It’s More Than the Thought That Counts | Guest Post

Do you still think “it’s the ‘thought that counts’ really applies to business gifts? If so, when’s the last time you put some original thought into that thought? If you understand the mechanics and psychology of gift giving it will become one of your most powerful marketing tactics.

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December 4, 2020

Back in 1989 when I began my career in the entertainment industry, I worked at the talent and literary agency CAA. Remember that show Entourage? That was my life. It was nuts! Since we offered the exact same services to clients as our competition, giving creative gifts was extremely important. Today, I own Decibel Blue, the PR firm that has represented DMAR for seven years and created the MTR. I’m also a photographer. My business, clientphotogifts.com offers real estate professionals an easy resource for giving framed photographs as gifts. Infomercial over!

Do you still think “it’s the ‘thought that counts’ really applies to business gifts? If so, when’s the last time you put some original thought into that thought? Can you articulate what your gift strategy is when you whip out that Amex? Have you analyzed your goals, assumptions and opportunities for improvement like you do the rest of your business? If you understand the mechanics and psychology of gift giving it will become one of your most powerful marketing tactics.

Fluorescent striped socks for Grandpa’s Christmas gift? You bet! A wood serving platter for a client who has three already and whose lifetime value to you is hundreds of thousands of dollars, uh…nope! The goal of a gift is to capture a slice of your client’s mind or tug on their heart strings. It’s not about spending the most, it’s doing your best. A gift is kind of like a spicy tuna roll. It’s a transaction that’s wrapped in a relationship, so best to find a gift with some thematic significance. Yes, you are showing gratitude, but this is hardly a selfless act. Most REALTORS® think of themselves as Santa Claus cloud-surfing in a Tesla but let’s be honest, some “ho ho ho” better than others.

At CAA, my boss, Michael Ovitz, represented Dustin Hoffman, Michael Douglas, Warren Beatty, Martin Scorsese and producer/director Sydney Pollack. Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa) was worth a couple million a year in commissions to the agency. Pollack’s birthday was approaching, and we had to give something to someone who literally had everything. I researched Pollack’s favorite movie and had an original “one sheet” poster framed. Opening it, Pollack gave Ovitz a hug with a tear in his eyes, calling it the best gift we had ever given him. Looking back on it, Pollack probably had that poster in one of his (many) homes. But we had put thought into being thoughtful, giving him something memorable that cost considerably less than we could have spent.

I’ve written bios for over 100 REALTORS® and almost all claim to have a unique talent for building client relationships into friendships. In a disposable and scattered world, it’s harder than ever to do that. Just because you tie a bow on something after the deal closes doesn’t make it an effective gesture.

The cornerstone of effective gift giving is “surprise and delight.” If your gift does not have one of those qualities embedded in its DNA, reevaluate if your thought really will count. REALTORS® give gifts for closings, holidays and birthdays. Unfortunately, your client has been trained to expect those and we all know expectations are just as dangerous as assumptions. Ask yourself, when was the last time you sent a gift, just because? Have you ever considered sending something to kick off the client relationship? Or even if the deal falls apart and they lose the house? Those would make lasting impressions. Gifting professionals call this approach “planned randomness.” By diluting your client’s expectations, you increase their level of appreciation. Sending your wealthy client her favorite tulips on her birthday?

What’s the likelihood the delivery truck is bringing her the same bouquet from her previous broker too? Instead, try the tulips on the first day of spring and just call her on her birthday. Whose “thought” do you think will count more? Same money spent. An original gesture at an unexpected time is more meaningful than any bottle of Dom or Cutco knives ever can be.

Back in 2007, I made the Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” list. All of us received trinkets and gifts from various vendors. Two months later came an envelope from world-renowned jeweler, Al Molina. He was inviting me to his boutique along with an enclosed $500 gift card. Wow! Talk about “surprise and delight!” The gesture and timing were genius. He made me feel honored long after the acclaim had subsided. The perceived generosity was staggering even if $550 cuff links were the cheapest thing they sold. No surprise that a luxury jeweler understood the mechanics and psychology of gift giving.

Whenever you are busy and pinching pennies, when you default to “it’s the thought that counts” and order up that kitchen gadget ask yourself what impression you really hope to make? It’s not the thought. It’s how thoughtful! Especially if you have sold or purchased several homes for this client. Don’t make something about you and assume someone else will be touched. Never put your logo or name on anything. Don’t stumble down the “safe” path with consumable gifts. They are transactional, squandered opportunities with low ROI. The “thought” counted about as long as it took for the cork to pop. Look, you could skip the easy choice and the client could dislike your untraditional gift but if it looks like you put sincere TLC into it, they will love the giver (YOU!) nevertheless. What If you hit the bullseye? They will tell their friends when they visit and that’s better than having your business card taped to their wall!

One way to tell if your gift worked is did it tickle them intellectually? Did they ask you more about it? Did they Google it? Not the price, the place! We know it’s almost impossible to spoil luxury clients so try to engage their curiosity instead. Listen closely! Their questions will give you clues on what to buy them next. In a superficial world, authenticity is nearly impossible to buy and priceless.

Decibel Blue was once designing a logo for a lawyer whose spouse requested that we use the same colors they like in their home remodel. I had to delicately explain to the client that whether they “like” the colors is irrelevant. All that matters is if the logo is effective? Is it positioned strategically against the competition? Does color theory dictate that their clients will respond?

Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t have the money or time for all this.” Why expect a big ROI from a relationship if you put minimal effort into the gifts you give them? You don’t have to hit a home run every time but keep track of the last time you did. Quality matters more than quantity. Shift your thinking from obligation to opportunity. Better to send a handwritten note than a thoughtless, consumable gift. Save the time and money today and get it right tomorrow. Challenge yourself. Does the aggregate of all the notes you’ve written, calls you’ve made and gifts you’ve sent over the years make that client feeling like your cherished friend, or just a Golden Goose?

A giant footnote recognizing ninja business authors and leaders Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, Ken Blanchard, David Aaker, Geoffrey Moore, John Ruhlin, Seth Godin, Malcom Gladwell, Dale Carnegie, Mark McCormack, Daniel Goleman, Jim Collins and Max DePree, to name just a few. My business education is a fusion of practical experiences shaped by their collective genius.


The views, opinions and positions expressed within this guest post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent those of the Denver Metro Association of REALTORS®. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

If you are interested in submitting a guest post, please contact Sarah at sgoode@dmarealtors.com.