(MoneyWatch) You don't have to be named Rudolph (or have a red nose, for that matter) to know that Thanksgiving marks the kick-off to the holiday season. In business, this means sending out holiday cards to clients, prospective customers, supplier and even employees.
"Unlike the cards we mail to loved ones, greetings we send for business are generally used for two purposes: as a thank-you to individuals at other companies with whom we have an ongoing relationship, or as a means of staying on the radar of an existing, former or prospective client," says manners expert Thomas P. Farley, who pens the etiquette website What Manners Most. With that in mind, here are five ways to get the right message across:
Look at holiday cards as an investment. When year-end budgets are tight, holiday cards can seem like a waste of time and money. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. "I know one client who bases next year's training dollars on the particular training company that acknowledges them during the holidays," says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas. "People want to do business with people that value them and make them feel important during the holidays and throughout the year."
Use snail mail if possible. A tight budget can preclude mass mailings of holiday cards to clients. But if you can afford it, go the paper route. "Email greetings are not as effective. They can be deleted by mistake or can wind up in the spam filter," says Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Individuals." "Cards leave a lasting impression and let others know you're thinking about them."
Apply a personal touch. Even if your company supplies pre-printed cards, take the time to add something special. "A pre-printed card that is not signed by the sender is so impersonal," says Whitmore. In addition to signing your note, thank the recipient for something specific or otherwise personalize your best wishes. This takes just a few extra seconds, but makes the card worth the price of postage.
Avoid offending the recipient. A personal card can be funny, religious and show more intimate sides of your personality. A business card should be more buttoned up. "Opt for a secular design as opposed to a religious one. Avoid anything with humor that you think might be misconstrued. And please, nothing cheesy. To paraphrase 'Anchorman's' Ron Burgundy, keep it classy," says Farley.
Send them soon. Holiday cards should be received before the end of the year. Give the postal service a break and dispatch your greeting soon. "Ideally, they should go in the mail stream by the second week of December. Many companies close down for part of the holiday, and you want to make sure your cards are received before vacations begin," says Farley.
Finally, resist enclosing a business card. This seemingly innocuous move can make your card miss the mark. "It sends the message that the holiday card is just another form of marketing instead of a friendly holiday gesture," Gottsman says.