If you’re like most advisors, your mailbox is already starting to bulge with holiday cards wishing you and yours a happy holiday season. (In the old days, these were called Christmas cards). And if you’re really lucky, your friendly neighborhood wholesaler will soon be stopping by to hand-deliver some special treats. These treats usually involve some type of tasty food that will become a major detriment to your holiday dieting plan. Cookies, brownies and chocolate-covered anythings are the typical culprits. Although, occasionally — much to your office staff’s dismay — you may receive a healthy basket of fruit and nuts. (Yuck!)

From whom do these generous donations of holiday cheer come? Generally speaking, they come from people who want something from you. Perhaps they want you to think favorably of their financial widget so you will sell more of it. Or, perhaps they just want you to have a warm, fuzzy feeling for their company so someday maybe you will come to work for them.

Indiscriminate gift giving is commonplace in the financial services industry. Product sponsor firms give gifts to advisors and their broker/dealers. Advisors send cards and gifts to their clients and potential clients. Some broker/dealers are even crazy enough to send holiday gifts to their product sponsors. Why? Because they care. More specifically, they care about marketing. If you’ve dabbled in marketing, you know that any contact you have with a prospect is a touch. And, in theory, the more touches you have with someone, the greater the likelihood he or she will someday become a client and future plaintiff.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. If you own a gift shop that makes chocolate-covered anythings, I’d say it’s a great thing. If you make greeting cards, it’s wonderful. If you’re a mailman, though, it’s probably not so great.

But wait: Does this mean that every card and gift you receive from a business associate has an ulterior motive? Of course not. Many times the people you do business with actually do become your friends. So, how do you determine whether that special someone is interested in you or your money?

Take a look at the traditional holiday card you’ve just received. Is it an off-the-shelf card or is it custom-printed? If it is a custom-printed card, chances are you are one of several thousand to be receiving this prestigious holiday hello. (Makes you feel special, doesn’t it?) Of course, the real test is to take a look at the envelope and the inside of the card. If your name and address are printed on a label — not good. If the message on the inside is a printed message only — again, not good. If your printed card has a generic, handwritten holiday message and a signature, you can assume your holiday wishes are being sent to you from an outsourced worker in India named “Alan.”

If, on the other hand, you receive a hand-addressed envelope and the card has a personal, handwritten note on the inside, perhaps they really do love you. In a nutshell, try to judge how much time a person spent putting that card together for you. More is better.

The next area to examine is the gift. Once again, more is better. A Mercedes always tops a fruitcake. But this can get a bit tricky. Sometimes you can mistake love for simply being a well-heeled client. In which case, who cares if they’re trying to manipulate you — go ahead and enjoy the Mercedes! No sense in being a martyr. After all, it’s the holidays.

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Once a mildly amusing comedian, Bill Miller now works as an industry wholesaler and formerly was a recruiter for a leading independent broker-dealer; reach him at writingbill@mac.com.