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CUSTOMER SERVICE

'Tis Better to Give
 

Special section devoted to building customer and employee relations through holiday gifts and parties.
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Take advantage of the holiday season to spread goodwill and your good name

For many small companies, it's all too tempting to take the whole idea of business-to-business gift giving and procrastinate it to death. After all, the world can get by without another coffee mug with your logo on it. Still, you don't want your company to be conspicuously absent when packages start to arrive. So you puzzle over what to send.

Indecision is just one of the dead-end afflictions of company gift giving. Time and money are inhibiting factors, too. After all, the customers of a backlogged manufacturer don't want tokens of esteem; they want their order -- in hand, yesterday. And you certainly shouldn't buy gifts with cash you don't have. "For years we've been waiting to do something charitable," sighs Bob Block, president of Sage Advance Corp., a manufacturer of solar-energy equipment in Eugene, Ore. "But not till next year, not till we're profitable." Your investors thank you, Bob.

Then there's the fear of sending the wrong message. You wouldn't want to send something too Saint Nick to a client who doesn't celebrate Christmas or offer a package of sausage and cheese to somebody recovering from triple-bypass surgery. You don't want to come off cheap. At the same time, you don't want to be so lavish that you've got to fill out 1099s on all your recipients. And if you're thinking about copping out and sending a selection of your own products, think again.

"Even if there weren't state regulations preventing us from doing it, we wouldn't dream of sending out our beer as gifts," says David Mickelson, chief financial officer at Redhook Ale Brewery Inc., in Seattle. It would look too self-serving, he says. Mickelson's idea of a just-right corporate gift? The box of apples his office receives each year from its accountants. "Their purchase benefits a local children's society, and at the same time it gives us something we can eat without feeling rotten."

If there's anybody who can afford to be smug on the issue of gift giving, it's those companies whose clients have let them off the hook. "Our corporate customers won't even let their people accept a birthday cake from us," says JosÉ Lacal, president of BakeryCorp, a wholesaler in North Miami, Fla. No-gift policies are proliferating, and Lacal thinks that's good. "It keeps the playing field level," he says. "That way we know we compete only on our quality and on our service."

Yet a sensitive, creative gift remains both relevant and effective in many business relationships. A company can say, "Thanks" or "We'd love to have your business." But there can be more to it than that. Gift giving offers a rare nonsales opportunity to step forward and say, "This is what we do." Even better, it offers the rarer opportunity to say, "This is who we are."

Shock of Recognition
Darby O'Brien Advertising Inc.

South Hadley, Mass.

The wooden crate caused quite a stir on arrival at the Wall Street Journal's offices in Manhattan. "The mail room took one look at it and called N.Y.P.D.," recalls Darby O'Brien, founder and president of a South Hadley, Mass., ad agency of the same name.

And who wouldn't? The crate was emblazoned with these heart-stopping words: "No matter how careful you are when you pick out Christmas presents, there's always a chance that one of them's going to turn out to be a real bomb." Inside lay an old navy practice bomb. It was very big (almost four feet long), very government issue (O'Brien had secured 150 of them from a surplus catalog), and very much a dud (whew). "Everybody enjoyed the joke," O'Brien alleges, "but the N.Y.P.D. still called us and gave us kind of a lecture."

In choosing his bombastic Christmas greeting, O'Brien didn't waste time wondering what the recipients would do with such gifts. How could he have guessed, for example, that a toy-industry executive would use his bomb as a planter or that Bobby Kennedy's son, Michael, who presides over Citizens Energy Corp., in Boston, would forward it to his unsuspecting father-in-law, Frank Gifford?

But adman O'Brien was absolutely clear about the point he was trying to make. The same one he tried to make once on St. Patrick's Day, when he sent his list of clients and prospects an "authentic Irish bowling ball" -- a cabbage, with three holes drilled in it. "We like to show a little personality," he says. "We like to convey that this is one ad agency that isn't afraid to take a bold approach with its message."

O'Brien is also smart enough, however, to know when enough's enough. The year after the bomb, he sent a small, elegantly wrapped package with a note that read, "Wrapping presents goes faster with the right kind of tape." Inside was an early-release copy of country singer Randy Travis's Old Time Christmas. "That was before the country-music trend really caught on," O'Brien says, "and I think it made a lot of converts."

O'Brien's goal is forthright: to attract as much attention as possible. In an age when ad dollars are scarce and ad messages get lost in all the noise, O'Brien considers it essential to find creative ways of letting potential clients know his six-person agency exists. "It's not enough anymore just to say, 'Look, our client's business is up by 30% since we took over the account.' That stuff just goes in the wastebasket. But our pieces don't get thrown away. They get shown and talked about, and when it's time to shop for an ad agency, we always get our foot in the door." O'Brien also believes his unabashed wackiness has rubbed off on some of his clientele. "It's pushed some of them to be more interesting with their advertising, and that makes it easier for us to sell stronger creative."

Building a Name
Burud & Associates Inc.

Pasadena, Calif.

It's not every day you sit in the office of a business executive whose desk features a crystal paperweight shaped like a baby block. "Sure, it's a little unusual," says Sandra Burud, president of Burud & Associates Inc., in Pasadena, Calif., one of the nation's leading child-care consulting firms. "But that's what makes it such a great gift for our clients."

Not all her clients, mind you. In recent years Burud has presented a Waterford-crystal baby block to fewer than five corporate or institutional clients, in honor of the "ongoing, truly exemplary" relationships they've built with her firm. Recipients have included bankers, human-resource managers, health-care providers, and executives of major utility companies.

As a gift, Burud points out, the baby block is symbolic without being cryptic. "You don't need an explanatory note to know what it's about. You know immediately that it's about children, which is our one and only focus in this business. And because it's Waterford, there's a strong message of quality -- which, of course, is the goal in everything we do. Best of all, because it's something that's out of place in an office, it becomes a conversation piece. It gets people talking about their corporate child-care programs and how they have been used to improve worker morale and also productivity."

Although Burud's main motive in gift giving is to reward and recognize child care's true believers, she doesn't ignore the agnostics. In past years her entire contact list has received a calendar produced by the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. "It's got lots of facts and figures describing the unmet needs of children," she explains. And every now and then "just for fun or to say thanks for something," she sends out baby bottles filled with pink and blue candies.

Spreading the Word
Nationwide Construction Co.

Paramount, Calif.

Nina Tate's business isn't the sort that takes kindly to those who try to win business through favors, no matter how small. A contractor that has built highways, transit systems, and reinforced-steel buildings since 1984, Nationwide Construction Co. has had a policy never to send a gift more lavish than a paperweight-size hard hat with the company's name on it. But that changed last year.

In mid-1991 chief executive Tate learned that her company was to be featured in a coffee-table book called Los Angeles: Realm of Possibility (Windsor Publications Inc., Chatsworth, Calif., $37.95). The local chamber of commerce had nominated her as one of about a dozen movers and shakers in building and allied trades. After publisher's interviews, the list was whittled further. Tate was pleased to learn that her company would appear with a handful of architects, developers, and realtors in a section of the book that was called "From the Ground Up."

There was a catch, however: Tate would have to pay $1,000 for space in the book and guarantee purchase of 10 copies. She has not regretted the decision to sign on. "When we finally saw the book, we could not believe how beautiful it was. It's really something to be proud of. It's in the bookstores, it's in the libraries, and now it's in the lobbies of many of the people we do business with." At holiday time or following the completion of a project, Tate sends a copy of the book, usually inscribed with the page number of her story and words to the effect of "You helped us get to where we are today."

Tate is convinced her company's visibility has increased since the book came out, and she knows for certain that she's gotten a crack at some contracts she might have missed otherwise. "My bonding agent is sending out copies to his clients now, and so is my attorney. Soon after the book came out, another company in the book called me, said they'd enjoyed reading about us, and asked to put us on their contractors' list."

Sharing the Net Results
The Fresh Fish Co.

St. Louis

The only competitive factor more important in the food business than the twin winnowers of quality and service is price. The Fresh Fish Co., in St. Louis, hasn't grown to $15 million in revenues in seven years and expanded into fish farming in Costa Rica without learning how to squeeze a buck until it yells. So it would be completely out of character for president Tom Hillman to throw money around simply in the name of being nice to his customers.

"I'm ambivalent about this end-of-the-year gift-giving thing to begin with," he says. "We're just not into doing frivolous things that end up looking like you're trying to buy somebody's business. Even if we wanted to, the food business doesn't have the high margins or the bureaucratic layers you need if you're going to make it a practice to try to buy people. So we tend to be real tight when it comes to gifts."

The most Fresh Fish has done to date is send customers copies of a $50 book containing limited-edition drawings of fish. That's happened once in seven years of business, and the books went to fewer than 50 of Hillman's most loyal accounts. "The books were a gracious, lasting thing," he says. "We might do something like that again in another few years. Then again, we might not. What we really want to focus on is our service."

That means customer service, of course, but it also means community service. Hillman estimates he spends 15% to 20% of his time on various local and regional causes. That's where he chooses to channel some of Fresh Fish's profits as well. Indeed, his company's most enduring tradition of the holiday season is centered on Fresh Fish's outreach efforts.

"Each year we send a personal letter to each of our customers, expressing our thanks for their support during the year," Hillman explains. "Then we tell them that instead of printing cards, we have chosen a charity to give the money to. Last year it was the American Heart Association, which is a nice tie-in for those of us in the fish business."

His customers' reaction? "They respect it," Hillman says. "I think people recognize that we're very thoughtful in our business, that we do things with the utmost integrity, and most of all, that we believe in doing things for others."

Establishing Ties
Arquitectonica Inc.

Miami

Each year December showed up a little earlier, it seemed, and architect Laurinda Spear found herself rushing to design the etched-glass ornaments her Miami architectural firm sent to clients and contacts. "People collect them," Spear says. "They look for them each winter, and if we don't produce them, they're disappointed." But there's one Arquitectonica gift that sends people flocking to the firm's doors year-round. "The ties," Spear muses. "There's always somebody slinking in here asking if we can get them one of our ties."

The ties were born during a typical confab over the drawing table. Spear and partner Bernardo Fort-Brescia, were meeting to put the final touches on a graphically colorful design for a building's facade. "You know, this would make a great tie," Spear said to Fort-Brescia. The pair laughed, and he agreed. Spear, who confesses to a flair for merchandising ideas and a fantasy of establishing an accessories spin-off, spent months selecting and preparing additional tie patterns from Arquitectonica's world-renowned design accomplishments. Fort-Brescia's sister and her husband then took on the job of arranging production of the ties.

At first Arquitectonica bestowed only a few ties on developer-partners in Los Angeles (The Bank of America's Wilshire-Robertson Building), Luxembourg (Banque de Luxembourg), and elsewhere in Florida. Those same clients asked for more ties to distribute to friends. And now, three years after that drawing-table chat, Arquitectonica finds itself with an underground hit on its hands.

"It's to the point that some of our architects think we should design jackets for them that allow them to display our tie selection in the lining," Spear says with a laugh. "Everywhere they go, somebody's seen the ties and wants one."

Given this sudden surge in demand, Arquitectonica has had little choice but to make the ties an integral part of its own gift-giving strategy. Sure, Spear still intends to get back to designing ornaments when things slow down, maybe after the firm finishes its work on a 2,700-room hotel for the Euro Disney complex. But she knows the ties have done more than any glass ornament could to get Arquitectonica's name out into the mainstream and publicize its often-avant-garde designs.

"I'm not kidding when I tell you I've seen these ties on the street, on people I don't know," Spear marvels. "I even saw a guy in the New York Times wearing one. Now, I know not everybody who wears one of our ties is going to be in the market for an architect. Of course not. But it hasn't hurt our mystique at all."

* * *

Ellen Wojahn is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Ore.


DINNER PARTIES BY MAIL

Food is always an appropriate gift: somewhere deep inside, we all equate comestibles with caring. That's one message encoded in the gift packages described here. Each presents an occasion for celebration. There's built-in party potential, with the recipient the designated guest of honor, and you -- the long-distance giver -- the patron at large.

Full-Course Banquet
Crab legs, filet mignon, and Black Forest cheesecake are all part of Omaha Steaks' six-portion Feast Complete. $154. 800-228-9055.

Thanksgiving to Go
The plump, maple- and cob-smoked breast in Harrington's Smoked Turkey Gift Box can be served as is or piping hot, accompanied by Minnesota wild rice and brandied cranberries with pecans. $48.95. 802-434-4444.

Sea and Smoke
The Ducktrap River Fish Farm smokes its No. 2 Seafood Sampler -- mussels, salmon, and scallops -- over Maine hard- and fruit woods and ships them in a branded pine box. $45 postpaid. 800-828-3825.

Improvisatory Pasta
Balducci's Pasta Perfect Hatbox offers exponential possibilities: cross four varieties of pasta -- egg, spinach, tomato, and squid ink -- each in three shapes, with assorted cheeses, sauces, condiments, and olive oil. $145. 800-225-3822.

Sinful Brunch
Miss Grace's Brunch Basket proffers three sweet, sophisticated mini-bundt cakes -- lemon, orange, and fudge -- plus a banana chocolate-chip loaf and packets of gourmet coffee. $60. 800-FOR-CAKE.

High-Roller Snack Pack
Petrossian's Picnic in the Park packs a 125-gram tin of Sevruga caviar, foie gras, and cornichons in a thermal pouch, with cutlery carved from black water-buffalo horn. $159 postpaid. 800-828-9241.

Finishing Touch
Few legal substances are as sensuous as chocolate-dipped fruit. Crate & Barrel's modernist Dessert Fondue set comes with three ready-to-heat sauces -- dark chocolate, white chocolate, and yogurt. $31.95. 800-323-5461.

-- Sandy MacDonald


HEALTH KICKS

Sometimes the greatest indulgence is a spate of self-improvement. For the jocks redux on your list, the equipment depicted is all state of the art, guaranteed to get endorphins flowing to flood level. There's something for everyone here, from tyro to pro, along with some handy accessories and a hard-driving Hawaiian "vacation." Some of the basics are easy on the budget; others go off the deep end.

All in One
Nordic Track has merged its popular cross-country skiing simulator with a nonmotorized treadmill and a fold-out stair stepper. The ensemble is called the Aerobic Cross-Trainer. $1,199. 800-421-5910, extension 804G2.

Suit Stasher
Designed to sling over a rear bike rack, the ultra-lightweight Eccosport Garment Pannier is equally practical on planes and delivers an impeccable, wrinkle-free wardrobe. $179. 800-235-3226, from Alaska 415-296-8950.

For Roller Dandies
Combine sneakers fit for Flash Gordon with rigid Rollerblade shells, and you've got Metroblades' hot ticket for muscle-powered commuting this season. $299. 800-232-ROLL.

A Hike on the Wild Side
The one-week Maui Challenge spa program incorporates the usual regimens and amenities, plus volcano trekking, sailboarding, and impromptu dips in pristine mountain pools. $1,895. 800-448-9816.

Compact Challenge
No bigger than a briefcase, the Portable Aerobics Stepper from Hammacher Schlemmer permits smooth hydraulic stomping, with variable resistance. $339. 800-759-5700, extension C90.

A Pool of One's Own
The 8-by-18-foot SwimEx can be installed indoors or out and comes in depths of 42 and 50 inches. The current -- created by paddle-wheel propulsion, rather than jets -- can be adjusted. $21,950 to $23,475. 800-877-7946.

A Bike That's Tough Yet Trim
Pop a few levers, and the Schwinn Montague BiFrame -- a full-size mountain bike -- folds into a portable and easily stored bundle. $449 to $479. 617-491-7200.

Bringing the River to You
Made of hand-finished cherry, the WaterRower uses real water for glide and resistance -- complete with sound effects. The experience is at once strenuous and smooth. $1,600. 800-852-2210, in Rhode Island 401-728-1966.

Out-of-the-Ordinary Jump Rope
Sleek, inexpensive, and effective, the Spalding SportRope is available in four lengths and in four weights -- for the unfit, fit, fitter, and fittest. $34.95 to $49.95. 800-222-JUMP.

-- Sandy MacDonald


ELECTRONIC TOYS

Occasionally, a gadget comes along that actually does what it's supposed to: make life a little easier, more pleasant. We've rounded up a passel of innovations sure to please the most exacting of technology buffs. Most are leisure oriented; some have on-the-job applications as well, but they resist any suggestion of drudgery. If helpful is the image you wish to convey, these well-designed gifts are ones to consider.

No Brainer Camcorder
Fisher's Fuzzy Logic FVC-990 camcorder has artificial intelligence to supplement your own, boasts an 8X power zoom lens, and is held horizontally, like binoculars. $899. 818-998-7322.

Desk Accessories from Outer Space
Toshiba's Galaxy Collection of battery-operated office tools -- faux-chrome and faux-granite desk-cleaning tool, letter opener, pencil sharpener, and eraser -- might perplex Mr. Spock but will delight the futuristic. $39.99 to $59.99 each. 800-321-6993.

Small Wall of Sound
Who says boom boxes don't belong in the boardroom? Bose's Acoustic Wave Music System comprises a compact-disc player, AM/FM radio, and intricate, powerful speakers -- all housed in a tasteful ivory-colored case. $997. 800-282-BOSE.

Slim TV
Sharp's flat-panel thin-film-transistor 4M-T30U television -- about the size of a Danielle Steel paperback -- offers a high-resolution picture equal to that of far bulkier tubes. $599. 201-529-8731.

Picture Perfect
At eight ounces, Ricoh's Shotmaster UltraZoom is the smallest point-and-shoot camera currently on the market with a zoom lens (38 to 60 millimeter). $250. 800-225-1899.

Discreet Recorder
Sony's M-909 Pressman microcassette tape recorder is the world's smallest, about two and a half inches square. It self-activates at the sound of a voice. $320. 201-930-1000.

The Big Picture
Fuji's compact video projector hooks up with a camcorder, VCR, or video-disc player to make an instant movie theater. You can display your videos on any surface up to 40 inches diagonal. $799. 800-659-3854.

Foul-Weather Friend
Sony's rain-resistant SRF-88 Sports Walkman AM/FM stereo radio clasps your biceps with a wraparound arm band, so you can stroll or sprint unimpeded. $49.95. 201-930-1000.

In Living 3-D
Nishika's N8000 Quadra Lens camera captures four images per shot; when processed, the quartet is merged to create the illusion of depth. $250. 702-435-7000. -- Sandy MacDonald


A HOLIDAY AFFAIR

You work together all year; it's time to have some fun together

Throwing a company holiday party can be tricky. You want to show your employees you appreciate them. You don't want to spend so much money you throw your year-end income statement in the red. And you don't want the party to be just one more work obligation, with people checking their watches to see whether they can make it home in time for "L.A. Law." In short, a holiday party has to be a lot of fun.

There's no single recipe for success; a party style that works well for an accounting firm might fall flat for a restaurant crew. Here are some ideas from three small companies with dissimilar staffs, a range of budgets, and distinct notions of what makes for a good time.

Hosting about 30 employee parties a year, ad agency Dahlin Smith White Advertising (DSW) has plenty of experience when it comes time to figure out how to make the year-end holiday get-together memorable.

These folks just love to party. DSW's social events range from video screenings on Friday afternoons to a semiannual bowling party to a Do Something Wild summer bash, which had a biker theme last year. On company president John Dahlin's 40th birthday, employees threw him a surprise wake, with a coffin and black roses. "By December we need to pause for a night and show the spouses that the people at DSW aren't really insane," Dahlin says of his six-year-old Salt Lake City agency.

On the morning of the year-end holiday party Dahlin hosts a come-when-you-want breakfast at nearby Snowbird Ski Resort. After a day on the slopes, the 90 employees and their guests fill Snowbird's Rendezvous Room for an elaborate buffet dinner and ballroom dancing.

"If you truly believe that your people are your company's strength," Dahlin says, "then you've got to rejuvenate and inspire them regularly. We do it with parties."

The Richard Michael Group Inc. is similarly committed to its holiday festivities -- so committed the seven-year-old Chicago employment agency throws two affairs each December for its 36 employees and their guests.

The first is usually held at a landmark restaurant or hotel. Typically spending more than $100 a plate, president Richard Gaspari characterizes this gathering as "the Lamborghini of dinner parties."

Gaspari hosts the company's second holiday bash at his 8,000-square-foot home in suburban South Barrington, Ill. "I wouldn't call it a mansion," he says, "but you might." The grounds and house are decorated with $3,000 worth of holiday glitz, including a 24-foot-high tree in the foyer. A caterer and band bring the total to $15,000.

"Any company can celebrate in good times," Gaspari says, "but it takes a strong organization to shell out when a recession is on. Cutting the parties out or scaling them down would send a very selfish message to everyone who works here."

Doug Burgum, president and chief executive of Great Plains Software Inc., in Fargo, N. Dak., has found a cheaper way to entertain and reward his 428 workers -- he lets them do it for themselves.

Fearing in 1984 that the three-year-old company was growing so fast it was becoming hierarchical and impersonal, Burgum decided to hold an employee talent show in which management could be brought off its pedestal. Staged each December at the Fargo Elks Club after the company's holiday wine-and-cheese party, performances range from song parodies and game shows to mockumentary screenings. No guests are invited, and shots at customers or business partners are forbidden.

"I've been a good stationary target since day one," Burgum says. One year employees did a dog's-eye-view video tour of his office, with the imaginary dog sniffing around, making snide comments, and doing "the dirty thing" on Burgum's chair, as one employee puts it.

But as fun and inexpensive as the affair is -- half the day's $3,500 budget goes for videotaping the show -- Burgum points out that the event gives managers important feedback. "It's an afternoon of pure honesty," he says, recalling last year's party. "I knew we were short on office space. But 8 or 9 of the 20 sketches were about the tight working conditions. As I'm laughing, I'm also saying to myself, 'Jeez, I gotta take care of that.' In addition to being a form of humor, satire is a powerful method of communication." -- Eric Zicklin

Eric Zicklin is a freelance writer living in New York City.


(CONTINUED)BUYING TIME

You meant to get gifts for everyone, but there were all those deadlines, and before you knew it, the calendar pages had flipped by in a blur, just like in the movies. Now here you are -- empty-handed and embarrassed. But all is not lost. With some inspired miscellany, sped on its way by overnight mail, you can catch up with your cronies who got themselves organized in July.

The Right Tool for the Job
Hammacher Schlemmer's Organized Handyman's Tool Set will please compulsive tinkerers. More than 100 useful widgets nestle in a foam-lined aluminum case. $150. 800-759-5700, extension C90.

A License to Create
Even the artistically inhibited will have a hard time keeping their hands off Xonex's Graphics Set, a neat black plastic case of markers, pastels, crayons, colored pencils, and watercolors, sold by Chiasso. $25. 800-654-3570.

Eternal Evergreen
The Nature Co.'s Living Wreath arrives as a moss-wrapped 20-inch ring ready to be studded with a selection of hearty gray-green succulents; from then on, they'll thrive on air. $129. 800-227-1114.

Easy On, Easy Off
Spare your cohorts airport ennui with Patagonia's Maximum Legal Carry-On, known as the M.L.C. -- a chunky black waterproof nylon bag with convenient compartments and concealed backpack straps. $160. 800-336-9090.

Savory Bouquet
If you can withstand the temptation to nibble, the Chile Shop's magnificent Rainbow Wreath -- a fiery swirl of dried flowers and seedpods, adorned with chilies and garlic -- should last through several New Years. $190 for a 20-inch wreath, $135 for a 16-inch wreath; two-day mail is the quickest shipping option. 505-983-6080. -- Sandy MacDonald

Last updated: Nov 1, 2000




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