Every year in businesses across the country, November rolls around and the inevitable question comes up: "What creative gift should we send our clients this holiday season?" Maybe you send something every year, and perhaps you give a little more planning. I once worked at an advertising agency that started planning our holiday card in August. 

The problem is that this is the worst possible time to send a gift to your clients. Why? Because everyone else is doing it!

First, is a little background on the brain science. Then, the recommendation of a better way to approach gift giving. 

Herding: Why you feel the need to send a gift.

As a herding species, we have a burning need to be part of the group. Our brains are wired so we would rather mess up doing it the way everyone else does than go out on a limb and risk being publicly shamed for being different. Essentially, your brain is programmed to believe everyone gives and gets gifts at this time of year, so your company better get on board or risk being shamed (or losing your client). 

Feeling this way doesn't make it true.

Relativity: Why your efforts get lost or diminished.

While some clients expect to receive gifts and may feel slighted if they don't get something, most gifts get stacked in a big pile for everyone in the office to sample from. Most people don't know what was from you or one of the 35 other vendors that sent gifts. 

Let's say they do notice, and your generous gift is placed next to one from another company that is twice the size and value of what you sent. Because of relativity, your gift is now compared directly against these others and if it doesn't stack up it might do more harm than good. 

Reciprocity: There is great value in giving unexpected gifts.

There is a lot of benefit to giving gifts at the right time. It triggers reciprocity, which makes people think more highly of you and want to give back (or reciprocate the gesture). Even giving something as small as after dinner mints with the check has been shown to increase tips by as much as 23 percent when handled properly, as noted by researcher Robert Cialdini

And what do I mean by handled properly? That means showing the thought and effort behind the interaction so it stands out from the norm. 

It's the same with giving gifts to clients. Instead of following the herd and sending a gift between November 15 and January 2 (where you will likely get lost in the shuffle) find another time of year to send a gift and stand out. 

It doesn't need to be themed around another holiday, it could just be a "we were thinking about you" gift. Or, maybe when you close out a big project--or better yet, 30 days after completing a big project because it is less expected. Or, during a week you know your client is really busy, bogged down ad stressed. What could you send at that time to show you listen to and remember the conversations you've had and what is happening outside your projects?

That shows effort and intention--triggering reciprocity and gratitude in a way that sending a gift when it is expected simply can't compare. 

If you have always sent holiday gifts and didn't send anything throughout the year, it may make sense to send something small now to live up to your previous standards. Or, you could save that budget and extra stress, and find a gift to send in late January.

Whatever you send and whenever you send it, make sure the effort will be noticed and appreciated. Dare to be different--don't just follow the herd.