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Chapter 3

Correspondence: Putting It Down in Black and White

This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.

- Oscar Wilde

It would certainly be nice if we all had the kind of schedule that allowed for the leisurely approach to writing that Mr. Wilde seemed prepared to follow. But in today's business world, where deadlines are tight, budgets are tighter, and more people than ever act as their own "secretary," the truth is that we're spread thinner than ever. That means that we have to learn how to develop correspondence that makes the right first impression - in a hurry - and avoid the careless errors that can (and do) lose business for organizations.

In this chapter, you find out how to make sure the documents you prepare in a business setting look as sharp as they possibly can. You'll get important advice on using proper English, formatting your letters and reports correctly, and addressing your intended reader in the right way. You'll also get some valuable advice on preparing and sending communications via fax, e-mail, newsgroup postings, and overnight courier.

Is it worth your while to bother about putting a comma where it belongs? You'd better believe it is. Thankfully, though, once you've assimilated the easy-to-follow, easyto-execute advice that appears here, you'll be in a great position to make your correspondence "letter perfect" - without spending an entire day pondering a single sentence.

Tip #17

Brush up your English.

Many people place a high importance on a well-written letter or document - and rightfully so. Not only does proper grammar and spelling increase the likelihood of a positive response to the message contained in any piece of writing, it also demonstrates your own care and attention to detail. If you send out a letter that is rife with misspellings and grammatical errors, you will present yourself as someone who doesn't care enough to proofread - or simply doesn't care about the basics of good writing.

Reacquaint yourself with the basic rules of grammar and style. Read The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, if you're looking for a concise review of the most important rules.

Use the spell check in your word processing program to catch any spelling errors you might have missed, but make sure it's proofread by a qualified human being, too. (Spell checkers have a way of passing over errors such as "two much time" or "wind-win situation.")

In addition:

If the document is an important one and you feel uncertain about your grammatical skills, you will probably want to get feedback from more than one source on your spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The more care you take, the better both you and your correspondence will be received.

Tip #18

Make sure your document looks sharp.

Here are just a few simple guidelines for creating a professional-looking document:

Tip #19

Humanize your e-mail messages.

See me!

I need this now!

Call Joe Schmoe and tell him to expect a price increase!

When was the last time you received a similar e-mail message that reminded you of one of the examples above - curt, rude, and perhaps even a bit crude? How did it make you feel about the sender?

It's all too easy to compose brisk, impersonal e-mail messages... but with just a little effort, we can humanize our e-mail messages so that others will actually look forward to checking their in-boxes for messages from us.

Begin with rapport-building comments in the first or second sentence before getting down to business (for instance, "Hope you had a good weekend, George" or "Thanks for your quick response, Mary.").

If you've got a request or suggestion, phrase it in the same way you would if you were having an in-person discussion with the person. In other words, if you aren't comfortable barking out orders like, "Tell me what's happening with the Jones account ASAP" when you're looking the person in the eye, don't use the same (ineffective) communication strategy when composing an e-mail.

When concluding your messages, humanize them with a friendly phrase like "Looking forward to seeing you next week, " or "I'll be in my office today until 6 p.m. - but if you'd like to visit by phone, call me at (978) 555-5555."

By humanizing your message, recipients will know you are interacting with them as people first. Most importantly, they will look forward to hearing from you.

Tip #20

Use the proper salutation.

When writing a business letter, be formal with your opening, especially if you are writing to someone outside of the country. A proper, formal salutation is essential to any business correspondence. Letters that begin with an improper or nonexistent greeting may offend the receiver.

To begin, make sure your letter is formatted at the top with the date and the name and full address of the person to whom you are writing. Your salutation line should be two spaces below the last line of the address (or below the reference line, if there is one). At this point, the question arises: Do you use the last name with the appropriate title or the first name of the person you are writing to? Unless you are already on a first-name basis with your addressee, always use the formal mode of address - "Dear Mr. Smith" or "Dear Ms. Jones." Your salutation line should then end with a colon, which is the preferred practice in most business correspondence.

Rules for writing business letters vary from country to country. Professional translation services should be familiar with conventions for opening and closing corporate correspondence in countries outside of the United States. They'll also assist with such conventions as the addressing of envelopes and the proper use of names and titles. If you're uncertain about the procedure you should follow in drafting a letter to an international contact and you don't have access to a translation service, your best bet may be to check your own files for samples of correspondence from the country - or call the nation's embassy for suggestions.

Tip #21

Address spouses by their proper titles.

Marriage may not be as simple as it once was - and neither is addressing letters or invitations to married couples, especially in a time of re-evaluation of traditional gender roles. The stay-at-home wife is a rarity these days. You are more likely to find that both spouses work outside the home and that one or both hold professional degrees. So what does this mean for our traditional methods of addressing a letter ("Mr. and Mrs. George Smith")? Here is a guide to help you:

Tip #22

Make fax, e-mail, and overnight mail guarantees.

Does what you're sending "absolutely, positively" have to reach its destination by a certain time?

When faxing or sending a document "overnight" or via courier, let the receiver know that you are a person of your word. Give the person a realistic time estimate of when the information will be received. If you know that you can have the information to the person by a given time (within an hour via fax or courier or by 10:30 a.m. the next business morning via Federal Express, UPS, etc.), take personal responsibility for the shipment! Say, "I will personally see to it that you receive the package via [fax/courier/overnight] by [whatever time]. If you don't have the materials by that time, please let me know." Here's a variation that allows you to take ownership for following up on a fax transmission. Say, "I will fax this information to you by 5 p.m. today. You will also receive a voice mail from me to confirm the time it was sent." Then call as you'd promised. This step will virtually remove the possibility that your transmission will "slip through the cracks."

Tip #23

Get your e-mail messages read first.

It's 6 p.m. and you check your e-mail one last time before leaving work. You find that you have three messages from clients that you decide to take a few minutes to answer.

In such a situation, when should you actually send your responses? Most people hit "send" as soon as they reply to each message. Others reply to messages they receive after 5:30 p.m. as soon as they open them... but select the option that allows the communications to remain in their "out box" until, say, 7:30 a.m. - 8 a.m. the following morning. If you have the opportunity, you should choose the latter option.

"Why?" Most professionals with e-mail boxes find their messages arranged in descending order - in other words, the most recent message received is listed first. As a result, they usually open the most recently sent messages. For that reason, it makes sense to respond to messages upon receiving them and send them early the following day.

Tip #24

Follow up on "special deliveries" after you've made the guarantee.

When faxing a document or sending something via overnight mail or by courier, monitoring its progress is crucial! Ensure that the package was received safely by taking appropriate follow-up measures. This not only keeps the lines of communication open, but it reassures the receiver that you are taking care of the document's safe delivery. It also lets the receiver know that you are a person of your word.

Make the call!

Tip #25

Include a cover letter with "impersonal" written materials.

Rather than sending that contract "cold" - add some warmth! It may help you win or retain a customer. Always include a cover letter with checks, legal documents, proposals, or other written materials. The cover page adds warmth and personality to what otherwise may be perceived as an impersonal enclosure. Another great way to add a personal touch to your cover letter is to sign it with a blue fountain pen. (Black may be mistaken for a preprinted signature.) If you can, add a postscript that refers to something personal your contact mentioned to you. For example: "Hope you have a great vacation!" or "Hope you enjoy The Phantom of the Opera this weekend as much as we did!"

Tip #26

Provide sufficient information in e-mail messages.

"Yes! Yes! I want to set up a meeting to discuss what you outlined in your e-mail message, however, I don't have your phone number! Get back to me immediately or we'll have to call the whole thing off!"

If ever there was a message that wasn't supposed to linger unanswered in your electronic mailbox, that's the one. The truth is, though, it never should have been written in the first place. Any business contact with whom you conduct e-mail correspondence should be able to pick up the phone and call you or fax you something or drop an overnight package into the local pickup box - without having to rely on another e-mail message from you.

Unlike "snail mail," e-mail can usually be answered immediately with the click of a few keys or a button on your mouse. On most systems, you don't even need to remember - or even notice - the sender's e-mail address. Once you read the message, you can hit the "reply" command, type a few words of your own in response, and send your answer hurtling back through cyberspace.

But suppose the person you're in touch with wants to enter all your relevant contact information into his or her personal database.

Frequently, users of e-mail forget to include the contact information that will make later communication possible. If a contact decides to mail you a brochure, proposal, or formal bid request, it will be a challenge for him or her to do so if there's no street address at the end of your message.

Similarly, if the person with whom you're corresponding decides that it's important to get in contact with you immediately, he or she probably won't appreciate having to wait until you next check your e-mail. (Be honest, sometimes you let it slip for a couple of days.) A fax will at least be noticed immediately, and even a phone message has an immediacy that an e-mail distinctly lacks.

If you care enough about the business relationship to correspond in the first place, make a point of including all your relevant contact information at the conclusion of your message.

Tip #27

Remember the five e-mail commandments.

Are you making the best possible impression with your e-mail messages? By following the five easy-to-remember e-mail rules that follow, you can be assured that you are.

E - mail only those people to whom your messages actually pertain (rather than entire address groups).

M - ake a point of responding to messages promptly.

A - lways use spell-check and grammar-check before sending messages.

I - nclude your telephone number in your messages.

L - earn that e-mail should be used for business rather than personal use.

Tip #28

Once you've mastered the five e-mail commandments, observe e-mail courtesy.

It is a fact of modern life that e-mail is increasingly replacing standard letters and memos - even phones and faxes - as a form of fast, easy, inexpensive, and effective communication. However, many people have not yet mastered the basic etiquette for sending concise and courteous messages electronically. In many cases, e-mail has become just as necessary to establishing rapport with a customer or colleague as face-to-face interaction.

However, e-mail has a potential disadvantage - it's both informal (like telephone conversations) and one-sided (like standard business correspondence). E-mail feels casual, almost as casual as spoken discourse, yet it often lacks the nuance or personality that is normally conveyed by voice inflections and body language. That means e-mail has the potential of creating miscommunication that may be difficult to undo once you hit the "send" button. The stakes can be quite high, which makes proper e-mail etiquette a must. Here are a few basic rules to follow:

Tip #29

Send the right kind of thank-you.

Your colleague has gone out of her way to help you meet a deadline. Your manager has taken you to lunch for your birthday. One of your vendors has given you two tickets to a sporting event. It goes without saying that a "thank you" is in order. But what kind of "thank you"?

Many people ask whether a verbal expression of thanks suffices when another person goes out of his or her way for you. The answer is simple: Any time someone exerts more than 15 minutes of energy to do something for you, a written or keyed thank you is definitely in order.

The next question I hear is usually this one: "When may a thank-you note be sent via e-mail or fax?" The best answer I've got to this one is: Never. In my opinion, sending a thank-you note via either of these mediums is like trying to give someone a hug without touching them. The aim is to show that you went out of your way to express your thanks; typing for 30 seconds and hitting "send," or deciding not to invest in a stamp, sends precisely the opposite message. It is far more appropriate to key or hand-write a letter or note and send it to the person via old-fashioned "snail mail." By doing so, your "thank you" will appear to be the result of a conscious effort to articulate your appreciation, rather than a hasty attempt to cross an item off your to-do list. The only exception I can think of to this rule is when you're saying "thank you" for a voice-mail message someone has left you, or for routine information passed along via e-mail. In such situations, sending a thank-you message via the same medium is probably acceptable.

Tip #30

Don't mix e-business with e-pleasure.

Keep your personal e-mail messages out of the workplace. If this is a problem, set up a private e-mail account for your home use.

When you're at work, you should be working. Corresponding with a long-lost buddy from college (usually) is not what you're paid to do. So separate the two worlds!

Using the office e-mail system to circulate jokes, pass along nonwork-related gossip, or conduct other private correspondence is unethical and may cost you your job! It can usually be tracked - even if you press "delete" after sending your message. All the "Powers That Be" have to do is go back to the master tape. (And remember, your company may be liable for information - or disinformation - that "leaks" into the far reaches of cyberspace inadvertently.)

Think before you key! If you wouldn't want the message to be posted on your company bulletin board, don't send it through the e-mail system. Play it safe and conduct personal e-mail correspondence at home. Conduct work-related e-mail correspondence at work.

Tip #31

Follow the rules of good "Netiquette."

E-mail - a message passed from one electronic mailbox to another - is only one way of communicating electronically. Online interactions can also take place through other modes of the Internet, for instance, electronic "bulletin boards," news groups, and discussion groups.

It is difficult enough to communicate electronically on a one-on-one basis, but posting to a group can sometimes create misunderstandings that cause unintended offense to someone within the group. Therefore, a few Netiquette tips are in order:

Key point summary

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