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Do you need Standard Letters or Templates?

September 9, 2010

Terry and I are often approached by people from sales, customer services or operational teams who are finding that their standard letters are not as helpful as they should be.  They should help readers by giving them useful and relevant information and help writers by reducing the need to write the same message many times over.  Sometimes they do neither.

One difficulty is that the terms ‘standard letter’ and ‘template’ mean different things to different people – and there are a great many ways that you can use both of them to help your staff.

Here are some thoughts for you if this is a problem you face:

1. Consider whether you should be using standard letters with fixed content that senders cannot and do not need to change.  This is suitable where the message is genuinely identical for every reader – for example when a bank has to tell all of its customers that its name is changing, or an insurance company is legally bound to provide information about a change in legislation.

2. Is the software you use flexible enough to enable senders to write their own introductory paragraph and select options at key points in the letter?  The extent to which this is appropriate depends upon a) the skills and experience of senders, b) the closeness of the relationship between the sender and the recipient and c) the extent to which the elements of the message vary.  For example, people recruited as call centre operators who are writing to the customers of a utility company in response to a common question probably need a high degree of standardisation.  On the other hand, sales managers writing to customers encouraging them to take up a new product will prefer a great deal of flexibility.

3. Templates are better than standard letters sometimes.  What I mean by a template is an outline to give guidance rather than a straitjacket.  A template can be a complete and well written letter that gives writers complete flexibility to change as much or as little as they choose.  Alternatively, you can provide some mandatory paragraphs and make suggestions for content for other paragraphs to help with the stucture of the letter.

4. Some templates provide nothing apart from the header, footer, font and layout.  The entire content is left to the discretion of the writer.

What level of standardisation works for you?  How does the practice in your organisation match up to the theory?  Do most of your employees have their own private ‘standard’ letters – and is there anything wrong with that?  Please let us have your views.

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