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The Lost Art of Business Letter Writing

By Reg Pirie |

Who cares about composing well crafted business letters today?

Didn't that mode of communication start to die in the 1980's when the fax machine began to rule our lives? Surely after the advent of sophisticated voice mail systems in the early 1990's, the mailed business letter was destined for obsolescence! If nothing else, the explosion of email users must have put this archaic form of correspondence out of it's misery by now! Think again.

Believe it or not, there is at least one group of people who are still impressed when they receive a well written letter in the ordinary mail. They are called prospective clients / customers. No, success is not entirely tied to the Internet and email. Read on if you want to maximize your marketing efforts to attract new business.

I must confess, I too have dramatically changed the way in which I communicate on a day to day basis. Use of my email has likely increased tenfold in the past three years alone. These days, even I panic when my server is down for a few hours.

I mention this "acceptance" of a new trend of communicating for two reasons. First, as business people we must keep pace with the changes which allow us to drive forward, be competitive and achieve our business goals. Second, it is important to not get so caught up in new technology that we assume it is the only way to get our message across, particularly to potential clients and customers who don't know us yet.

Let me explain why and when business letter writing still has a place. Perhaps the best way to do this is to reply to the most commonly asked questions when dealing with the subject of how to effectively use traditional letters as part of an overall marketing strategy for business - large or small. For the balance of this article, my references to letter writing should be taken in the context of sending correspondence via the post or by courier.

Question: When is it most critical to use a business letter versus another form of communication?

We all strive to increase business volumes by constantly seeking out new clients. The initial phases of the business development process are predicated upon putting forth an appropriate image which will allow us to open the door for future and ongoing discussions - hopefully ones which will lead to more business.

If there is ever a time to put your best foot forward, to set yourself apart from the competition, it is when you are making your first contact with a prospect. For the vast majority of us, that means introducing ourselves in a written format. Something that has substantive content, is easy to understand and is visually pleasing.

This is where the outstanding business letter comes into play. Yes, the old fashioned letter, sent via the postal service or courier. If you fail to properly communicate at the outset, your chances of making any inroads during subsequent follow-ups will be severely limited. Remember, in these fast-paced times, it can be a refreshing change to receive real mail versus facing a screenful of email messages.

Question: Can I dispense with formal correspondence once I have sent my introductory letter?

Once you have established a beachhead with a potential client, your ongoing marketing plan will by necessity include many interventions which will cause a prospect to keep you uppermost in their mind. Simply put, you need a plan of attack which allows you to keep in touch. Corresponding by mail is just one of the ways which will allow you to maintain contact.

Typically, part of any follow-up program will include sending your prospect information such as: your corporate brochure, related articles and in time, a proposal for service. While electronically transmitting information has made huge strides forward, the mail is still the best means of forwarding hard copy material - information which is simply impractical to convert to an electronic format. Besides, many people still like to be able to sit back at their convenience to review material which has been sent to them – they don't always have their computer close at hand.

The material by itself will not be enough to sway a decision maker toward selecting you as a supplier. All the marketing information you dispatch requires a well written piece of correspondence to accentuate your professional approach to business.

Just to be clear, using the mail and letters does not guarantee business development success. These days you need to supplement your marketing initiatives with other interventions such as: phone calls, messages via email and references to your own web site or other web sites of interest. You can no longer rely on one type of communication. Use all the resources available to you but don't overlook the tried and true.

Question: I don't have time to write letters. How do I streamline my approach so I can effectively implement mailed letters as part of my overall marketing strategy?

The number one drawback to letter writing is not the letter writing itself, it is being organized so the letters can be sent with ease.

There are no "quick fixes" to the problem outlined in the above question. While the solution is simple, it does require a commitment on the part of the business person. The answer can be found in meticulously developing and maintaining a client data base.

If you are serious about being a success in today's highly competitive environment, you absolutely must utilize some form of a computerized client tracking program. The next phase of the commitment is to input all your contacts - existing and potential clients. And that also means correctly inputting all the applicable information. Do it once and do it right! Any good client management system has fields for all the pertinent data.

  • Double check the spelling of the last name - what is your reaction when someone misspells your name?
  • Take the time to ascertain the right "known as" name - I'm seldom impressed with a letter addressed to Reginald Pirie, no one calls me Reginald.
  • Religiously input the postal or zip codes - do it once and you're done. · Similarly, plug in the other necessary details like: phone numbers, fax numbers, email addresses and even web site addresses.

Having a data base of client names which is 98% correct is simply not good enough these days. If you don't have the time to do it yourself, hire someone to do the work and be sure to vet it for accuracy!

Question: How important is having the right letterhead etc.?

Introducing yourself and your company is most often done by using your letterhead or by presenting your business card. While we may all wish to economize, these two items (plus your business envelope) deserve careful attention. You do not need designer stationery but on the other hand, you do need something more imaginative than stock items found in a software program.

Many treat letterhead as a necessary evil but in reality it can be a powerful means of portraying the image of your company. Make certain your letterhead design is sending the right message.

Of equal importance, make certain your letterhead includes all the other pertinent details over and above your mailing address, such as: office phone numbers, 1-800 numbers, cell phone numbers, email addresses, your web site and the list goes on. Sure, we all have more information creeping into our letterheads but you can still achieve an impressive looking letterhead if you invest some time and money in having this material properly designed.

Don't forget, you want to make it as easy as possible for future clients to communicate with you.

Business cards
Perhaps the most often referred to piece of paper is the business card. Don't forget, it should complement your letterhead. In both cases, include the word "Canada" at the end of your address. Why? Number one, it helps to create an image that you deal outside of your own country. Secondly, if you are dealing with international associates, it is just common courtesy to include your country in a return address.

Question: Great, I have taken the time to establish a proper data base, now what do I do to start generating good quality letters? Again, I don't have much time.

Before leaping into action, take the time to assess how written correspondence is going to be used in your efforts to keep in touch with prospects. As an example you may decide you want to regularly use mailed correspondence for the following purposes:

  • Initial contact i.e. introducing yourself and your company to a prospect · Transmission of a corporate brochure
  • Supplying other items of interest, useable information and marketing material

The trick to effective correspondence is to design truly well crafted pro-forma letters which are not seen as being pro-formas. Instead of labouring over an original every time you need to write someone, take the time to develop boiler plate which can be easily adapted to the vast majority of your situations.

Be concise. Like yourself, other business people don't have time to read long epistles. If you are not naturally inclined to be a succinct writer, do up an initial draft and then re-work it over the course of two or three days. Your objective is to end up with a message which is as short as possible while still relaying all the information you wish to convey.

If you want to take being concise to an ultimate extreme, consider this. Force yourself to write everything in memo style. Use your great letterhead but format your correspondence in such a way as to leave "oodles" of white space. You will catch the eye of your reader for two reasons. One, the format will be very distinctive and the reader will be curious to see what you have to say. Two, recipients of visually short messages are much more inclined to peruse such correspondence because it is short.

Review your writing style. In the past decade many companies and business people have made an effort to become less formal. That means they want to deal with those who appear to be tuned in to a more modern method of communicating. This is no time for a stodgy writing style but keep your correspondence professional.

Sign your first name to letters and memos. There is nothing more exasperating than receiving a letter with a personal salutation (i.e. using a "known as" name), only to find the writer has penned his or her "legal" signature. Remember, you are attempting to develop a personal relationship with someone.

Question: What do I do if I think someone is more comfortable corresponding via another means of communication?

Communicating today is not as simple as it was 20 years ago. While a well written letter may be a great way to open a relationship, we all need to be conscience of the fact that not everyone likes this approach. After you have established an initial rapport with a new contact, determine how they like to communicate. If you are dealing with an email fanatic, use that vehicle. As an aside, if you don't have an email address, get one now! Make certain your address is included on all stationery. Having email underscores that you are current, flexible and accessible.

Is business letter writing a lost art? Well, perhaps not lost but there seem to be fewer and fewer examples of truly fine pieces of business correspondence. But for those of us who choose a balanced approach to communicating (cryptic emails and well composed letters) we will have an advantage over our competitors. Set yourself part from others by taking the time to craft your business correspondence.

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