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Moments Of Truth:  Letters

by Paul Nicholson

In my previous articles about Moments Of Truth I described how good people are at making snap judgements based on the flimsiest evidence.  And how small things can have a really big impact on your customers' perceptions of you - and their willingness to do business with you.  In this article I'm going to look at another particular class of Moments Of Truth - the letters you send.

Writing to customers is a very powerful marketing approach.  But the response rates are typically low - and it's very easy to drive them lower still by not concentrating on the details!  Letters have several Moments Of Truth - opportunities for your customers to form an opinion about you.  You need to ensure that each Moment Of Truth enhances their perceptions.

The Envelope

Think how you deal with the day's post.  Many people sift through the pile of letters looking for something interesting to open first - leaving the bills and the junk mail until last.  The ones they think are junk mail often go straight into the bin unread.  No matter how good your product, no matter how cleverly you word the letter, if you don't pass this first cut you're out of contention!

So start with the envelope.  Does it give the right impression?  A good quality envelope suggests you're a successful business.  Cheap brown envelopes can be taken as a sign that you're struggling - and may go out of business soon.  Window envelopes look like bills - so may not be opened in a positive frame of mind.

What about the address?  Individually typed addresses suggest a personal message - which is more likely to be opened.  So do handwritten addresses - but not if they're scruffy or difficult to read.  Addresses on sticky labels may be taken to be junk mail.

It's important to get the name and address correct.  Customers are unlikely to trust would-be suppliers who can't even get their name right!  And errors in the address can mean your letter can't be delivered.

Then there's the postage.  Proper postage stamps suggest a personal communication.  Postage meter imprints will be taken to be a mass mailing.  Insufficient postage is disastrous.  Your customer won't be well disposed to buy from you if they've had the postman knocking on their door to demand excess postage!

Look And Feel

OK, so your letter's got past the first hurdle and your customer is now looking at the contents.  First impressions are quite important here - even before they've started reading.

Lots of pages are a turn off!  "I don't want to read all this!"  Best to include just one or two sheets of paper.

Good quality paper will usually give a good impression of a successful business.  Cheap flimsy paper may cast doubt on your financial strength.  "Wholemeal" recycled paper will be appreciated by environmentally conscious customers - but may have the opposite effect with other people.  So use your judgement.

Next comes the visual impression.  Logos and letterheads, especially if you've got a well-known brand, can be very well received.  "White space" on the page makes your letter easy to look at - therefore easier to read.  Large chunks of closely typed text can remind people of "small print" contracts and make them wary.

CAPITALS, underlining, bold text, colour, asterisks **** and exclamation marks !!!! should be used sparingly or they're interpreted as shouting - or even harassment!  If your products are any good they shouldn't need such hard selling.  

Good English

Take great care to write good clear English.  Bad spelling, grammar or punctuation will give the impression that you're careless or ignorant.  Most word processing packages include spelling checkers and the better ones can also check your grammar and punctuation.  So use them.

Always proof read everything you send to customers.  Ideally get someone else to proof read them too.  If you're using a computer, don't just check it on the screen.  Print it down and read it from the paper.  On the screen it's only too easy to see what you intended rather than what's actually there.

Try to read it as though you're the customer seeing it for the first time.  Is it easy to read?  Does it make sense?  Are all the sentences short and simple?  Are there any bits you have to read twice?  Sort out any problems so your customers don't feel that reading your letter is too much effort.

The Headline

The headline - just after the "Dear ..." salutation line - is critical.  Set it in bold print, or CAPITALS, or large print or special typefaces so it stands out on the page.

The purpose of the headline is to attract the reader's attention - and make your letter stand out from the rest of the day's post.  Take some time thinking of alternative headlines and picking out the best.  You want people to stop and read your letter - not the other things that arrived in the same post.

This is the reader's first indication of what you're writing about.  So make sure it's something that will interest them.  Like your product, eg. "Rare Books!", "Garden Sheds".  Or a key customer benefit, eg. "Be Your Own Boss!", "Earn in your spare time!".  Or a blatant attention grabber, eg. "Free!", "Special Offer".  

Of course, if you're replying to a customer's letter, the headline should reflect the subject of their letter, eg. "Re: Your Enquiry".  The same applies if you're responding to their email or phone call.

Opening Paragraph

The opening paragraph is critical.  If you capture the reader's interest with this, they'll read through to the end.  Lose them and you're in the bin!  

Focus on a few strong selling points of your product.  Tell your readers what the product will do for them - not the product's characteristics.  If you can build their curiosity without revealing what you're selling - so much the better.  But don't overdo this - you'll have to tell them eventually and they'll get bored if you delay too long!

If you're responding to their previous contact, show them that you've understood what they wanted, eg. "I'm pleased to enclose the information you requested."

Middle Wording

The middle wording needs to give the reader more information and sustain their interest until the end.  Where possible, emphasise the benefits for them.  Give enough information about the product so they understand what you're offering.  But, don't feel you have to tell them everything in the first letter.  You can always follow up with the details later.

If you're selling, make good use of "power words" - words that make the reader sit up and take notice.  These include: avoid, bargain, bonus, discover, earn, easy, enjoy, exciting, exclusive, extra, fast, fortune, free, how to, learn, money, more, mystery, new, now, profit, save, special, win.  Don't force these words into your letter - but use them rather than weaker alternatives.

The Close

The end of the letter must tell the reader what to do next.  For example:  "Phone 01234 567890 for details".  Or "Complete the order form and post it with your payment to ...".  Or "Visit our website at".  Proof read this bit especially carefully.  It would be a crying shame to get this far and not be able to receive their responses.  If you don't get this bit right you'll have wasted all your previous effort.

What About Your Business?

Now you've read this, look at some of the letters people send you.  Think about how you react to them.  What works well?  What turns you off?

Then re-read some of the letters you've sent.  Do you think you gave the right impression to the recipients?  Did they think "I can do business with this person"?  Or were they thinking "I wonder if I can rely on them"?

You'll probably discover several things you could do better.  Make a few snap judgements - you're good at those.  Next time you write a letter try out your ideas and see how they work.  As long as you keep thinking like a customer - you'll probably do the right thing.

Previous Articles In This Series

Issue 12, Friday 8th September 2000