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Don’t be too quick to write off traditional letters

Email certainly has its benefits, but it isn’t the best choice for communicating in certain circumstances. The primary benefit it offers is speed, and I certainly don’t minimize the value of speed. Strike the send button and your message arrives almost instantaneously.
The other benefit is cost: A writer can transmit one, a hundred or an infinite number, all for the same cost-nothing. The so-called email "blast," sent to countless innocent and unsuspecting recipients, has become the weapon of choice for many zealous correspondents.
Those have been impressive developments, but do they define email as the best strategy in every situation? I don’t think so. Dedicated adherents of email suggest it is sending traditional correspondence-which they trivialize as snail mail-rapidly lurching toward obsolescence. Not yet.
I’m still advocating letters, a message conveyed on a letterhead, signed, folded, placed in an envelope and mailed. I realize that to some that would appear to be a questionable policy and that anyone who in 2012 defends the business letter could be characterized as far, far, far behind the curve. But let me explain my rationale. (What follows should not be considered as advice, since this is not an advice column. If you are seeking counseling, maybe you should consult a psychologist or other licensed practitioner. This is merely an expression of preference based on experience. Readers are free to ignore it at will.)
Yes, far fewer business letters are being written and delivered today than in the past. Thus, any traditional letter will be regarded with curiosity and respect, since there are so few of them. I see curiosity as an obvious advantage. A letter will be opened, and someone will read it; perhaps it won’t be the CEO or other executive to whom it is addressed, but it might be opened by an assistant who will either route it to its destination or tell the addressee of its contents. I’ve seen the results of surveys reporting that printed correspondence has a much higher impact than electronic.
The recipient of a traditional letter immediately knows the sender has taken the time to write and print it and then reread it to check the spelling, grammar and sentence structure before mailing. Many emails (including my own) are replete with typos and clumsy phrases, contributing to the careless, slapdash reputation of the medium.
Let me pause for a moment to explain that I admire email and the speed it provides, and I communicate by email every day. However, I refuse to use it for what I regard as significant communiqués. The exception would be any ongoing correspondence when timeliness is an important consideration.
There are situations where email is invaluable as a substitute for a telephone call. Email’s unsung triumph is the elimination of those onerous back-and-forth telephone calls. They were made to give reports on projects under way or the status of an assignment. Those recurring calls usually come in batches; they have been virtually eliminated by email.
I don’t want to reveal all my strategic behavior patterns, but inasmuch as I’ve opened the discussion of letters, I should explain the high value I place on the handwritten note and envelope. In my work I am occasionally confronted with the problem of the important unanswered letter. We eventually learn to accept the fact that not all letters–whether traditional or electronic–are answered. Some addressees contend they fall between the cracks, but there are far fewer cracks than claimed; others are just plain ignored.
I faced that situation a short time ago while trying to arrange a meeting; there had been no response to my first letter. After waiting a couple of weeks, I sent a short handwritten note, giving an abbreviated version of my mission as described in the earlier letter. Bingo! A few days later, an assistant of the intended recipient called me, and we discussed a time for a conference. The subject had read my handwritten note, and the assistant was replying on his behalf, a positive result.
Does it seem odd for me to be presenting this idealized tribute to letters at a time when the U.S. Postal Service is contemplating closing branches and eliminating Saturday service? You may conclude that my timing is lousy; but to show my dedication to that approach I stopped at the post office the other day and bought 80 first-class forever stamps to be stockpiled for future use.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

3/16/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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