ts

General don’ts:

  • Giving a gift to someone of the opposite sex that can be perceived as too intimate. Give gender-neutral gifts if you’re not sure.
  • Misspelling the name of the recipient. Always a faux pas, but especially awkward when committed by a language professional.
  • Leaving the price tag on.
  • Giving gifts to potential clients. It looks like a bribe.
  • Giving a discount offer on your services as a “present”. They have to spend money to get your gift? Tacky.
  • Gifts symbolizing your country that are made in China. Unless you’re from China. I hope they checked those wooden shoes…

Cultural don’ts

The following points are taken from an article by Dean Foster, expert and speaker on culture in business. I’ve summarized some of his suggestions in my own words here, but you can read the whole article in the International HR Forum at

  • Southeast Asian recipients: no white boxes (white is associated with death), and no unwrapped gifts.
  • Red (good luck) and gold (success, wealth) are good wrapping colors. (Interesting exception: pens with red ink spell very bad luck in Korea, so I guess a cheap branded pen with red ink would be instant death to that business relationship).
  • No little desk clocks for Chinese clients, whether they live in China, Hong Kong or San Francisco. The Mandarin word for “clock” sounds like “death”. As Dean puts it, “clocks are NOT appreciated”.
  • The same goes for the number 4, so don’t give sets of four of anything.
  • In all Asian cultures: sharp tools represent the severing of a relationship, so sending someone a letter opener with your logo on is like saying “Dear Client, please never send me any business again; we are through. Sincerely, your former language provider.”
  • And of course no leather goods to clients in India, where, in Dean’s words, “Hindu traditions hold the cow sacred; put those leather picture frames and attaché cases away.”

While researching the subject I also discovered that there is an interesting grey zone of gifts that are recommended by many people and dismissed or cautioned against by others. I’ll explore those in my next post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about any memorable gifts you have given or received!

6 thoughts on “Christmas Gifts for Clients: Strategies and Pitfalls

  1. It is also worth considering Anti-Bribery and Corruption laws, as well as internal company policies (which could get tricky). This is to avoid violating any law or putting the recipient in an awkward position. In some companies even a bottle of wine or a box of chocolate could cause issues

    In many ways, a (truly) personalized good quality Merry Christmas card with an hand signature (and picture, in case you never met the person) could do, especially when uncertain.

    For “special” clients — mostly direct clients or owners of boutique agencies — the book by Jost Zetzsche and Nataly Kelly could be an interesting gift because it not about the translation business or the in and outs of the profession, but more about how our work affects everyone’s everyday lives.

    • Hi Shai, good point about the legal aspects. I wonder if there are also significant differences between countries to consider there. And thank you for the book suggestion! I haven’t read it but it sounds like a good one, and I’m always on the lookout for good gifts that are relevant and interesting.

      • Hi Marie,
        Yes, there are difference between countries. For example, in some countries even inviting someone to lunch (at a local standard restaurant, nothing decadent) has multitude of restrictions and stipulations.

        Often, intra-industry gift giving is even under more scrutiny (such as doctors and pharmaceuticals companies/reps for example).

        This is all rather silly in a way because the behavior these laws attempt to prevent is being conducted through different channels anyway, but I see why they are needed.

        Still, pens, thumb drives, books, desk accessories, etc. should all be okay in most cases (as long as they are not very expensive. I think that ~$25 should be the ceiling). I know that in the past sending a bottle of wine or a chocolate/candy box with a greeting card was common — even as a general gift to an entire office/department, but as of late I think that it’s getting more and more frowned upon by companies.

  2. Thanks for this, Marie. I like your writing style, it’s frank. I think a card is great, if it’s an important client, upgrade that card to something amazing. I have some amazing native Canadian cards by artist Bill Reid that are his designs embossed in gold and bigger than a standard card. There’s also a good book by Roger Axtell, a series actually, and they all start with “Do’s and Taboos … ” and he has a good section that talks about gifts for different cultures. Even and odd numbers of things can also be bad luck. Also cultural presents I think always go over well. In Canada there’s a lot of native art to choose from and down in Mexico where I live there are also many little pieces of art that are inexpensive but very beautiful and made by hand.

    • Hi Jesse, thank you for taking the time to stop by and comment. I checked out Bill Reid’s website and he is an incredible artist. if I lived closer I’d visit his gallery but I’ll give the online gift shop a closer look. The book sounds really intriguing too and might actually end up on my own Christmas list 🙂 Great ideas, I appreciate the input!

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