Harvard Business Online

The Holiday Card Quandary


Posted on Conversation Starter: December 14, 2009 9:20 AM

I'm still surprised by my conversation with a senior executive a few years back. When our discussion turned to holiday plans (it was early December) he mentioned that several of his late-December days would be spent addressing and hand-signing holiday cards. This struck me as a pretty inefficient way to communicate with his clients, but I got it.

No doubt he'd received one too many "efficient" holiday cards. So efficient he'd tossed the cards out immediately. I've tossed a card or two myself. The corporations mailing these discards want to convey they appreciate doing business with you and me, but they are so devoid of a personal touch, I feel anything but appreciated. It's a pity; such a waste of time, money, and paper.

Don't get me wrong—I'm a big fan of holiday cards. I like receiving them, and I like sending them—once they are sent. It's an ideal way to let my friends and business associates know I value them.

When there was real effort involved, before generating cards was automated, sending and receiving meant something. They now require so little effort they can quickly become the real-world version of Spam. With advances in technology and automation we can communicate so much more efficiently, in less time, and at a lower cost. But does that always bring greater returns on our investment?

So what are our choices when connecting with clients, customers, and business associates?

1) Personal, but inefficient: Dismiss or ignore technological or manufacturing advances available to us. I don't ignore them (at least I try not to) and don't recommend you do either. Our clients may appreciate the inefficient personal touch. They may also wonder why we spent so much time and money on something we could have automated. Personal but inefficient will usually result in a low ROI.

2) Efficient, but impersonal: If we've automated our outreach (whether via cards, or electronic newsletters, blogs, tweets), but haven't found a complementary, more personal means of communicating that we value our business associates, what we save in money and time may be costing us the relationship.

3) Efficient and Personal: A balanced approach would be to re-allocate the time we would have spent doing something like hand-addressing an envelope, which our clients won't value, to writing the occasional personal note: one or two handwritten sentences, sentences that could only be written by you or me about why we appreciate their business, what we've learned from them, etc. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The greatest gift is a portion of thyself."

There is value in greater, measurable productivity; there is also value in the personalization and individual attention made possible by those productivity gains. It's true with holiday cards. It's true with our business. The trick this time of year, like most times, is to strike the right balance.

Toyota's Hydrogen Man
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