Writing a business letter is not simply a matter of expressing your ideas clearly. The way you write a letter and the etiquette you employ may have a significant impact on your success or failure in business.
Failure to observe correct business letter etiquette can result in your adopting an inappropriate tone, causing offense or misunderstandings, lack of clarity or purpose and hostility or soured relations.
The foundation of good business letter etiquette is ‘Think before you write’. You should be considering to whom the letter is addressed, how and why? This will then influence style, content and structure.
Here we cover some of the main issues relating to good business letter etiquette:
Addressing the Letter
Always make sure you have spelt the recipient’s name correctly. It may sound simple, but you would be surprised at how many people fail to do so. The recipient’s name should include titles, honours or qualifications if necessary.
Many people use the ‘Dear Sir/Yours Faithfully’ formula when addressing the receiver. Although this is acceptable for routine matters it is impersonal and should not be used when dealing with those you know, queries or complaints. With these the ‘Dear Mr../Yours Sincerely’ formula should be adopted.
Once a certain level of familiarity is reached it is not considered bad etiquette to use phrases such as ‘Kind Regards’ or ‘All the best’ at the end of the letter.
If the content of the letter is sensitive, personal or confidential it must be marked appropriately. Marking the letter ‘confidential’ will suffice in highlighting this fact. If you only want the letter read by the receiver without the interception of a secretary or PA, mark it as ‘Private’, ‘Personal’ or ‘Strictly Confidential’. If you have received such a business letter it is good etiquette to reciprocate and ensure that all future correspondence is kept at that level of confidentiality.
Proper business letter etiquette requires that a consistent and clear approach, combined with courtesy, be employed. As a rule of thumb, aim to keep all business letters formal in style. Even when the receiver is familiar to you, it is advisable maintain a certain level of business etiquette as the letter may be seen by others or referred to by a third party in the future.
However, this does not mean you should use long or uncommon words to express yourself. This merely looks odd and makes the letter unreadable. It is best to read a letter first and consider whether you would speak to that person face to face in the same way. If not, then re-write it.
Letters should be signed personally. It looks unprofessional, cold and somewhat lazy if a letter is left unsigned. However, having a secretary or PA sign on your behalf is not considered a breach of business etiquette.
Humour can be used in business letters but only when the writer is completely positive the recipient will understand the joke or pun. From a business etiquette perspective it may be wise to avoid humour. This is because firstly, the letter may be read during a crisis, after receiving bad news or on a sombre occasion. Any other time the humour may have been appreciated but under these circumstances it may dramatically backfire. Secondly, the written word is open to misinterpretation. Your sarcastic or ironic remark may be taken the wrong way. Thirdly, it is possible that the letter may be read by a third party who may deem the humour inappropriate and pursue a complaint of some sort.
Good business letter etiquette calls for letters to be responded to promptly or within certain guidelines. This may normally be considered as 5 working days. If this is not possible then some sort of acknowledgement should be sent either by letter, fax, phone or e-mail.
Always use reference numbers or clearly state the purpose of the letter at the top, for example, ‘Re: Business Letter Etiquette Enquiry’. This allows the receiver to trace correspondence and immediately set your letter within a context.
When replying to points or questions the proper etiquette is to respond in the same order as they were asked.
Using business etiquette in all matters and especially in business letters will ensure you communicate effectively, avoid misunderstandings and maximise your business potential.