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Why I Say Maybe [No Thanks] to Handwritten Thank You Notes [Update 3/16/11]

by Carolyn Elefant on March 16, 2011 · 20 comments

in Marketing & Making Money, Networking

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See update notes at end of post (3/16/2011)
Inspired by posts singing the praises of handwritten thank-you notes (like this, this and this), I decided to experiment a little myself. For the past month or two, I’ve sent a dozen or so handwritten notes to colleagues, thanking them for taking the time to meet with me, for giving me advice or for picking up the tab at an expensive meal. These weren’t just plain cards with a signature, like so many of the perfunctory holiday cards that I receive but rather, four or five lives personalized to the recipient’s situation. And the response so far? Nothing.

Of course, I didn’t send out thank you notes expecting a thank-you in return. At the same time, I thought that I might receive some kind of acknowledgment, as I would if I phoned someone to thank them for a referral or even sent a thank you by email. And the lack of response shouldn’t surprise me either because I’m equally bad. A few months back, I received a lovely handwritten note from a colleague and didn’t respond until a few days ago, to clear my conscience before writing this post.

My experience has got me wondering about the value of the thank-you note.
The experts say that handwritten notes make you stand out, or make the recipient feel good when they see that you’ve taken the time to send something handwritten and personal. But I wonder if handwritten notes are actually viewed this way, or regarded with the same weary cynicism that I do: as another perfunctory marketing tool that you do because you think it’s the right thing to do.

But what’s worse is that a handwritten thank you isn’t interactive. As I found, it doesn’t generate a conversation. It’s not an opener to a continued relationship, but a closer to a matter already handled. By contrast, a phone call or email or, yes, even a Facebook post or Twitter DM, represent an opportunity for continued engagement.

I’ve still got a few more thank-you cards left from the batch that I bought a month ago, so I’m not sure that I’m ready to give up on them yet. You can call me unmannered or lacking in etiquette if you like, but at least we can have a conversation. That’s not the case with a thank you note, so no thanks to that!

What do you think about handwritten thank you notes? Come on – this is the place for all of you who never wrote those thank you’s after your wedding or Sweet 16 or bar/bat mitzvah to come clean! Are handwritten notes in business different from ones we send personally? And will handwritten notes go the way of the typewriter or the bike messenger, other casualties of the Internet-Age? Send your comments below.

OK readers – looks like I’m wrong on this one.  As I said, I’ve still got a stack on notes and I won’t give up yet.  Thanks for the feedback on how to get the most out of a handwritten note – and  some inspiring success stories would be welcome too.

  • shg

    Etiquette dictates that a thank you note is the final communication in that particular stream. In other words, you don’t get an acknowledge of appreciation in return. It should thus come as no surprise that no one acknowledged your thank you note.

    But they know you sent it. And the appreciated it. And they will remember it when the time comes to offer more demonstrative, if tacit, appreciation.

    Be careful with experiments to test the value of something like a thank you note. The design of the experiment must take into account the nature of the act, or the results will be misleading.

  • Jac.

    I think that if you are writing a thank you note expecting something in return, you are doing it for the wrong reason. You shouldn’t write thank you notes because it will stand out in the crowd, you should do it because it is good manners to take a few moments to express gratitude. I don’t ever view thank you notes cynically. Nor do I follow up on them to express gratitude for receiving the note.

  • Aaron @ Lawyerist

    I just bought a big stack of custom letterpress notecards, so I hope you’re wrong about their value.

  • Margie

    If you send a note that says “I feel like I should send this” then people won’t think too much about it and you probably won’t get too much of a response. But if you send a note that feels like a spontaneous and sincere expression of appreciation, connection, friendship, or joy … that’s when you do actually stand out.

    The issue is you can’t fake that, you just have to do it when the moment strikes you. Good correspondence, like the practice of law, takes practice.

    Usually the thank you cards that get the best responses are the ones to folks who don’t expect them … my classic example is the clerk at the filing office who helped me file four complaint packages. She was understandably ready to move on by the end, and I sent her a thank you note in a pretty envelope thanking her for taking the time to get everything perfect for me. Now she is so nice to me every time I go in there you would think we were old friends. Even better, as word of my note has spread all of the of the other clerks are extra nice too — all because of a spontaneous thing that took me five minutes and less than a dollar.

  • Andrew

    shg hit the nail on the end. A thank you note is the end of the conversation, no response should be expected.

  • JAW

    Depends on who you are sending them to and why. My neighbor just got honored in the local 25 women to know list. I sent her a personal note because she’s my neighbor, I know her personally, but I don’t know her well. If I wanted to acknowledge a client, I’d probably send an email. If it were a closer friend, a phone call.

  • http://twitter.com/samglover Sam Glover

    Dislike! I love sending handwritten notes, and I don’t care whether I get a reply. I’m happyto follow up using social media another time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lawchicmn Anne Hansen

    I just wrote a stack of thank-you notes after my bridal shower, and don’t expect a response to any of them. Well, just one, because I added a note with a specific question and gave her my e-mail address. She mentioned the name of something at the shower, and I couldn’t remember the name. Otherwise, I agree that the note is the end of the conversation.

    I’ve also written many thank-you’s to colleagues that I don’t expect a formal response to. Actually it would lead to the silly result of “thank you for the thank you,” “no, thank you.” That’s just awkward. But the note is a gesture of my appreciation, and I know (hope) they’ll think of me as a grateful person (which I am). Nobody wants to help an ungrateful person, after all.

    There’s really no surefire way to test the efficacy of the handwritten thank you note ….. but I really don’t care.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lawchicmn Anne Hansen

    I just wrote a stack of thank-you notes after my bridal shower, and don’t expect a response to any of them. Well, just one, because I added a note with a specific question and gave her my e-mail address. She mentioned the name of something at the shower, and I couldn’t remember the name. Otherwise, I agree that the note is the end of the conversation.

    I’ve also written many thank-you’s to colleagues that I don’t expect a formal response to. Actually it would lead to the silly result of “thank you for the thank you,” “no, thank you.” That’s just awkward. But the note is a gesture of my appreciation, and I know (hope) they’ll think of me as a grateful person (which I am). Nobody wants to help an ungrateful person, after all.

    There’s really no surefire way to test the efficacy of the handwritten thank you note ….. but I really don’t care.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lawchicmn Anne Hansen

    Also, if I get a card that I really like (thank-you or otherwise), I put it on my desk. I once printed out an e-mail with great words of encouragement, but otherwise e-mails or social media doesn’t lend itself well to “holding onto” that appreciation. Sure I’ll give a shout-out to a colleague on Facebook or Twitter if (s)he was helpful, but if it was a BFD (thank you, VP Biden), I’ll definitely send a handwritten note.

  • Bob Striker

    I always get a response to a hand-written note. Sometimes it’s just an email saying thanks for the note. Sometimes it’s a call.

    Also – you can make notes interactive. I sometimes include some sort of a “call to action” in a card (either suggesting a time to meet for coffee or lunch – or asking a question) and I usually get some follow-through with it.

  • Krista Bulmer

    I just received a thank you note from a client after closing the file and was really touched. In Canada, I find that there is very little emphasis placed on handwritten thank you notes (please correct me if I’m wrong) and they are rare. You rarely see people sending thank you notes for job interviews or business meetings. Perhaps this is why I am so impressed by the thank you note. It actually meant something. I did not respond since the note was the end of the conversation.

  • Jackieplanb

    I have mailed over 3500 greeting cards over the past 3 years for Thank You’s. BIRTHDAYS, CONGRATS, NICE TO MEET YOU etc and never with intention of aresponse but surprisingly. I get alot of positive responses. I am now in business as a distributor w/ sendoutcards and sharing how to really make a difference when you mail a Thank you etc. I don’t ever

    expect a response. I believe we just want to know our efforts are appreciated and made a difference in someone’s day ….and they do..even though you may never know it.

  • Paul Neilan

    A handwritten note is always welcome because it’s more personal. Far from being a conversation-ender, it leaves the door open for conversation, provided the writer wants to make further conversation. And that could be by phone, e-mail, or whatever (I’m one of the seven people on the planet not on Facebook, and one of the 13 who don’t really know what twitter’s all about).

    Full disclosure: I am something of an anachronism. If I have anything to write that takes thought and time, something that I have to ponder, I write it out longhand. With a pen. Yes, a real-live fountain pen, those things that you used to be able to buy at a stationers (“What’s a stationer?” someone may well ask) as late as the Fall of Saigon. I’m not sure whether that had anything to do with it, but I recall that when that last helicopter left the roof of the US embassy, the FP’s disappeared from the school supply section. You can still buy them, though. You just have to know where to look. And nothing beats a good fountain pen (or ink pen as they call them in the South & West), with watery ink that lets your thoughts stream across the page without interruption.

    Handwritten notes and letters are still important, even more now because our culture has forgotten the place of the hand in the development, and the “mind” is now the only thing with any relevance. But think about it for a moment. Up until the era of our grandparents (well, mine, anyway) really accurate measuring instruments were just unknown. Think about how Newcomen built the first real steam engine: the tolerances for the pistons and the chambers had to be so tight that steam wouldn’t escape, yet loose enough to move up and down in every cycle. Those guys used their hands to feel what was accurate. It wasn’t until much later in the 19th century that consistently accurate machining. was available. And of course, who can forget the opening sequence of 2001 – Space Odyssey, in which those ancestors of ours discovered tools through their hands as much as by their minds.

    But I digress…

    That’s a roundabout way of saying, yes, handwritten notes still mean something, and the less common they are, the more significant they are.

  • http://www.ethicsmaven.com Eric Cooperstein

    Whenever I get a handwritten thank-you note, my response is always the same: this person was raised better than I was (sigh).

    I like them and find it difficult to throw them away. Writing thank-you notes is one of the things I would like to do to make myself a better person but it is on my list right after exercising 4x / week. An aspirational goal.

  • http://twitter.com/PubliusDB Daniel Burton

    I don’t think you’re supposed to expect a response to a thank you note. Saying ‘thank you’ is your obligation, not theirs.

  • http://twitter.com/PubliusDB Daniel Burton

    I don’t think you’re supposed to expect a response to a thank you note. Saying ‘thank you’ is your obligation, not theirs.

  • Patrick Deaton

    Someone told me twenty years ago that I could never write too many thank you notes. I have followed that rule ever since. Folded cards about 4 x 5 inches with my name printed on them are fine.

  • http://emayerlaw.com Eric L. Mayer

    Keep doing the notes! They are the ultimate way to show someone that you give a darn about what they gave to (or did for) you. They separate the professionals from the wannabes.

    Buy a drawerful and use them liberally whenever a thank you is in order.

  • Gcklaw

    When my law practice experienced a particular milestone, (10 years old?), I sent a hand written thank you note to most of my clients, past and present, thanking them for helping me to reach the milestone. In the notes I was genuinely thankful to the clients for their contributions to my success to date.

    The feed back was incredible – including 6 or 7 new personal injury cases referred to me from those clients within a month of sending the thank you notes.

    Clint Kelley

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