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Chances are that after you read this sentence, you'll decide whether to read the rest of this story. Still with me? You've just proved how important the first sentence of a sales letter is.

Sales letters are like advertisements. And it's often the headline in the ad that grabs the reader's attention, drawing him into the rest of the message. That's precisely what the first sentence of a sales letter should--make that must--do.

Getting your letter to stand out from all the others is Goal No. 1. Begin with something that's a little different from the other letters that cross your prospect's desk. Most salespeople start letters essentially the same way: with an explanation (often almost a defense) of why they're writing. Example: "I'm writing to let you know about our upcoming promotion and how you can take advantage of it next quarter." To make your letter stand out, you should get to the point immediately with: "Next quarter's promotion will let you make twice the phone calls at half the price."

In a cover letter that accompanies sales literature, don't start with "Enclosed is the information you requested about..." That's like starting an in-person call with the statement: "I'm here to make a sales call." It's obvious, so it's best left unstated. More effective is an opening statement about your product or service--better yet, about how or why the customer is going to benefit from it.

The best first sentence often is found buried somewhere in the body of the letter. Take a look through some of your recent correspondence and you'll probably find a one-sentence, benefit oriented "headline" that says it all; promote it to front-line status. (Hint: it's often in the second paragraph.)

The same principle applies when writing a follow-up letter to a phone call or a meeting. Never start the letter with "Thank you." (In fact, you probably ought not to thank them anywhere in the letter.) The reader who sees an opener like "Thank you for meeting with me," or "Thank you for your time on the phone the other day," will tend to dismiss the rest of the letter because he assumes you have nothing more to say than that.

Instead, make a knowledgeable and empathetic statement, and make it from the customer's point of view: "Achieving sales goals in a competitive environment such as yours can't be left to chance." Or, "The fact that 17 of the top 20 companies consistently specify Artzo means you are assured of making a reliable buy." When you are trying to get an appointment, you might ask a question: "If you could increase productivity on the factory floor without spending an extra penny, wouldn't it be worth 15 minutes of your time to find out how?"

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