Client recognition

Feb 11, 2019

Giving gifts to your clients is a great show of appreciation, but make sure you know the differences between public and private entities.

In the AEC business, the holiday season can be 45 very pleasant days or 45 of the year’s most stressful days. Principals, marketing leaders, and project and office managers have to figure out how to thank clients for their business without jeopardizing their client relationships.

Looking ahead to the 2019 holiday season and beyond, it’s important to understand the difference between private- and public-sector clients. If your clients are in the private-sector, you can do almost anything. There are few or no laws covering what you can do for private-sector clients. In the 1990s, my large national engineering firm gave away color television sets and weekends at local ski resorts. We even offered one big client a choice of items, one of which was a week of skiing in Switzerland for him and his wife. You can do almost anything for a private sector client that your budget will bear.

If your clients are public sector entities, it’s a totally different situation; you have to be careful about gift giving. Each public agency has rules or policies about accepting gifts – and all of them are different.

I recently was employed in-house at a surveying firm. In doing basic client research, I discovered that an old friend from Dallas was now employed at TxDOT in Austin. I made arrangements to meet him for lunch to catch up. In setting up the appointment, his assistant reminded me that, while he could meet me for lunch, he had to pay for his own meal. Apparently, if I paid for his lunch, it could be considered an attempt to influence the current or future selection of my firm for a project.

Other public-sector clients have no problem with their people accepting gifts around the holidays or any other time of year, but they impose a dollar limit on the value of the gifts their staff members may accept. That limit can be as low as $5 (e.g. a coffee mug, a Starbucks gift card), or as high as $25 (e.g. a nice pen, a gift card at Barnes & Noble, or lunch at a mid-level restaurant), or even more.

Sometimes, you can get past this through creative selection, delivery, and addressing of your gift.

For instance, when I was in-house at a large national engineering firm, we used two-pound and three-pound boxes of really good chocolates as our client holiday gift. The smaller box cost around $25 and the larger one about $40.

We wanted to give the larger box to an engineering department of a large city which had a $25 dollar limit on gifts to individuals. So we addressed the box to the “Engineering Department” and delivered it to our project manager. That way, the project manager was aware of our “thank you for your business” gift, which he accepted as a group gift for the department, and left the opened box on the department secretary’s desk for anyone who wanted a piece.

The gift was large enough for everyone in the department to enjoy, so there was no question that it was a group gift.

We also wanted a nice gift for when one of our local principals met with a business owner or C-suite staff member. We chose a nice pen and pencil where a bulk order brought each item to less than $25. Then we ordered boxes for one or both items. On the public-sector side, we gave away pens. On the private sector side, we gave away pen-and-pencil sets.

So what’s the moral of my story? It’s simple: knowledge will save the day and your marketing prospects.

Make a phone call to any public-sector client to whom you might want to give a gift. Let them tell you the limits their organization imposes. Then, you can’t go wrong.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is an experienced freelance strategic and marketing consultant for AEC and other firms. He is based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559.901.9596 or by email at

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