As a child, there were few things I dreaded more than writing thank-you letters. My mother always insisted I write one after every little gift or polite gesture that came my way. I was a shy kid, and writing thank you’s was an uncomfortable and embarrassing journey into the unknown world of gift-giving adults. What did they want to hear in a thank-you letter? Would this really sound sincere coming from someone who just learned how to double knot his shoelaces?
All of it seemed terribly formal and rote to me. Of course I was thankful, wasn’t my verbal utterance enough to convey that?
At the time, I simply didn’t see what value was being created from a written thank you. It wasn’t until I grew old enough to help people or give people gifts of my own that I began to understand the true value of a thank-you letter. All of the sudden, the light bulb flashed on as I began to receive thank you’s of my own, telling me how something I did or gave made someone’s day or week. My heart was positively electrified when I realized that some small gesture of mine helped someone else.
As I became an entrepreneur, I began to think about what advantages there might be in applying this strategy to the business and networking world. I discovered there’s a whole world of opportunities for writing thank-you notes that few people realize, and the value to be created through them is virtually limitless.
Below is a list of potential recipients of sincere, handwritten thank-you notes that have the potential to create unexpected value:
I bet at least one of those raised an eyebrow or two, so allow me to explain. People in every one of those categories have the potential to form a high-value relationship with you. That might seem obvious, but what makes them uniquely positioned as value-creators is the element of surprise.
Few of those people ever expect to receive a thank-you note from you. Other than possibly a departing thank you for the opportunity to work, former employees typically are never to be heard from again. Apart from your applause and perhaps a post-speech handshake, speakers don’t expect to hear much from their audience in the days and weeks to follow. And business managers are usually paid to deal with complaints and problems from customers, not words of praise. All these scenarios are sources of leverage in establishing relationships.
Of course, you aren’t guaranteed to have your thank-you letter turn into a high-value relationship. But it’s one of those low-risk (about 15 minutes of your time) yet high-reward propositions. In fact, I’d suggest you simply cannot lose. Your worst case scenario is limited to just not hearing back from the person. And even if you don’t, you get an excellent opportunity to exercise your gratitude muscle, which is never a bad thing for the human psyche. Besides, you never know if you might bump into that person in the future and have them be pleasantly reminded of your uncommonly sincere gesture to which they never had a chance to respond.
To improve your odds of actually being heard and creating a high-value relationship, consider these tips for maximum effectiveness in writing thank-you notes:
For the most part, everyone knows what they do well and has probably received a compliment on it at some point, perhaps often. Look for the more subtle positives in people for which they aren’t accustomed to hearing praise. Your words will be fresh, new, and provoke further reflection—all wins for you.
It might seem obvious and even cheesy, but look past this one at your own peril. People can spot insincerity with impressive accuracy. If you can’t genuinely work up some positive vibrations about the recipient of your thank you, don’t bother. But the truth is, it’s not very difficult to feel sincerely grateful for some aspect of someone or something.
While the CEO of your former employer or the dean of your university could definitely create real value for you, chances are they’re getting hit up with a lot of insincere gestures and requests. They also tend to have gatekeepers—people who screen their email or letters before they get in front of their eyes—which means your letter may never reach its intended recipient. While it can’t hurt to write to the big shots, don’t forget to reach out to others with smaller titles, and don’t overlook people you never got to know well previously. Some of my best and most longstanding relationships from former jobs were developed almost entirely after moving on.
The key is, don’t limit yourself in who you thank. If you see a company go above and beyond and think to yourself, “Gee, if only every business treated people this way,” that’s a thank-you letter. To make it more impactful, find an employee who exemplified what made that company’s service so great and mention them by name. You just may form a high-value relationship that leads to fringe benefits at that particular company, or something more.
Finally, yes, don’t forget about writing thank-you notes to complete strangers. Writing to someone whose professional status is completely unknown to you can help hone your ability to write sincerely. When there is no way to determine possible value creation from someone, you’ll be forced to write from the heart. And who knows, you may just connect with your next business partner or customer. If nothing else, it never hurts to make someone feel good, and receiving a thank-you note from a complete stranger is the ultimate in positive reinforcement.
DAN JONES is a 6th generation Arizonan and graduate of Arizona State University. In 2013, he was awarded a coveted Fulbright grant from the U.S. State Department which brought him to a rural fishing village in Malaysia for 11 months. These days, he’s taking his talents back on the road to Asia where he wanders and works as a self-employed copywriter and entrepreneur. You can keep tabs on his adventures by visiting www.danjonesvi.com.
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