“At my grandmother’s funeral in 1999, you handed me a note card that read: “Ophelia and John, how special they were, how good they were to me…” In that moment of complete agony, through your words, you brought a smile to my face. I still have that card. It’s framed and hanging on my wall where I can look at it every day and know I will always have a friend in you.” — Facebook post from Amy to Steve
When was the last time you received a handwritten letter or note in the mail? A month ago? Last year? So long you can’t remember? However long ago it was, if you’re like me you still have it tucked away in a shoebox somewhere, ready to pull out and read again years down the road. Because it was special. Uncommon.
In 1988 I went to work for PaineWebber in Kansas City, Missouri. I was a baby faced 25 year old ready to set the world on fire. As a new stockbroker you were required to pass a licensing exam and after passing you were sent to company headquarters in New York City for a month of training. The licensing exam was a fairly tough test, covering pretty much all equity and debt securities. After two months of studying you had all of the product knowledge you would need to get started, so the month of training in New York was focused primarily on selling techniques.
This being my first job in sales, I’d never been through any sort of formal sales training and wasn’t real sure what to expect. I figured it’d probably be the basic stuff … features/benefits, overcoming objections and closing. You know, the “nuts and bolts” of selling. There were about twenty of us from all across the country in the class, most of us young, all of us eager. I’ll never forget sitting there that first morning in PaineWebber’s offices overlooking New York’s financial district and thinking I’d finally arrived. As I sat staring out the window, the door opened and in walked our instructor. He was exactly what I would’ve pictured as the quintessential staid Wall Street broker. He had a John Houseman-like aura about him. Without saying a word he walked around the room and placed on the table in front of each of us a single, blank note card. “This,” he said, “will set you apart from the crowd. A handwritten note. Take the time to let people know you care, because others won’t.”
He was right. Twenty years later, his thoughts are probably even more relevant than they were then. The avenues of communication have exploded in the information age. Communication is instant. Efficient. What used to take days now takes seconds. Next week I’ll be skiing in Colorado. I can guarantee you at some point I’ll be sitting on a sundeck at the base of a mountain, sun on my face, drink in one hand, iPhone in the other, answering emails from a customer sitting in his climate controlled office in Parsippany, NJ. That’s the world we live in — bits and bytes, traveling across digital networks, received instantaneously a dozen states or a half a world away — business as usual.
Bill, a close friend of mine whose father was a professional football player in the NFL during the 1950’s, shared a story with me recently. He was watching a documentary on the life of Wellington Mara, the longtime owner of the New York Giants, the team for which his father had played. His dad had always spoken highly of Mr. Mara and had remained in contact with him long after his playing days were over, so when Bill ran across the show he found it of particular interest. The story he recounted to me was about a fan who wrote Mr. Mara after every home game to offer advice, voice his displeasure for the team’s play, critique play calling, etc., etc., etc. Like clockwork, a letter would arrive on Mr. Mara’s desk mid-week after a game and each week he would sit down, pen in hand, and personally answer the overly-involved fan.
Mr. Mara was a busy man. Did he have to take the time to write this man week in and week out? No. Did it make an impact on someone? Decades later the story is being retold … you tell me. I don’t know if that fan is still around. If he’s not, I bet his children have a box full of letters from Wellington Mara and I venture to guess they think fondly of him.
So where does a handwritten note fit into today’s world? Simply put, anywhere that relationships matter, which is EVERYWHERE. In business, in family, in friendship. For me, it takes about three to four times as long to pen a letter by hand as it does to type the same words out on a keyboard, but it’s time well spent. I print in block letters, heavily influenced by four years of mechanical and architectural drawing classes. It can sometimes be difficult to read. But it’s personal, it’s me, and if you’re holding my letter in your hand you’ve captured a piece of my heart. You know I’ve given my time to share something with you. You matter to me. The words are but half the story. The ink and the paper speak the rest. Take the time to let someone know they matter in your day.
James Kissinger is a husband, a father, a student of life… a man with more questions than answers. He lives in the northwest corner of Arkansas with his beautiful wife, Sara, and daughters Audrey and Sally. He was raised on sweet tea and fried foods and is thankful for his Southern heritage.