Stop Sending Fruit Baskets: The Art of Strategic Gifting

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We spoke with John Ruhlin, Founder of The Ruhlin Group and Author of Giftology about the art of strategic gifting.

When it comes to your company, the two most important groups of people are your employees and your customers. So the question is…how do you show your appreciation to the people who give you a reason to come to work every day?

In our interview, John shared how companies are gifting all wrong and three epic stories of strategic gifting that will blow your mind.

Here’s what he told us about not just giving a good gift, but giving the perfect gift.

Gifting = Generosity

Gifting all begins with generosity.

John’s generous gifting strategy propelled him to be the #1 salesperson in the history of Cutco, the famed knife distributor.

John realized the power of generosity early in his career when he was introduced to his college girlfriend’s dad.

This man was an attorney, and he was always giving things away. He’d find a deal on noodles, and everybody at church the next Sunday would have a year’s supply of linguini.

John pitched him the idea of giving away Cutco knives to his home builder and pallet manufacturing clients. With a twinkle in his eye, he asked John if he could give away paring knives.

With a confused tone is his voice, John asked why he would give such a seemingly misguided gift to grown men in the home building business. His response changed John’s career forever.

He said that all his clients are married, and he found that if he takes care of the family first, everything else takes care of itself.

Little did he know, but in that moment he gave John a piece of advice that would catapult this college student’s career forever.

When John wanted to connect with someone that was difficult to get a meeting with, he would send them a personalized carving set with a handwritten note saying, “Carve out 5 minutes for me. I promise it’ll be worth your time.”

He gave first, sold second.

This simple act led to a huge return! He went from selling one knife set at a time to selling thousands of sets at a time.

By the time he was a senior in college, he was the #1 rep out of 1 million distributors.

He learned it wasn’t about the knives (even though the knives were awesome); the knives were the delivery vehicle to build relationships.

Are You Gifting Wrong?

John describes what he does as: “Helping leaders not suck at saying, ‘thank you.’”

Everyone says relationships are important and talk about how client-focused they are. But then it comes time to show the love, they do it once a year during the holidays with a bar of chocolate with their name stamped on it or a cheap bottle of wine.


You have to give a gift that is representative of the relationship.

If you’re giving a gift to your most important client, give them something that shows the importance of that relationship. You have to give a gift that’s representative of the relationship.


Don’t make the gift about you.

Your gifts need to be about the other person, be world-class, and be delivered at a time that’s not expected.

John doesn’t give a single gift between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a business context, because it’ll pile up with the dry fruit baskets everyone else is sending.

He gives gifts around February or July, so that it’s a true surprise and delight.

Brooks Brothers or Bust

There’s gifting, and then there’s gifting like John Ruhlin.

John’s first story of strategic gifting began by meeting someone he knew had the potential to be extremely valuable to his business, and possibly turn into a mentor.

While talking at a conference, he discovered this man was going to be visiting John’s hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, and that he was planning on doing a lot of shopping at his favorite store, Brooks Brothers.

John went out on a limb and asked him for his shirt size with a promise to send him a single shirt. The guy thought it was more than strange to be asked for his shirt size a few minutes into a conversation, but he obliged, and also agreed to dinner and a basketball game when he came to town.

When it comes time for his visit, John puts his plan into action.

He heads over to the Brooks Brothers store and asks the junior sales associate if he could buy one of every item in the Fall Collection in every color option.

Hold your jaw…John purchased $7,000 worth of clothing that afternoon.

He took his wardrobe and headed over to the Ritz Carlton and asked if they wanted to help John do something special for a VIP coming to town.

Flash forward, and John and the hotel staff decked out this man’s hotel room to look like a complete Brooks Brothers store!

John knew that this could go one of two ways – either this guy was going to think he was a stalker or a genius.

The client arrived at the hotel.

John told him to go shower and take his time, and that he’ll be waiting in the lobby whenever he’s ready.

After about 20 minutes the visiting businessman walked into the lobby with his eyes as big as silver dollars. He was blown away and agreed to meet with John for as long as he wanted– John had his full attention.

That one act forever changed the dynamics of the relationship. This client has subsequently opened up doors that John would never have been able to open on his own!

John was even reimbursed for his $7,000 expense by the client because he was so impressed by his generosity. This master plan cost John $0.

Companies will spend $2000-$3000 on a trade show, but then go really cheap with their gifts. Gifting should be seen as a relationship-building expense, not something to do with the leftover money at the end of the year.

A $1,500 Personalized Set of Knives

The dynamics of a meeting can be created before you ever set a time to meet.

This next story is about how John landed a meeting with Ron, the Executive Vice President of Sales for Aflac, by gifting first and emailing second.

John was trying to land Aflac as a client, so he wanted to give Ron the experience that their customers would receive if they decided to come on board.

This experience started with a $1,500 set of knives.

Although the price tag of the knives certainly got Ron’s attention, it was the manner in which John presented the gift that went the extra mile.

The entire set was delivered in 8 phases without a single email being sent.

The first part of the gift was a knife block and chef’s knife with Aflac’s logo, the contact’s name, and his wife’s name and a handwritten note that read “Carve out 5 minutes for me.”

This continued for 8 weeks in a row. He received one part of the $1500 knife set each week, each themed around a point John wanted to talk to him about. After the 8th week, John sent him an email asking to schedule a time to meet.

The contact wrote him back and said, “My wife loves you!  You blew me away!” and he was willing to give John whatever time he needed to present his case for doing business together.

When it finally came time to meet, John found that the dynamics of the meeting were different from a normal sales meeting. Every single person was engaged and interested.

By spending money on the front end (before asking for somebody’s time) shows them you honor and value their time before they even give it to you.

Go Gophers

The final story John shared involved sparking a relationship with the President of Electronics at Target.

One of John’s clients had spent 18 months desperately trying to get the attention of this Target executive with no success.

So they called in the big dogs.

John started doing his research and found out that the Target executive had undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota.

They decided to double down on the fact that he was a Gopher fan.

John’s idea?

His team took a 50 inch, 60 pound slice of cherry wood and carved the Gopher logo along with the lyrics to the school’s fight song into it. John said that looked like something that would be sent to someone if they had donated enough money to have a building of the school named after them!

This massive piece was wheeled into the executive’s office with a note explaining why he should listen to their case.

It cost around $4000-$5000 to make, but it got the President’s attention (along with a meeting for as long as they wanted).

It was worth every penny.


When giving a gift, instead of thinking, “What can I get away with?” you need to think, “What is the most I can give?”

Gifting allows you to look at your top 100 dream clients and have a realistic shot of doing business with them.

Strategic gifting also allows you to demonstrate your values as a company even before you have a conversation with a prospect or client.

Perhaps most importantly of all, gifting and generosity in general are creators of joy.

John has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts, and he still gets a thrill out of seeing the happiness it brings people each and every time.

This post is based on an interview with John Ruhlin of the Ruhlin Group and author of the new book Giftology. You can find this interview, and many more, by subscribing to the B2B Growth Show on iTunes.

James Carbary

Founder at Sweet Fish Media

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