4.6 Maintaining External Business Relationships in Letters

Linda Macdonald

This chapter is adapted from Lean, Ethical Business Communication (2017), by Binod Sundararajan and Linda Macdonald,  published by Oxford University Press. Used with permission form the publisher.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to

  • Assess audience needs
  • Master the basic form of the business letter
  • Create a style of delivery that focuses on developing, maintaining, and enhancing business relationships
  • Develop techniques for focusing on the audience relationship rather than on bad news in negative messages
  • Focus on what can be done rather than what can’t be be dome in bad news messages
  • Communicate information in a way appropriate for a given audience and situation

Business is establishing and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. In order to establish and maintain these relationships, it is essential to:

  • develop empathy,
  • adjust the content of a message to ensure it is both clear and sensitive to the audience’s needs and values, and
  • craft messages that sustain a lasting partnership even when the message contains bad news.

Occasionally it is necessary to abandon a relationship that is no longer mutually beneficial, such as when a customer abuses staff or a supplier engages in unethical practices. For as long as the relationship is mutually beneficial, however, the relationship should be nurtured through effective, professional, and empathetic business communications.

While email is appropriate for internal communication and even most external communications, the business letter is still used when the situation or audience requires a high degree of formality or when the sender wishes to emphasize the importance of the communication. A job offer or letter of resignation, a formal complaint or letter of apology, and invitation to a special event or a request for action all may require a formatted business letter. The skills in relationship building, however,  may be applicable to communications both internal and external to the organization.

Business Letter Format

The business letter format has changed over time. The standard format used to have indented paragraph’s, but today’s business letters most often align all elements on the left, a style called the block format. By using the block format, a writer demonstrates knowledge of current business standards and, therefore, credibility, or ethos.

Letters from organizations have the sender’s address in a letterhead format at the top of the page. The letterhead typically includes

  • the full name of the organization,
  • the street address, including the suite or office number,
  • the city, province, and postal code, and
  • the telephone number

Some businesses also include

  • a web address,
  • a fax number,
  • an email address, and/or
  • the organization’s logo.

You may wish to use your own personal letterhead for documents such as cover letters. Personal letterhead format includes the name, complete address, telephone number, and email address of the sender. Your name and contact information section in your résumé can be effectively used as a personal letterhead. Using the same style and format from the résumé adds consistency, which increases the professional appearance.

The letterhead does not have to be in the same style or font and size as the body of the letter. Be sure, though, that your name stands out from the other pieces of information through size and/or bolding.

The margins of a business letter are typically 2.54 centimetres (one inch) wide, the default set in most word-processing programs. Line spacing is typically 1.15, with a line space between paragraphs and three line spaces between the closing and the signature. Most word-processing  programs include templates that follow these business standards. These standards meet the readers’ expectations of structure, which allows the reader to focus on content.

North American business letters end with a closing (most commonly “Regards”, “Best regards”, or “Sincerely”) followed by the signature, the typed name of the sender, and the position of the sender.

Although the form of the letter is standard, the writer has choices within this form, and these choices can dramatically affect the reader’s impression of the sender. For example, the purpose of a letter from a university to an incoming first-year student is to offer congratulations on acceptance into university and provide instructions for confirming enrollment. To meet both purposes, the letter might combine formal elements appropriate for the importance of the occasion and with less formal elements appropriate for establishing a relationship with a new student. The formal elements might include a business letter format, a conservative serif font like Times New Roman, and a traditional closing such as regards. To appear more approachable and casual, the letter might temper the formality with less formal elements, for example the use of contractions, a comma rather than a colon after the greeting, and accessible language.

A writer might also choose to include their pronoun preferences in the personal letterhead or the signature block. The writer should not, however, assume the gender of the recipient. If the gender preference is not known through previous communications, avoid gendered language by omitting honorifics like “Ms”, Mrs.”, and “Mr.” and by using the singular “they” in reference to a person.

Knowing when to adhere to structure and form and when to deviate from them requires knowledge of formal elements in writing and awareness of the audience’s needs.

To complete the activity below, drag the label to the corresponding element of the business letter.

(Elements of a business letter was created by Leah Lassen under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike 4.0 International License)

The letters in the following chapter illustrate the business letter form and, more importantly, how to adapt to audience and situation.