Communications professionals can influence their company’s brand beyond press releases and media talking points. I continue to believe Human Resources is the most important branding division in a company (think about job applicants). Every business unit in the company plays a role in how customers, prospects, and vendors feel about you.
Author Scott Stratten says two things go through our minds when we see a logo — 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, vendors, and prospects, including:
- 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). If those letters were created years ago, they may not reflect your current brand message.
How bad might this problem be?
A few years back, some management development participants from a former employer posted a couple of letters in front of our senior operating committee. By the end of the day, 1,400 customer letters were sitting on my desk so I could rewrite them to align with our customer-centric brand message.
If you choose to take on a task like this, look for some of these things:
- Respect and/or Empathy. Even people who are 90 days behind on a payment deserve respect.
- Consistent Brand Message. As one of the keepers of your corporate brand, you’ll know when a customer letter violates your expectations.
- Gender and Pronoun Consistency. Decide whether customer 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 customer letters that aren’t particularly positive. One of our original customer letters used the “Dear Valued Customer” opening to announce a decrease in the customer’s credit line.
- Spelling Mistakes. Enough said. But this includes misspelling the customer’s name because of an error in your database.
- 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 customer letter was first written.
- Avoid jargon. We found a lot of customer letters contained jargon and acronyms that 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.
- 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.
- Timing. Consider batching job-applicant 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.
- Gratitude. The 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.
- Effective Use of a P.S. Message: The P.S. message is one of the most-read sections of any customer 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.
Some Additional Tips
My P.S. on this column? Ask to see the customer letters in printed form, rather than online. Make sure the letter looks professional. 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 any of your customer letters are written by representatives as needed, consider providing guidelines that reflect some of the thoughts above.
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.
This article first appeared on PR News. Click here to see all my PR News posts.