In the October 1939 issue of the Dun’s Review, Arthur H. Little wrote an article entitled “The Cardinal Qualities of a Good Business Letter” with advice on the best way to handle customer correspondence.

Of course, back then, common correspondence meant a handwritten letter that might take days or weeks to reach the recipient. Although today’s smartphone technology means the possibility of a near-instant response time, that doesn’t mean that etiquette has necessarily gone with the wind.

Little gave us two lessons for public relations:

  1. Never offend
  2. Try to win friendship in every contact

They may seem like common sense, but when your only interaction with a customer may be through email, it’s all the more important to keep these points in mind. Knowing how to create a friendly dialogue may mean the difference between welcoming business and turning it away, so as Little advised: “think and write wisely.”

Little outlined what he considered the four cardinal qualities of “workmanlike writing”:

1. Propriety (appropriateness)

Do more than simply differentiate between formal and informal style; try to think about the recipients’ needs.  This means you’ll need to be conscious of what your audience is looking for from your response.

You may be perfectly attuned to appropriate use of language and format, but if you’re expanding on your company’s history, the industry or your reputation instead of addressing their questions or complaints, you risk leaving your reader wondering whether you’ve actually taken their concerns into account. An email is the perfect opportunity to show customers that you acknowledge and want to resolve their needs.

2. Perspicuity (clarity)

Clarity in writing takes reflection. Before you hit send, make sure to read over your e-mail to make sure that you’re conveying what you mean to. Break apart long sentences into shorter ones, and add in paragraph breaks in massive blocks of text.

3. Accuracy

Little wrote, “We’re safer, generally, if the right word turns out to be a little word, well known” and recommended to “write simply, as we talk.” Not only does this come much more naturally, it should help get your thoughts across in an understandable manner.

4. Persuasiveness (engagement)

An engaging writing style will keep the customer’s interest. Avoid vague or abstract statements and passive verbs; don’t be afraid to use concrete examples or refer to real-life examples to illustrate your point.

Little divided sentences into two stress points, the beginning and end. He places particular importance on the end, “because it lingers in the memory, [and] is more important.” Thanking the customer for their correspondence is never a bad way to end an email.

Good writing never goes out of fashion. As important as it is to respond to customer inquiries quickly, a thoughtful, personalized message is worth the extra effort.

Check out these images from the 1939 Dun’s Review archives:

For more resources on e-mail etiquette:

26 Rules for emails from About.com: 26 tips, each with more detailed advice for topics such as how to keep emails short and writing perfect subject lines.

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab: Email Etiquette : A guide on how to become an effective reader/writer, including how to compose emails to people you don’t know or how to continue e-mail conversations.

Net Manners: 101 Email Etiquette Tips: 101 tips on sending, formatting, and forwarding emails, using attachments and privacy and copyright.