Meet the readers expectations by using a standard format for business letters. Help the reader identify the purpose of the letter by asking your most important question (or stating your direct request) first. When it otherwise would not be clear, such as would be the case of a request about a product to its manufacturer, be explicit about telling the reader why you have sent the letter to him or her (problem, more information, recommendation, questions about an advertisement, or other reason).
Provide the necessary background and explanatory information. Note: explanations are always second in letters and memos. Something else is required to establish rapport first.
Because it is usually to the readers advantage to meet the writers outcomes in direct requests, the blending of outcomesthe creating of win-win optionstypically consists of letting the reader know exactly what is desired. Specify exactly what you want, either by asking questions about your concerns or by listing your requirements. In these situations, the readers desired outcome will be achieved if he or she is able to meet your needs.
Most direct requests require a response from the reader, usually in the form of a letter of reply and perhaps a shipment of an order. Because the reader has the opportunity to sell a product or service or to create or increase goodwill, the reader is already motivated to reply.
To encourage the reader to respond quickly, direct requests often include a specific date (known as the end-date) by which the information, product or service is required and the reason that the date is important. You are almost always better off setting and justifying an end-date, but avoid setting an end-date unless you can provide a legitimate reason for doing so. When you do not have a specific reason for needing the information, by a specific date, you should still encourage him or her to respond quickly.
Note:   Avoid being overly demanding or presumptuous in setting an end-date or encouraging a prompt response. The best reasons for the reader to respond quickly include some kind of reader benefiteither the possibility of a sale or the opportunity to build or maintain goodwill.
But this:  Your answer by the 15th will ensure that I am able to include your product and price list in our vendor evaluation process.
When an order blank is not available and you prefer to order by mail rather than by phone or over the Internet, make sure to include all the specific information your reader will need to fill the order quickly and easily. Remember that your offer to buy will constitute a contractual agreement, so it is important that it be accurate and complete. Check for the following:
Asking about Goods and Services.
As with orders, the business objective of messages asking about products or services is letting the reader know what you want in a way that will permit a quick and easy reply. You should almost always begin with your most important questionthe one thing you most want or need to know:
Your opening question should be specific and lead to something you want to know. Avoid questions that can be answered yes or no:
Not this:   Can your restaurant accommodate large parties?
But this:   Would you be able to accommodate a party for 250 from 5:30 until 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 27?
Questions that can be answered yes or no rarely result in sufficient information when the answer is positive. The reader may supply the information you wantthe garbage company may tell you the day of the week for collection in your neighborhoodbut it is unlikely that the restaurant would be able to give you the kind of information required for you to reserve that restaurant.
Whenever possible, let the reader know what information you already have by mentioning where you saw the ad or heard about the product, service, or subject. Remember, too, that vague questions and requests will result in vague answers. If you ask someone, Please send me any information you have about... you will doubtless receive a lot of irrelevant information and may not receive the information you actually need to make a decision. General requests for additional information should follow all your specific questions and necessary explanations:
Ask for the information you want most in your opening sentencethe sentence that will receive your readers closest attention. A specific opening question about your readers products or services will also pace his or her interests and expectations, so if you arent absolutely sure what you want, guess: Ask the question you think will most likely give you the information you want. Also, remember that cost is rarely the most important question. When you are tempted to ask about cost first, ask a question about value instead:
But this:   What is the guarantee covering the Autoelectric Zig-Zag sewing machine advertised in the February Family Circle?
Remember, too, that after you have asked your most important question, provide the reader with the explanation required for a complete answer. Your opening question paces the readers expectations and places the letter in a specific communication context. The explanation, by clarifying the opening question, provides transition and leads the reader to any additional questions you may have. When your additional questions are short and easy to answer, put them in a numbered list, which will help your reader focus on each one and increase your chances of receiving complete answers to each one. For an example of this type of letter, see Sample 1.
When your questions are complex, with each requiring a separate explanation, a numbered list will lose its impact, and separate paragraphs for each question and its explanation would be a better choice. By asking specific questions and emphasizing each one separately, you greatly increase your chances of receiving specific answers to each one. Because most direct requests include an explicit or implied benefit for the reader, it is rarely necessary to include additional information designed to blend outcomes. For an example of an inquiry with complex questions, see Sample 2.
You will also improve your chances of receiving the information when you want it by setting and justifying an end dateor deadlinefor your readers response. Letters and memos that do not specify a deadline are often set aside to be handled later and then forgotten. The end date motivates the reader to respond by a particular date, and a justification emphasizing a reader benefit futurepaces the likely positive outcome of a timely response:
But this:   Because I must submit my budget by the end of August, your response by the 15th would ensure the inclusion of your data.
Of course, if you have no need for the information by a specific date, you should not manufacture an end date and justifying reason. Instead, motivate your reader to respond promptly in other ways:
But this:   Because Im eager to begin, Id appreciate receiving the materials soon.
You may assume that, as an experienced businessperson, your reader is well-acquainted with the benefits of a cordial response, so you do not need to draw special attention to them. Also, avoid thanking the reader in advance. If the readers response warrants a special word of thanks, send it after you have received the reply. Thanking in advance is discourteous because it presumes that the reader has no choice other than to respond.
Asking about Operations.
Whether you are writing to someone in another department or branch of your company or to someone in another company, a message asking about operations usually calls for a direct structure. While some operations, such as government contracts, marketing strategy, and product design and development are confidential, most are not. Companies will usually share information about routine operations in the interest of promoting business harmony. Sample 3 illustrates a request for information about operations.
Asking about Personnel.
Requests for information about people present special hazards for those who respond because of the so-called sunshine laws. Information that formerly could be kept confidential is now available to the person asked about and, in some cases, to other interested parties as well. For this reason, it is increasingly common for such information to be requested by telephone.
The most common requests for information about people are concerned with employment, school applications, and credit. In each case, the person requesting the information should be asking because he or she has a legitimate interest to protect, and the person asking should also be prepared to keep the information received as confidential as the law will allow.
Whenever you request information about somebody, you should protect yourself and your reader as much as possible by observing the following precautions:
See Sample 4 for an example of a request for information about a person.
When an invitation is a special goodwill message involving no persuasion, use a direct structure. State the main idea, the invitation first. Explanations and a request for confirmation (when necessary) follow. Be sure to cover the five Wswho, what, when, where, and why. When the how is important, be sure to describe it fully as well. Most invitations are fairly short because the advantages for the reader are obvious, as Sample 5 illustrates.
Show Confidence in the Reader
When you make a claim, your basic assumption should be one of confidence in the reader. You should assume that your reader will do the right thing if you explain the situation accurately. Remember that your reader is not personally responsible for the trouble you have had with the companys product or service. Remember, too, that your readerand the readers companywill most likely be pleased to receive information that will permit an improvement in goods and services.
Always make your claim as specific and as definite as you can. When you know what the problem is and what is required to correct it, state the problem explicitlygiving all the detailsand ask for the correction you desire. When you do not know exactly what is wrong, explain the situation as best you can. Sample 6 and Sample 7 illustrate the basic techniques for writing direct claims.