I recently celebrated a birthday, which I tend to do about every year or so. In addition to the cards, phone calls, texts and Facebook messages from friends and family, I also received numerous e-mails from businesses I frequent.

Each e-mail bore warm wishes for a wonderful day and presented me with a special “gift”—a coupon for a free desert with the purchase of an entrée, a buy-one-get-one free offer, or a discount off a regular purchase.

Gee, thanks.

The subtext of their message is “We’d like to celebrate your birthday by having you come by and give us some of your money!”

How generous of you.

I get similar e-mails from time to time with subject lines like “Thank you for your loyalty” or “A Special Gift for You.” The message inside always expresses the company’s gratitude for my business, and as a token of that gratitude, they’d like to extend me a special offer. Which again is always some type of discount.

Understand this:

A discount is not a gift!

A discount offer is a sales pitch.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with offering an existing customer a discount on a future purchase, per se. But saying you want to “thank” or “celebrate” a customer by getting them to buy more is insulting as hell.

I would rather you just ignore my birthday and my loyalty than send me sales come-ons disguised as gifts, because the self-servingness offends me.

And guess what? It offends your customers as well.

If you really want to thank your customers for their business, send them a real gift. Something absolutely free, that requires no purchase or obligation. It can be your product or service. It can be a gift card. It can be something unrelated to your business. It can even be a donation to a charity in their name.

That conveys your gratitude.

And when your customers feel that you truly appreciate them, they return more often, spend more money, and tell more people about you.

So stop insulting your customers. Start thanking them instead.