There's no question that the past few years have been challenging. As a society, we have suffered excruciating changes and setbacks, and have been forced to re-evaluate everything important -- including our careers and goals for advancement. There are some things we should not shortchange, however -- our employees, networking contacts and, especially, our clients.

I met with one of my favorite consulting clients two days ago, and we began to design a foolproof plan for her year ahead as a budding sole proprietor. We addressed budgets for advertising, marketing, logo redesign, employee expansion and a plan to go global. Her video production company has already blossomed after a mere 11 months and will be franchised in January.

As we wrapped up the meeting, I asked what her plans were for "gifting" her clients this year. She said her current budget left little for thank-you gifts. I pointed out that her "older" clients were paving the way for her franchising venture. I felt they deserved some recognition. She disagreed with me that acknowledging her clients was a "pivotal move" toward her company's growth.

So I asked her if she had gotten anything for free recently. She enthusiastically recalled some elegant chocolates she received when she signed on with her bank, as well as a gorgeous crate of exotic fruits from the company that sold her a lovely luxury car. She extolled the virtues of these "vendors," citing their locations and impeccable customer service. Her recollection of these gifts included a vivid description of the items and a personal recommendation geared to the individual responsible for providing her with a "feeling of delight" when she read the card thanking her for her business.

"I rest my case," I said.

Thanking customers with a tangible item makes a strong marketing statement that can distinguish your business or service from a thousand others like it. Receiving an unexpected gift -- especially one with an elegant presentation -- makes anyone feel happy and appreciated. When we receive a gift, we feel not only special but valued and, most important, acknowledged by someone we pay on a regular basis for services rendered.

A gift keeps us coming back. A gift implants an invaluable memory of someone serving us in some capacity. That being said, rarely do my consulting clients give gifts. Why? The excuses are unlimited: the economy, the expense, the budget, the inconvenience. Those excuses are misguided. A gift-giving effort should be practiced routinely as an essential part of your marketing budget -- and it's a tax advantage, as well.

My philosophy is that, as a business owner and/or service provider, we should never expect business to come to us. No -- we earn our business by working hard and by offering good value and true appreciation for those who keep coming back. A thank you equates to sage marketing, and a strong marketing effort is a critical part of the foundation for your success.

So what can we do within budget to expand our marketing efforts? I will first tell you my experiences with some very bad gifts I have received in the past.

In the first year of franchising my own company, I spent well over $400,000 among numerous local vendors, including travel agents, printers, ad agencies, radio stations, magazines, newspapers, restaurants (for client meetings), lawyers, accountants and product vendors. I had to take out loans and then take an incredible leap of faith with these individuals as I mapped out my plan to expand my corporation. I trusted these people as they billed me every month with excruciatingly high invoices. This, I understood, was the price of business.

As my first year of franchising came to an end, the holiday season was in full force and I received my first thank-you present. A magazine that charged me $2,000 a month to advertise my business opportunity sent me a refrigerator magnet with its toll-free number. Adding to my frustration, the package arrived with postage due of $1.16. I placed the magnet in our employee cafeteria, and while the magnet itself stayed on the fridge, the plastic portion with the vendor's phone number fell into a million pieces on the floor. Don't misunderstand -- I didn't necessarily expect anything, but once the magnet arrived, it occurred to me that I had spent $20,000 with these people, and maybe it would have been nice if they had sent something less self-serving -- something that indicated quality.

The next day another gift arrived. My lawyer sent me a book -- 100 Reasons Not To Go To Law School. Since I had been a lawyer and had switched to business development many years earlier, the joke was stupid at this point in my quest for business success. Finally, another magazine sent a box of tea and a glass container of homemade honey that broke during transit and leaked all over my mail and mailbox. I appreciated the thought, but it proved a bit inconvenient for me.

The next acknowledgement was from my banker, who sent a coupon for a free stuffed animal if I opened a personal savings account with the bank. Well, I was already in debt to the bank with a corporate loan at a painful interest rate, and I didn't really need the free giraffe. Finally, another homemade gift arrived. Homemade salsa presented to us from our office supply representative. Unfortunately, two thirds of my staff consumed the gift and became violently ill some hours later. 

I felt unappreciated -- until the "good stuff" started to come in three days before Christmas.

The corporate printing company that had handled all of our recently designed marketing pieces acknowledged our business by sending out a calendar featuring dogs. More important, it included a certificate showing that the company made a donation on our behalf to a local shelter. Being an animal fanatic, I appreciated the thoughtfulness of a company that took the time to know I had a passion for dogs and also took an interest in benefiting our community in some way. Another company sent a magnificent pastry from a talented baker. Not only did it generously send enough goodies to feed my entire crew, the baker became a vendor for my business, and I became the printing company's consultant the following year. A clever, productive and business-savvy idea.

Again, a gift is not about selfishness but appreciation. A gift is not just about the winter holidays -- it can be about Groundhog Day if you want to say thanks during the early days of spring. A thank you says that you need your clients. A gift can be a simple phone call with an invitation to lunch, or two movie passes for a company owner to escape the challenges of business ownership. Your message can be short and sweet or clever and humorous. Just remember to say "We appreciate your business."

If it's too late to say thanks for the upcoming holidays, plan a campaign for Easter. Sponsor an Easter egg hunt for your clients' kids, plan a Saturday barbecue as summer sets in or invite your clients for an open house offering canapés and refreshments after a long day at work. For a special client, perhaps you can drop off a new wine and "featured cheese" each month for the office to enjoy at a Friday evening cocktail hour. This will give you the opportunity to stop in, check to see how you're doing and establish a monthly visit that will be anticipated by all. You'll have fun -- and so will your clients.

Those of you on a limited budget will be happy to know how invaluable a low-cost idea can be. A client of mine is a dog groomer. For a New Year's gift, she gave each client's dog a free nail trim and handmade bandana. That special thought hit a home run, bringing in more referrals and an increase in requested services from almost all of her clients. That small gesture brought an increase in revenue of more than 27 percent during the first four months of that year and continuing increases the following months. Her cost was time, fuel and several yards of festive material.

No matter what you're selling or the size of your business, be creative and know your recipient. If you do it right, your good wishes will undoubtedly be remembered, appreciated and likely act as a catalyst for more business in the future. A special thought and a kind word can say volumes as we all struggle with personal and professional challenges.

It's not that I don't appreciate a nice stuffed giraffe. But a little effort and personalization can go a long way in a professional setting.

See related story:The ABCs of Giving Client Gifts