4 costly mistakes to avoid when gifting executives


Let’s be honest. Most of us are incredibly busy tracking down sales prospects and getting meetings with clients. We know we should say thank you and leverage gifts as we “entertain,” but it’s a minefield trying to figure out how to impress and make an impact with key business relationships who can afford almost anything they want.

Over the last 13 years I have been testing strategic gifting concepts as we work with entrepreneurs, Fortune 1000 companies and pro sports teams across North America. Here are four of the most common and costly mistakes to avoid.

Mixing world class with trinkets and trash

Think of your last conference or business trip. When you are looking to make an impression with a six- or seven-figure executive, the details matter from start to finish. You would never deliver a Rolex in a paper bag, yet most companies do exactly that at their most prestigious events.

They invest a ton of money on food, hotels, plane tickets and entertainment, but then go as cheap, vanilla and imported as possible with the thing that will outlast the event — the gifts. Days or weeks later, that executive is on to the next dinner or event and without a world class “tangible trigger” to remind him or her of the amazing experience. Promotional products are great to give to the masses at a trade show, but not for your top 20 percent. Use 10 percent of your overall budget to purchase first-class executive gifts that match the rest of your event or reduce your invitation list. Otherwise, best case scenario, it is a waste of money and worst case it sends a mixed message on the value that you put on the relationship.

Treating VIPs like the masses

Why do affluent donors give millions to a college or hospital? For one, they love the lasting impact that education and healthcare will have on the community. But perhaps as important to them is the legacy of having their name on the side of a building for the next 100 years. Our names are incredibly important, but as you go up the food chain, it becomes imperative. It’s why the affluent choose custom shirts, vanity plates, use American Express or to stay at a Ritz. They want to be treated special and as an individual.

If you give a gift and it’s not personalized with the recipient’s name, or if it is over-branded with your logo, it will most likely get re-gifted. Even millionaires like to be given thoughtful gifts, but only if it was made especially for them, not a trinket ordered for the masses.

A few times each year, at unexpected times like the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving, we send out hundreds of custom-engraved Cutco Cutlery sets with each executive’s name carved into the blades. It’s an exclusive product that, when personalized, becomes a daily used heirloom that they will pass down to future generations. This gift ties in well to avoiding the next mistake on the list.

Ignoring the “better half”

Executives are constantly being wooed, from private jets to rounds of golf at Pebble Beach to $200 bottles of wine at fine steak houses and Cuban cigars in the suites of professional sports teams. It’s tough to stay on their radar for more than a few minutes. Want to be memorable long term? The smartest relationship builders focus on the low-hanging fruit that most ignore — the spouse and assistant.

In most industries, the C-suite is often dominated by married men. If you give world-class gifts that are family-focused and include the spouse, you gain special influence and access. The executive gets brownie points for bringing home something that is not another bottle of scotch or golf club, and the spouse is now an ally. Same philosophy works with the assistant. Normally they are treated like the gatekeeper and a necessary evil. Investing in unique, thoughtful gifts and treating them with over-the-top respect gets you access to meetings and insights. In business it’s all about mindshare; no one controls what stays in front of that executive more than those two people.

Being a sheep

When it comes to corporate gifting, most of us are followers. We see someone else give a wine basket, an iPad, or a Tiffany bowl and we imitate. Men are often the worst in this category, as they think it’s something to check off their list and move on to the “important stuff.” When it’s time to buy a gift, make sure it’s unique and different. Most companies use the same buzzwords to brag about being different, creative and unique, but when it’s time to appreciate your most important relationships, you give them a gift card or something equally unoriginal. Remember the last time you received a handwritten thank-you note? I know I do. It’s rare and different. Take the time to make sure your gifts are just as unique or focus your money elsewhere and invest in some nice stationery and a few endearing thoughts.  

John Ruhlin speaks nationally on executive relationship development. He is the bestselling author of “Cutting Edge Sales,” and is the No. 1 distributor out of 1 million distributors for Cutco Cutlery since its founding in 1949.