It’s tricky enough to know how to write a proper business letter when you know the recipient, let alone when you’ve never met the person at the other end of the document.
You’ll undoubtedly have to face this situation throughout your working life, though, and the best way to tackle this challenge is by writing a “to whom it may concern” letter.
It’s a document that can help you address formal situations and unknown recipients. You’ve got to get it right if you want to impress, though, so we’ve rounded up the four steps needed to produce a proper business letter that’ll help you get the desired results.
Is this kind of letter appropriate?
The salutation “to whom it may concern” is traditionally used when you don’t know who you’re writing to, or if you’re unsure about the name of the person you’re addressing.
There are plenty of situations where you’ll find yourself in this situation. It’s a suitable salutation if you’re writing to an organization with an unfamiliar structure, or if you’re addressing a complaint towards a business.
This is a common greeting if you’ve been asked to provide a recommendation or letter of reference that you’ll have to submit through an automated system, and it’s ideal if you’re writing to introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met formally. It’s also a good option if you want to send a speculative letter about vacancies or a prospective letter about sales opportunities at an unfamiliar business.
While you’ll inevitably come across situations where you can’t avoid using “to whom it may concern,” you should take steps to avoid this stuffy and old-fashioned phrase if you possibly can. Before you sit down to write, it’s worth scouring the website and LinkedIn profile of the company involved to see if you can find the appropriate contact – a personal letter will always be better received. If you head to the company’s website you’ll often find the names of senior staff on the About Us page, and the firm’s LinkedIn profile will usually link to loads of people who work at the business.
If you really want to commit to finding the appropriate name, you can call the company and ask what name you should use on the letter – they may let you know the precise person involved. It’s also worth asking any of your professional contacts who may have worked at the company in the past in case they know the right name, and consider checking job postings for the names of hiring managers and recruitment staff.
At the end of this process you may only have a surname, but that’s often still a better option than using “to whom it may concern” – it’s still more a personal connection and it’ll prove more eye-catching to the recipient.
Are there alternatives?
There are undoubtedly some situations where you’ll have to use “to whom it may concern”, and others where some smart web searching can reveal the name of the person you need to address – and you can avoid the phrase all together.
Often, though, you’ll find yourself in the middle ground, with some extra information that doesn’t quite reveal a full name.
If you do end up in that position, don’t feel like you must resort to using “to whom it may concern” if you’d prefer to avoid its sheer formality. If you know the department you need to contact, open your letter with a greeting like “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Customer Service Manager”.
You can address the person’s job title directly if you’ve got that information to hand, and if you want to project a less formal tone you can open with a simple “Hello” or “Greetings”.
How to use “to whom it may concern
If you’ve exhausted all avenues and you have to open a letter with “to whom it may concern”, there are rules you should follow to ensure that you meet the standards associated with this kind of document.
When you want to write “to whom it may concern”, you need to capitalize the first letter of each word. Use “whom” instead of any “who” or “whoever”, and use a colon immediately following the phrase – not a comma. When you start your next paragraph, use a double space before you begin writing.
How to format your letter
You should follow formal business letter rules for the rest of your document, too. Include your name, address and contact details, the date, and then the address and contact details of the recipient’s company.
Include a subject line, use your first paragraph to outline the contents of the letter, and use consistent formatting, a professional font, and make sure you leave a line between your paragraphs.
The professional tone needs to continue to the end of the letter. Use a formal closing phrase like “yours sincerely” or “respectfully yours”, leave four lines for your signature, and include your full, typed name and title. Run a spelling and grammar check and proofread the letter before you post.
It can be tricky to know when to write a “to whom it may concern” letter, and it’s worth avoiding unless you can’t really help it – if you can use a friendlier or more personal greeting then you’re probably going to get better results.
But if you’re making a complaint, speaking to unfamiliar recipients, or writing a reference or an introductory letter then it sometimes can’t be avoided. At least if you follow these rules then you’ll get the job done – you’ll avoid offending anyone and you’ll get the right outcome.
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Mike has worked as a technology journalist for more than a decade and has written for most of the UK’s big technology titles alongside numerous global outlets. He loves PCs, laptops and any new hardware, and covers everything from the latest business trends to high-end gaming gear.