Q: I often send letters along with my brochure to follow up my phone contacts with customers, but I don't seem to get a positive response. How can I make my letters more effective?

A: Every entrepreneur, at one time or another, needs a terrific sales letter. Whether it's to follow up a telephone conversation with a prospect, accompany a written proposal or send "cold" to a prospect you can't reach by phone, a great sales letter is the one tool no entrepreneur can do without. Not to be confused with direct mail, which is sent to thousands of prospects at once, a sales letter is typically sent to one prospect at a time. You don't need a degree in journalism or lots of experience to write a good letter, but you should follow these guidelines to produce letters that will motivate prospects and successfully help you achieve your goals.

1. Set aside enough writing time. The first mistake novice letter-writers make is to assume that writing a one or two-page sales letter should be easy or quick. The truth is, writing a solid sales letter should take several hours. But that doesn't mean each time a letter goes out, hours must go into crafting it. Instead, it's best to create a few sales letters-one for each of your principal sales tasks-and keep them on hand, ready to be personalized for each new prospect.

2. Make it outer-directed. Unless you're writing a letter to your mother, no one wants to read all about you. Effective sales letters are about what the prospect "will get," not about what "you offer." Prospects will read your letters with one question in mind: "What's in it for me?" So resist the temptation to effusively detail your company's services, awards and credentials, unless you first address the benefits prospects will receive when they select your firm.

3. Present benefits followed by features. Make a list of the principal benefits your prospects will enjoy, then weave them into your opening paragraph. Does this letter present a special offer? If so, that should be a part of the opening hook which, along with your benefits, will draw the reader in and entice him or her to read on.

The body of your letter should use features to explain how your prospect will realize the special benefits your company offers. Suppose your opening benefit promises to help your prospect save money-then the body of your letter will use features to explain how. You may choose to use bullets to itemize facts, but be careful not to overdo it. Keep your letter professional-looking and easy to read.

Your closing paragraph should contain a summary of your initial benefits and a description of the next steps you plan to take. For some types of businesses, the final paragraph includes a call to action with a time-dependent special offer. But no matter what business you're in, it's always best to take responsibility for following up. It's a mistake to rely on your prospect to take the next step. Clearly state what you plan to do, and carry through on your promised action.

4. Add a P.S. It's always a great idea to include a P.S. at the end of your letter, because it's generally read long before the body copy. Refer to your chief benefit or special offer in the P.S. to entice the reader to spend time with the body of your letter.

The key to writing a great sales letter is to make it outer-directed and to clearly state the benefits prospects will enjoy when they select your firm. This will keep readers engaged and bring you one step closer to achieving your sales goals.