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How to Write a Sales Letter

Digital Library > Defining and Serving a Market > Sales techniques “How to Write a Sales Letter”

A primary and widely-used form of communication, a sales letter is a marketing tool that can build your client base and increase your sales. This guide will take you step-by-step through the process of writing an effective sales letter, from deciding what your objective is, through editing your final draftu

WHAT TO EXPECTThis Business Builder will take you step by step through the process of writing an effective sales letter, from deciding what your objective is through editing your final draft.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE GETTING STARTED [top]

A primary and widely-used form of communication, a sales letter is a marketing tool that can build your client base and increase your sales. A results-oriented sales letter requires careful planning and must encompass the principles of effective sales writing.

Sales Letter and Direct Mail Letter Comparison

A sales letter is similar to a direct mail letter. Both seek to accomplish the following:

  • Generate sales by giving a prospect as many persuasive reasons to buy as possible.
  • Educate and inform potential customers about your company and your products and services.
  • Solicit a response from the prospect — fill out an order form, make an appointment, dial an 800 number.

Despite similarities, a sales letter is different from a direct mail letter in these important ways:

  • A direct mail letter is almost always a component of a mass mailing, whereas a sales letter is not. A sales letter can be aimed at as few as one or two prospects.
  • A sales letter is a more personalized form of communication. Sales people often use sales letters to follow-up with prospects after an initial meeting or telephone contact has been made.
  • A direct mail letter aims for immediate sales action on the part of the prospect, but a sales letter often attempts to lay the groundwork for future sales by assisting in establishing a relationship with the prospect.

Businesses That Use Sales Letters

If you are selling a relatively inexpensive product or service, such as a magazine subscription or a carpet cleaning service, a direct mail letter is an appropriate marketing tool. With relatively inexpensive products you can motivate your customers to take immediate action, such as use a coupon or fill out an order form.

The more expensive your product or service however, the more personalized your sales efforts need to be to overcome a prospect’s sense of risk. If you’re selling costly medical products to a hospital for example, you will have to convince the administrators to invest a considerable amount of money in your company. Plus, you may need to establish purchase and payment plans and will have to become actively involved in solving any problems that may arise from use of your products. A sales letter would begin this process for you, not generate an immediate sale.

PROCESS OF DEVELOPING A SALES LETTER [top]

The process of developing your sales letter will follow these major stages:

A. Plan B. Outline C. Write

Plan

Understand your prospect.

Think about your potential customers. What do they care about? How can your product or service fill a need for them? These are two of the most critical questions you must answer before you begin writing because the content of your sales letter will be driven by them.

Write down your prospect’s wants and needs:

Suppose you are a long distance phone company and have had great success in reaching the general consumer market. Now, you’re looking to grow your business by providing long distance telephone services to small companies who generate sales through 800 telephone orders. One of the companies you’re targeting is a clothing wholesaler. Like most small businesses, cost will be a major factor in whether or not you can sell your service. Dependable products and services will be another major factor because if the phone lines go down, no business can be generated. Cost and quality are the most obvious product attributes your potential customers are looking for.

Understanding other specifics about how your target market operates their business is important as well. For example, when are their peak times of business during the day, seasonally? How much of their sales occur over the phone? Where are their customers located? The better you know them, the better you will be able to meet their specific needs.

Understand the difference between your product’s features and benefits. After you have a solid working knowledge of your potential customer’s wants and needs, you must communicate how your product or service will meet them.

It’s important for you to distinguish your product’s or service’s features from its benefits. While features are valuable and can certainly enhance your product, benefits are what motivate people to buy. Keep in mind it’s benefits, not features, that appeal to people’s emotions.

Many new sales writers tend to confuse features and benefits. What’s the difference? A feature is a characteristic of a product or service that automatically comes with it.

For example, the telephone company may offer an automatic switching line to reroute calls to another location in the case of a power failure. That’s a feature. The benefit to your customer is that sales won’t be lost. (Features become benefits when you tell the reader in your letter what it will do for them.)

For example: You’re the manufacturer of an anti-theft car device. Your product is a steering wheel lock made of a new steel alloy that cannot be cut. That’s a feature. The benefit to the buyer is added security in knowing that a thief can’t saw through the device to remove it.

In one column, list the features of your product or service. In the other, list the benefits each feature yields to the buyer.

Features Benefits
1. 1.
2. 2. 3. 3. 4. 4. 5. 5.

 

Your letter needs to communicate how your product’s or service’s benefits will meet at least one basic business or human need. Saving time and money, and enhancing customer service are benefits businesses look for when purchasing products and services. Safety, good health, financial security, the desire for love, status, and success, and appearing attractive to others — are all examples of needs consumers have.

When you write your sales letter, you must communicate what your product or service can do for the buyer that no other product or service can do. Identifying what is most unique, different, and helpful about your product will help you write and direct the flow of your copy.

Now, from your features/benefits list above, isolate the most unique feature(s) and benefit(s):

This benefit will become the driving theme of your lead paragraph, discussed later in this Business Builder.

Anticipate your prospect’s major objections and counter them in your sales letter. The best sales people know in advance, mostly from experience, exactly what obstacles they might encounter when trying to close a sale. The best sales letters follow suit.

The long distance telephone company, for example, might anticipate that businesses are reluctant to employ a long distance telephone carrier they’ve never heard of.Objection: “How come I never heard of you?”

Counter: “We don’t spend millions of dollars in advertising like AT&T and MCI. We choose to pass the savings along to our customers.”

Sales Letter: Like many of our valued business accounts, you’re probably wondering why you haven’t heard our name before. The answer is simple. We don’t spend millions of dollars in national advertising like AT&T. We prefer to pass the savings along to growing companies like yours.

Objection: “There are many anti-theft car devices on the market. Why should I spend $100 more for yours?”

Counter: “Every other anti-theft car device can easily be sawed through by a thief. Ours can’t. Isn’t peace of mind worth another hundred dollars?”

Sales Letter: You may think $100 is a lot more to pay for an anti-theft device. But the truth is this $100 buys you peace of mind. Your car cannot be stolen when you use Theft-A-Way. No other anti-theft device guarantees that.

If you leave your prospect with serious questions and objections after reading your letter, it will be much harder or even impossible, to get them to send for more information, call you for more information, or grant you an appointment.

Write down any objections you think your potential customer might have about your product or service, then counter them:

Decide what your immediate objective in writing your sales letter is. Ask yourself this question: “What do I want the prospect to do after reading my letter?” Send for a sample and sales brochure, call me to schedule a meeting, be interested enough to take my telephone call and schedule an appointment with me? You need to determine this before you begin writing because you will need to decide what you’re prepared to offer in order to provide the reader with an incentive to act.

For example, if you distribute a line of hair care products to beauty salons and you want the owner of twelve salons to meet with you, you might offer to supply him with enough of your product to use on customers free for a month. Or, you could offer a special 10% introductory discount if he agrees to distribute your line of products. Whatever incentive you offer, limit the time frame you will offer it. You would let the salon owner know that the special introductory discount is only available until August 1. This will create a sense of urgency in his mind.

Make sure the person you’re writing your letter to is the person who makes the decision to buy. If you’re going to the effort of trying to establish a relationship, you want it to be with the person with the authority to make decisions. With small companies, it’s usually the owner and president. But with larger companies, you may have to do some research. You can call the company and try to get the information from the receptionist: “Can you tell me the name of the person in charge of buying long distance phone services?”

If you feel the receptionist doesn’t know, you might ask to speak with the person you think is the buyer for your product. Or, you can try to get information from her assistant or secretary. “I’m going to be sending Ms. Smythe some information in the mail. Can you please tell me her title. Is she the person in charge of buying long distance services?”

Do Your Homework. Study other businesses’ effective sales and direct mail letters. You probably receive sales letters at your office on a regular basis. Or, think about the vendors whose products or services you use now or in the past. You’ve probably saved their correspondence in a file.

Find all the sample letters you can and as you study them ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the first paragraph grab my attention?
  • Does it relate to my business needs?
  • Is it easy or hard to put down?
  • Is it enjoyable to read?
  • What do I like best about this letter?
  • What do I dislike about it?
  • How would I improve it?
  • Does this letter make me want to buy? Why or why not?

Outline

Outlines are useful tools for organizing ideas. Experienced writers almost always use them before they begin writing. If you’re writing a sales letter for the first time, your outline should be extensive before you attempt to write your letter. Once you have more experience, you can adopt a less formal approach, such as simply writing down key ideas in the order they will appear. To construct your outline, take a piece of paper and write a few sentences for each of the following major points.

Headlines

Direct mail letters commonly include headlines because they help grab a reader’s attention. Should your sales letter employ one? It depends. If your letter is addressed to someone you’ve met at a trade show or have already made contact with over the telephone, a headline isn’t appropriate.

Remember, a sales letter endeavors to establish a relationship. A headline will make your letter appear more like an advertisement than a highly personal form of business communication. People are highly likely to read a letter from a person they know or have already met. But if you haven’t made any personal contact with your prospect, you should consider a headline. You need to grab your prospect’s attention and induce them into reading your letter.

If you feel a headline is appropriate, here’s some basic principles to follow when creating one:

A headline is a short statement, one or two lines at the most, that appears at the top of the page between the address and salutation. A headline should do one of the following:

Immediately tell the prospect what potential benefit they will receive:

You Can Cut Your Long Distance Expenses by Half.

Or, the headline should imply the benefit:

Were You Shocked by Your Last Long Distance Phone Bill?

Ask your prospect a question they will find compelling:

Are You Sure Your Car’s Anti-Theft Device Really Works?

What Would Happen to Your Sales If Your Phone Lines Went Down?

Tell your prospect important information they might not know:

Your Long Distance Phone Company Will Raise Their Rates By 20% This Year!

Most Anti-Theft Car Devices Can Be Cut Using A Tool From Your Local Hardware Store!

If you use a headline, it should appear in a larger font, with all the words CAPITALIZED and in bold.

Instead of a headline you may choose to use a supporting statement such as a testimonial, product review, or an endorsement. Whether you choose to use one in your headline or not, you should use a supporting statement in your sales letter. It’s especially important to do so if your product or service is expensive. Supporting statements help eliminate risk in a prospect’s mind.

Testimonials are statements from satisfied customers:

“Island Long Distance has cut our long distance phone bills by 30%!” — Ellen Walker, President, Peacock Fashions

“I’ll never forget the hurricane that downed our phone lines for one week. And I’ll never forget how quickly Island Long Distance rerouted our calls to our New York branch. They saved us during our busiest sales season!” — Alan Fisher, Sales Director, Candy-By-Mail

Product reviews appear in newspapers or magazines:

“If you have a car, you should have Theft-A-Way protecting it.” — Car and Driver Magazine

“Smart salon owners should check out Natural Beauty’s line of terrific products.” — Hair Salon Magazine

Write your headline:

Endorsements are statements from experts:

< BLOCKQUOTE>”Recommended for Use By The American Medical Association.”

“Theft-A-Way Is Good News For Car Owners and Bad News For Car Thieves.” — Officer John Montgomery, Bellevue, Washington Police Department.

Testimonials, reviews, and endorsements should appear as quotations. Text should be in a slightly smaller font and in italics. Underneath the quote, you should indicate who said it or what newspaper it appeared in.

Watch Out For…Don’t crowd the top of your letter with a headline and too many quotations because it will appear as an advertisement and not a personal form of communication. You can use quotations in the body of your letter or at the end.

Write your lead paragraph.

Your first, or lead paragraph represents the most important sentences of your letter because if you don’t compel the reader to read, your letter will have no impact. Your first sentence should logically flow from the idea you created with your headline. Professional writers often refer to the headline and connecting lead paragraph as establishing the “hook.” It’s called a hook because you must interest your reader right away with the headline then keep them reading after the first paragraph. The hook of your sales letter must:

  • Appeal to a business need or human emotion.
  • Begin selling your main benefit.

If your headline was: Do You Know How Many Long Distance Companies Overcharge Their Customers? Your lead paragraph would answer the question: “A recent survey by the American Marketing Association indicates that the big three long distance phone companies overcharge their customers…”

The benefit of your offering is the heart of your sales appeal; remember that your prospect is interested in what’s in it for him. Reveal the main benefit of your product or service in your lead paragraph.

For Example: “We’re not one of the big three. That’s why we can save you money on your monthly long distance phone service.”

If you’re not using a headline because you’ve already had some personal contact with the prospect, here is how you should write your lead paragraph:

Acknowledge that you’ve met or spoken recently.

For example: When we met at the Direct Marketing Trade Show last week, Julie, I promised to get back to you with some more information on how Island Long Distance can save your company as much as 30% a month.

Get to your hook quickly.

…Let me begin by telling you something that will probably shock you. A recent survey released by the American Marketing Association indicates that the big three long distance carriers all overcharge their customers!

Watch Out For…Don’t wait long after your first meeting or telephone contact to write your sales letter. You want to remain fresh in your prospect’s mind.

Write a few sentences that describe additional benefits to the reader.

For Example: Not only is our long distance service 25% less expensive than our competitor’s, we offer a rerouting system that will direct your calls to another location in case of a power failure. This means you’ll never lose sales!

From your planning stage, write down any objections to your product and how you will overcome them.

If you are going to state a product or service’s price in your letter, remember this important point. Expenses should be expressed over short periods of time and profits over the long term.

For Example: “This service costs you only $50 a week” is better than writing “this service will cost you $200 a month or $2400 a year.”

For Example: “This service will increase your profits by 25% over the next four years” is better than writing “this service will increase your profits by $600 month.”

If you are offering a special discount or bonus to the reader, refer to it after your lead paragraph. Don’t spell out all the details of your offer yet. You want to build excitement and intrigue. But it’s important to refer to it early on in your letter, especially if you don’t mention it in the headline because it will keep your reader’s interest high.

For Example: If you purchase before July 1st, not only can you take advantage of our special discount, you’ll also be eligible for free freight!

Support your product claims with testimonials, examples, or statistics. These statements will add credibility to your benefit claims. Remember, businesses and consumers like to have risk eliminated before they buy a product.

Spell out the specific details of any special offer or a discount.

Close. Write a statement or two for each of the following points:

  • Recap benefits
  • Restate offer

Ask the prospect to act, or let them know what course of action you’ll be taking such as, telephoning next week to schedule an appointment. If you want to schedule an appointment with your prospect, don’t leave it up to them to telephone you. Indicate when you’ll be contacting them, and then make sure you follow through.

Add a post-script. You can use a P.S. to reinforce your offer or benefit.

Example: P.S. Don’t forget, our free freight offer is good only through July 1st!

Write

Thanks to your extensive outline, the process of actually writing your letter should be fairly simple.

Here are some general guidelines for your letter’s format:

  • Keep your sales letter to one or two pages. You shouldn’t try to tell a potential customer everything they ever wanted to know about your product in one letter. Consider enclosing a sales brochure in your sales letter that provides supplemental product information. If your sales letter is more than one page, don’t staple them — again, you want to keep your letter as personal as possible. Remember, you’re trying to interest your prospect enough to request additional information or agree to schedule an appointment with you. The more expensive the product or service, the more likely face-to-face contact will be necessary to close a sale.
  • Single-space sentences, double-space between paragraphs, and use one-inch margins. This not only makes your letter look neat and professional, it also provides you more room for your message.
  • Keep paragraphs short and use bullets to highlight points when you can. Both will help keep the pace of your letter quick and this will encourage your prospect to keep reading.

Underline, bold, or italicize key points and words, such as “no cost to you,” “free,” “new,” “a special offer.” This will help them stand out and be noticed.

Set up your letter properly. A standard business letter consists of six basic parts:

  1. Heading — Your printed letterhead, and the date.
  2. Inside Address — Your recipient’s name, title and address
  3. Salutation — Your formal greeting to your reader.
  4. Main body paragraphs
  5. Close
  6. Signature

Individual/GroupTitle 1Title2

Specific Individual: Dear Mr. Jones: Dear Ms. Brown:
Nonspecific Individual: Dear Sir: Dear Madam:
Nonspecific Group: Gentlemen: Ladies:

 

After writing the name of your addressee in your salutation, Dear Mr. Jones: always use a colon. Some people use commas or semi-colons after the name of their addressees, but only the colon is proper in a business letter.

If you don’t know whether your addressee is a man or a woman, try to find out. If you c an’t, then use a gender-neutral salutation such as “Dear Patron,” or “Dear President.”

Here are some guidelines to follow as you begin expanding upon your outline:

Use these key words in your sales letter:

New: People love novelty.

Save: People love to save money and time or anything with perceived value.

Guarantee and Proven: Help eliminate feelings of risk.

Results: People want to know what the outcome will be before they buy.

But the most important words in any sales letter are YOU and YOUR. Remember that your sales letter is a highly personal form of communication between you and the buyer. Keep the attention focused on their wants and needs.

Most businesses want to cut their long distance bills.vs.

You can save your company 25% a month on your long distance bills.

Use action verbs such as save, evaluate, accomplish, improve, and discover.

Use the active voice. Use “you spend” rather than “you are spending.” The active voice is more powerful and keeps the pace of your letter moving quickly.

Edit your letter. Effective sales writing requires thorough editing.

  • Edit for content. Examine your letter for appropriateness of content. Included in this examination is a study of the content for accuracy of details, relevance of facts, and appropriateness of subject matter in general. Always edit your letter for content before you edit it word by word because you may end up making significant rewrites after this step in the editing process.
  • Copy edit. Copy editing refers to the process of examining your letter for the quality of the writing, itself. Included in this process will be a study of word choice, punctuation, spelling and grammar.
  • Edit by comparison. Compare your sales letter to the letters you found and saved earlier. Does your letter have the same impact and tone?

Once you’ve edited your letter, give it to at least one other person to edit. It’s often difficult to catch your own mistakes. Typos and spelling mistakes will reduce the effectiveness of your letter and will make you appear unprofessional in the eyes of your prospect. Be open to criticism and suggestions for improvements.

When you read your sales letter, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does my headline/lead paragraph grab the reader’s attention? yes no

     

  • Does my headline/lead paragraph instantly communicate or imply an important benefit my prospect cares about? yes no

     

  • Do I offer additional benefits to build value? yes no

     

  • Do I prove what I’m stating? yes no

     

  • Have I anticipated my prospect’s major objections and countered them? yes no

     

  • Do I have a special offer to incentivize my prospect? yes no

     

  • Does my closing paragraph urge the reader to take an action or be receptive to scheduling an appointment with me? yes no

Only when you can answer “yes” to each of these questions is your sales letter finished. Don’t be discouraged if you have to rewrite your sales letter. Do what it takes to create an effective sales tool. And remember, the more sales letters you write, the easier the writing process will become.

As you write additional sales letters, keep careful track of which ones are effective in generating sales or helping you establish a relationship with your prospect. Incorporate the elements of the more successful ones into each new sales letter you create.

SAMPLE OF A SALES LETTER [top]

The following sample letter will give you an idea of how to bring all the elements of a good sales letter together:

I   S   L   A   N   DLONG DISTANCESeptember 8, 200x

Julie Smythe President Alternative Retailing 777 Easy Way Los Angeles, CA

YOU CAN CUT YOUR COMPANY’S LONG DISTANCE PHONE EXPENSES BY 30%! 

Dear Ms. Smythe:

It’s true! Island Long Distance saves direct mail retailers just like you as much as 30% off their monthly long distance phone bills.

We offer the same fiber optic telephone lines that your current service now offers, except we charge a lot less for our high quality service. And, with Island Long Distance, you never have to worry about lost sales due to a power or systems failure. In the event of an emergency, our computer will automatically reroute the calls from your 800 system to another location of your choosing.

Maybe you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of us. That’s because unlike AT&T and MCI, we don’t spend millions of dollars on expensive advertising campaigns. We choose to pass this savings on to you. In fact, most of our new business is generated the old fashioned way: our customers recommend us to their colleagues.

But that’s not all. Island Long Distance offers:

  • Delayed payment options during your off-peak months. As a clothing retailer, we understand your business has peaks and valleys, and we’re prepared to help you through the valleys. Simply choose one of our convenient payment options that’s best for your needs.
  • Guaranteed rates for two years. AT&T, MCI, and Sprint raise their rates 20% every four months (those clever television commercials sure cost a lot of money). We don’t, and we’ll put it in writing.
  • Guaranteed satisfaction. If after using our long distance for 90 days you’re not completely satisfied for any reason, we’ll switch you back to your old service free.
  • A FREE month of long distance to new customers.

But please don’t just take Island’s word on it. Here’s what some of customers think about us:

Island Long Distance has cut our long distance phone bills by 30%!”

— Ellen Walker, President, Peacock Fashions

I’ll never forget the hurricane that downed our phone lines for one week. And I’ll never forget how quickly Island Long Distance rerouted our calls to our New York branch. They saved us during our busiest sales season!”

— Alan Fisher, Sales Director, Candy-By-Mail

I’ve enclosed a brochure that further details our state-of-the-art rerouting system and delayed payment options. Please be advised the free month of long distance is available only to new customers who sign with us by July 1. You must act quickly to take advantage of this exceptional savings opportunity.

I’d like to meet with you to discuss how Island Long Distance can immediately begin saving you up to 30% on your monthly long distance expense. I’ll be contacting you next week to schedule an appointment. I look forward to meeting with you soon.

Sincerely,

 

Samuel Johnson President

 

P.S. Don’t forget, you must sign with Island Long Distance by July 1, 200x for your free month of long distance service!

 

FOLLOW-UP [top]

Even if your sales letter is well-written and effective, you will often need to follow-up with your prospect directly or with an additional sales letter. If you’ve sent 100 sales letters, construct a follow-up plan based on your best chances to generate results.

Make a list of all the prospects you’ve met or have had contact with and telephone them directly.

Next, send another letter reminding your other prospects of your initial letter and any deadlines for special offers.

CHECKLIST [top]

Plan

___ Understand your prospect. What do they care about? How can your product or service fulfill a need for them?

___ Understand the difference between features and benefits.

___ Anticipate your prospect’s objections and be prepared to counter them.

___ Decide what the main objective of your letter is, and develop an offer to help meet that objective.

___ Make sure the person you’re writing to is the buyer.

___ Study other samples of sales letters.

 

Outline

___ Write a headline or use a testimonial, review, or endorsement.

___ Write down your lead paragraph that states your product’s primary benefit.

___ Write down additional benefits.

___ Outline objections and counter them.

___ State price and profit potential.

___ Mention special offers or discounts.

___ Use supporting statements such as testimonials and statistics.

___ Write out the details of any offers or discounts.

___ Write your closing paragraph.

 

Write

___ Use the proper format.

___ Use key words.

___ Use the active voice.

___ Edit and rewrite.

 

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Complete Sales Letter Book: Model Letters for Every Selling Situation by Rhonda Harris and Ann McIntyre. (Sharpe Professional, 1998).

Sales Letters that Sell by Laura Brill. (AMACOM. 1998).

About the writer — Susan MaGee, formerly Publicity and Book Club Sales Director for Running Press Book Publishers, now operates her own Philadelphia-based business specializing in public relations and business writing.

All rights reserved. The text of this publication, or any part thereof, may not be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher.

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