Why PR Should Check Company Letters Sent to Consumers and Potential Staff

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Communications professionals can influence their company’s brand beyond press releases, media talking points and other interactions with their stakeholders. I continue to believe Human Resources is the most important branding division in a company (think about the experiences of those attempting to gain employment at your company). Yet every business unit in the company also plays a role in how customers, prospects, and vendors feel about you.

Author Scott Stratten says when we see a logo two things go through our minds–our most recent experience or what we’ve heard and our most extreme experience or what we’ve heard.

All companies send letters to customers, however you define that word (although it is not limited just to people who buy or use your products). Examples include:

  • Sales letters, including those cross-selling products or introducing features and benefits.
  • Letters seeking more information for credit applications.
  • Collection letters
  • Adjustment letters
  • Job Applicant letters

Many of those letters are computer-generated (i.e., a representative hits a button and the system merges the customer’s information with the letter). Many of those letters were created years ago and may not reflect your current brand message.

A few years back, a team of management development participants from a former employer posted a couple of letters on a screen in front of our senior operating committee. By the end of the day, 1,400 letters from across the company were sitting on my desk. I was tasked with rewriting them so they aligned with our customer-centric brand message.

If you choose to take on this task (no, not the 1,400 letters, you know what I mean), here are a few things to look for:

  1. Even people who are 90 days behind on a payment deserve respect.
  2. Consistent Brand Message. As one of the keepers of your corporate brand, you’ll know when a letter violates your expectations.
  3. Gender and Pronoun Consistency. Decide whether letters should be addressed to the person by first name (older customers may not like this) or by Mr. or Ms. The key to this is making sure you get it right (e.g., Alex or Jamie are unisex names). Avoid “Dear Valued Customer” and similar openings. This is important for letters that aren’t particularly positive. Our original letters used the "Dear Valued Customer" opening to announce a decrease in the customer’s credit line.
  4. Spelling Mistakes. Enough said. But this includes misspelling the customer’s name because of an error in your database.
  5. Clear Call to Action. Make sure phone numbers are accurate and that getting hold of the “writer” won’t be totally frustrating. You might want to include a general e-mail address, since many people don’t use phones for calling as often as they did when that letter was first written.
  6. Avoid jargon. We found a lot of letters contained jargon and acronyms that we used in the office, but might not be clear to the customer. Use straightforward language, so that it feels like a person wrote the letter, rather than an attorney hoping to avoid litigation.
  7. Painting bad news as good. You can try to make issues like files failing to be transferred during a data migration sound like a positive (“this will give you a chance to start fresh”), but that WILL become a memorable brand experience for your customer.
  8. Consider batching letters that include phrases like “after careful consideration” and send them out at least 24 hours after receiving the inquiry or job application. It’s a process change that will pay off.
  9. Inclusion of a simple “Thank You” (for their business, for their time) can make a big difference and reinforce your brand message if it feels authentic.
  10. Effective Use of a P.S. Message: The P.S. message is one of the most-read sections of any letter. This could be a summary of the main message of the letter, advice on what steps the customer should take next, or details of the offer that you are providing.

My P.S. on this column would be to ask to see the letters in printed form, rather than online. You want to make sure the letter looks professional (often they don’t). Dense text and multiple pages could guarantee that readers abandon the letter before getting to the end. When you need to include detailed terms and conditions, put them on a different page and consider NOT shrinking the type size. Separate the most important details and use subheads.

If many of your letters are written by representatives on an as-needed basis, you may also want to provide guidelines that reflect some of the thoughts above.

Now that you've read this column, I'll confess: these tips are not the most important thing.  I’m sure each of you would look for these same sorts of things in customer correspondence. What is critical is that you check to ensure carefully-crafted brand messages are reflected in direct customer correspondence.

Peter Osborne is principal of Friction-Free Communications.  He can be reached at peter@frictionfreecommunications.com