Life goes on.

The Personal Touch

ptI’ve been digging through a stack of mail and paper on my desk, sorting it into READ NOW, READ LATER, FILE, and CHUCK piles. I find that I often judge a letter by its envelope. Once inside–if I make it that far–I often judge the person or company by the letterhead.

Before it even delivers its message, business stationery acts as a billboard that advertises the style and character of the sender. The billboard can demand attention–or it can go unnoticed. With so much paper on everyone’s desk, businesspeople have to do a marketing job just to get their letters noticed and read.

In this age of computerized mass mailings, it’s amazing how much a personal touch stands out. For example, I recently got a handwritten note saying, “Thought you might be interested in this,” along with an article entitled “More Execs Work at Home.” I was interested, and I will remember where it came from–an ad agency called Horton Ahern Bosquet in Providence, Rhode Island, that I had visited a month earlier.

I know the sender was using the clipping as an excuse to put his name in front of me. Nonetheless, his somewhat transparent ruse worked because he delivered useful information, which means that he took the time to figure out what I needed.

The envelope was addressed by hand, too, which encouraged me to open it. A lot of condensed-type mailing-label envelopes leave me colder than a sailor en route to Newfoundland. It’s not that the labels look so bad, although an address laser-printed directly on the envelope instead of on a label certainly looks better; it’s the sense that the letter on my desk is one of hundreds of similar letters on other desks. As far as labels go, I’m much more attracted to one with a return address and a logo–that is, a personalized label rather than the plain-vanilla kind.

Of course, a hand-addressed envelope only makes a good impression if there’s a personal note inside. A real business letter with a scrawled address can leave the impression that the sender can’t figure out how to get an envelope through the printer or that he is too lazy to take the time to do so. When I was using a dot-matrix printer, both of those statements could have described me. With a laser, I’m much more likely to print out than write an address.

Some businesspeople even use envelopes to describe what they do. I’ve got one on my desk from Pamela E. Berns. In the spot traditionally used for the return address, Berns describes her service: Management Writing Workshops. She puts her return address on the bottom of the envelope. Michael McCarthy keeps his return address in the traditional spot and delivers his message along the bottom of the envelope: Champion Speed Learning Systems, Active Reading Techniques, Brain/Mind Research, Seminars/Consulting. These envelopes serve as an introduction to the sender and prepare me for the message inside.

As far as fax cover sheets, which are primarily designed to deliver nitt-gritty information (phone numbers and number of pages), the shorter and less obtrusive the better. At least that’s what I thought until I got a cover sheet with a quote from advertising guru David Ogilvy, which made me focus on the page and notice the company logo at the top. The fax came from Dennis Chambers of Chambers Communications. The quotation, under the heading THOUGHT FOR THE QUARTER, sits quietly at the bottom of the page, but it impressed me so much as a marketing device that I called Chambers and asked how others respond to it. “People like it; they sometimes call and ask me when I’m going to change the quotation,” says Chambers. “I’m trying to do everything I can to indicate that there’s someone with a personality running this business.”

I find that an icon or graphic on the letterhead or envelope can also deliver a sense of personality. I got a letter from Anthony S. Policastro that had a small line drawing on it showing a hand writing with pen on paper. The image, combined with his tag line, COMMUNICATIONS FOR THE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, says to me that in a high-tech world Policastro can deliver old-fashioned personalized service.

The old-fashioned, manual motif may be overused these days, but as long as the image is attractive, that doesn’t really matter. I’m looking at one letterhead with a stylized pencil and another with a quill. They both add zip and color, as graphic elements are designed to do.

A lot of professionals design their own letterhead and print it with a dot-matrix or laser printer on plain white paper. In almost every case, I think a professionally printed letterhead looks better, often just because the paper is of better quality. People would make a better impression with homemade letterhead if they used a heavier bond with some color in it.

One problem with thick paper, of course, is that it absorbs more ink. Thus, if your ribbon is old or your laser toner is low, the print will be too faint or spotty for business use. It’s amazing how many people ruin snazzy letterhead with a weak printing job.

Using electronic mail is one way to finesse the need to look good. Almost everybody’s electronic mail messages look alike–plain text on a computer screen. But that’s changing. It’s possible, with some services and some software, to attach voice and graphics to electronic mail. Someday I’ll be able to sort through electronic mail just as I do paper mail. One thing’s certain: The amount of information landing on our desks is increasing, and that will make the way it’s presented all the more important.

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