Business Letter Etiquette
Business letters can come in many different formats. They might be used in response to a letter of complaint to request an overdue payment, to agree to a request or for a whole host of other reasons. This article is aimed at giving a general overview of the sort of considerations you need to take when writing a business letter. They are important both as a tool for customers who want to contact a company and also for companies to respond to customers or to initiate contact with a customer or another company. It’s a fact that the written word can often be so much more powerful than the spoken word and, from a company’s perspective, there is nothing which will irk your customers more than if they receive a badly thought out and poorly presented letter so, as a company, it’s important that you take care with all of your outgoing business correspondence, especially letters.
Addressing the LetterWhen beginning the letter, we’re going to assume it’s being sent on company letter-headed paper so there will be no need to include the company’s name and address. You should begin by typing the recipient’s name and address at the top on the left hand side. Use titles where appropriate e.g ‘Dr’, ‘Sir’, Reverend etc. followed by their first name or initial then last name. Their address should go immediately underneath and, following a space below, then comes the date in UK format, e.g. 1 June, 2007 not June 1st 2007, although some companies start with the date then the name and address. You should begin with Dear….followed by the person’s title (Mr Mrs Miss etc) and last name.
Providing you know the name of the intended recipient, you should end your letter with ‘Yours sincerely’. If, for any reason, you don’t have the recipient’s name, you begin with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ and end it with ‘Yours faithfully’. However, in delicate situations such as responding to a query or complaint, you should never use ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ and always respond to a name. Obviously, depending on the style and tone of letter alongside your familiarity with the recipient, it is acceptable to end letters with phrases such as ‘Best regards’, but you only do that if you have established a good relationship with the recipient over a period of time and this type of ending should never be used in a business letter from a company to a customer.
ReferencingIf you’re writing to somebody with regards to an account or a specific matter, before you even get to the ‘Dear Mr Smith’ part, you should put the account number and/or the matter in bold type and centred on the page so that the recipient is clearly aware of the reason that you’re writing to them.
ConfidentialityIf the letter contains sensitive information or if it’s to go to another company and you do not want it to be intercepted first by a secretary, you must mark the envelope ‘Private and Confidential’, if you only want it to be seen by the recipient themselves. Likewise, if you receive a letter that requires a response and has been marked private in this way, your response envelope should be marked ‘Private and Confidential’ as well.
StyleAlways adopt a formal approach when writing a business letter. This doesn’t mean over-elaborating and using ‘big’ words. In fact, keep it simple but avoid using slang and over familiar expressions. Make sure that you have clearly thought through what you want to say and the order in which you want to say it to make sure you’ve covered all your points and that it makes sense and can’t be misinterpreted. As a general rule, never use humour in a business letter unless it’s to go to somebody whom you’ve known for a long time and who you know would appreciate a light-hearted comment or two but, in general, business letters and humour do not mix together well.
TimingYou should not delay when responding to a business letter. Unless there is an understanding in place whereby, for example, it’s stated that a person would receive a response within 14 to 28 days, you should always aim to answer a letter within no more than 5 working days.
SignatureAlways end your letter with a handwritten signature, followed underneath by your typed name and job title, if appropriate. Don’t be tempted to save time by using a photocopy of your signature – it smacks of unprofessionalism and gives off the impression of both the sender not being bothered to find the time to sign it and even more worryingly, many recipients, upon seeing a photocopied signature, often feel that they’re just getting sent a bog standard form letter that the sender hasn’t probably had anything to do with for months.
Final TouchesAlways make sure you do a thorough proof read of your letter before putting it into the envelope to check for spelling and grammatical errors. There is nothing worse than reading a letter from a company containing such errors.
By following the guidelines above, you can be sure that, whether your letter contains good, bad or indifferent news, you will be perceived in a professional manner and that your correspondence will be taken seriously.