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Composing knockout sales letters

A sales letter is a low-cost selling tool; in fact, an email version is one of the most cost-effective ways to reach customers. A good letter by itself may be enough to get the message across. However, in most cases, sales letters are best used in conjunction with other promotional materials such as brochures, samples, order forms with reply envelopes, or incentives to buy such as time-limited discount coupons.

Some mailings allow for an instant response—often via a toll-free number—while others may invite a personal follow-up visit to establish a working relationship or even close a sale. It depends on the value of each sale and what you are selling. If your first contact with a client is through a sales letter, it needs to set the right tone, be clear, and be powerful enough to hold the reader’s interest until the last line. Then the prospective customer should be motivated to act.

What You Need to Know
Can sales letters still make a splash these days?
Yes, and they can be used in a variety of ways. For example, they can be a good opening move as you prepare a customer for a sales call or visit; it may raise questions that the customer will want answered later.

To make the most of them, make sure that they’re written with the needs of each particular contact in mind. Adapt each letters to each different audience you hope to reach so that they feel valued.

If you are targeting customers repeatedly—to tell them about special seasonal offers or to introduce a new product or service, say—the sales letter should take each offer into account. It should reinforce the basic promotional message while providing enough variety to avoid boring readers or making them feel harassed. Sometimes, a sales letter is used to accompany responses to previous requests for information, and this presents an ideal opportunity to sell since the customer is already interested in learning about your products.

What to Do
Think About the Structure of Your Sales Letter
First, write down exactly what you want the letter to do under three key headings:
· Inform
· Sell
· Encourage Action

It’s easy to leave out basic information in a letter assuming the reader will know the product or be familiar with your company, but if they’re not, or don’t have those details to hand, you’re putting up another barrier to purchase. Make sure the product name, the price, your company’s name and contact details appear prominently on all material and if necessary, enclose more specific, selective, information about the product that will address the particular customer’s needs. Include a brochure, or other inserts such as a discount coupon, and a reply device, such as an order form, or a card with a number to call for immediate service.

Conveying to customers your enthusiasm for your product is a key part of persuading them to buy. That said, a letter can only do so much, and it may take the recipient a while to decide to act, so think about making your letter just one component of an integrated sales drive that includes telemarketing, other time-limited offers, and so on.

Although it would be ideal if customers decide to buy from you quickly, it’s likely that they’ll need a few more prompts to get to that stage, so while you need to give them enough information to whet their appetite, you could hold back in some areas so that they need to contact you again. It’s much easier to close a sale in person or over the phone, so encourage them to call you for information on better discounts, hourly rates, and so on.

Think about Presentation Issues
· Prospective customers are often inundated with what’s often dismissed as “junk mail,” but it isn’t junk if it interests the buyer. It’s essential that you make your company stand out from its competitors so that your mailing stands a chance of being read and not put straight into the wastebasket—for example, materials of an unusual size or color should stand out. Most importantly, though, you need to be sure you have identified a selection of potential customers who are, in fact, appropriate. Keep samples of competitors’ mailing materials on file so that you can see and learn from what others are doing.

· As far as possible, try not to address your letter to “Dear Sir/Madam”: personalization is the name of the game here. If you do have access to a list of names, take great care with spelling: your letter will almost certainly be ignored if you get this wrong. On the other hand, it might be more appropriate for you to use nonspecific forms of address that complement your product offering. If you sell hiking gear, say, you could start your letter with “Dear Hiker.”

· Next, introduce a strong headline that explains why the product or service is a must have, and stress the benefits of the products and services at all times. For example, readers may not need to know that your new printer contains a unique feeder tray mechanism, but they will want to know that it can also be used as a printer and that, as a result, it offers a cost-effective and time-saving one-stop print and copy solution.

· Flag up any special offers or discounts in the first paragraph to attract attention and to encourage people to read on. Throughout the letter, make the information easier for the reader to digest, avoid large swathes of text and instead use short paragraphs and informative headings that will give an overview of the letter’s contents at a glance.

· A punchy sign-off is just as important as a powerful opening, and can be used to reinforce your message or any special offers or gifts. Finally, remember to close the letter with a call to action: whether you want people to pick up the phone, send you an e-mail, or visit your premises, make it clear and offer them an incentive to do so.

Design: Less Is More
However creative you may be feeling as you compose your letter, remember that it isn’t aimed at you. Even if you can read pink writing on a yellow background, not many other people may welcome that option, so keep it simple.

Take care not to over-use upper case and also remember to keep type at a comfortably readable size. You will, of course, probably want to highlight certain words and phrases in the letter, but avoid using a mix of bold, italics, and underlining: it will distract readers, not aid their understanding.

Read Before You Mail!
Always read over your letter thoroughly before you send it out, even if you have a pressing deadline. Don’t just rely on your spellchecker (which may not pick up grammatical errors) and if possible, ask a colleague or friend to check it too for sense. Furthermore, you want to be sure your letter addresses the buyers’ natural resistance. Testing the letter will therefore help you ensure the letter’s success.

A Sample Sales Letter

Mrs. A. Bartlet
Cambridge Heath Country Store
Boston, MA 02116
Send for our discount sample pack now!

Dear Mrs. Bartlet
For a limited time only, Gordon Farm Organic Ice Cream is offering country stores in New England the chance to test our growing range of organic ice cream at a special price.

Produced on our farm in the rolling New Hampshire countryside, Gordon Farm Ice Cream is made with organic milk according to an original family recipe. An increasing number of exclusive food outlets in both urban and rural locales find that this top quality product sells well and offers an attractive addition to their stock.

Packed in attractive one pound tubs, our classic flavor range (vanilla, butter pecan, and strawberry) retails at $4. We sell at $3 per jar, but are delighted to discuss discounts for long-term purchasing commitments. Our introductory pack sells for $1 per jar. Preserves are delivered in packs of 36. Our brochure and order form are enclosed.

Gordon Farm Organic Ice Cream is perfect for the high-quality food retailer. We now supply a select group of retail outlets in the Philadelphia area such as the famous Franklin’s department store, the Windsor Group Deli chain, and Liberty Hall Visitors’ Shop.

Our offer ends in July and I will telephone you within the next two weeks to discuss it with you. If you have any questions in the meantime, please call at your convenience.

Yours sincerely,
Nora Gianelli
Sales Executive

Evaluate Response Rates
Getting a sales letter just right is a big job, so don’t let all that work go to waste by not measuring your response rates carefully. If you don’t monitor replies, you’ll have no idea whether your campaign has worked, what has gone well, and what needs further attention. A key part of this measuring process will come from knowing more about the sources of sales. This can, at times be pretty obvious (if you’ve supplied a special order form or discount code, say), but if the situation is more complex, it’s a good idea to ask new customers how they found out about your business, and existing customers whether the mailshot encouraged them to buy again.

What to Avoid
You’re Not Willing to Adapt Your Approach
Use your database to track the effectiveness of your mailing list. Determine how many mailings are required to make a sale and always change successive mailings so they are fresh to the prospect. If your list is not returning an adequate number of sales to make it cost-effective, either selectively drop prospects or rent a new list.

Reference BNET Editorial courtesy of the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Jamaica
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