Neil McNicholas: Dear Sir or Madam, please answer me about the lost art of letter writing

THE other day I found myself asking the question: what has happened to letter writing? I don't mean social letter-writing, but business correspondence.

Why do businesses no longer respond to correspondence?

What has happened to companies writing letters like they used to in the good old days? Who still remembers the days of the typing pool, or at least a couple of secretaries busy at their Remingtons, or Olivettis, or Underwoods, or Smith Coronas?

Unless it’s just the view through my rose-tinted glasses, I’m sure you could rely on receiving a response to a letter within a week or less because that’s how companies operated; it’s what secretaries and typists were for.

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It was also a matter of basic courtesy. It gave the impression of efficiency and professionalism and that you mattered to them as a customer (even if you didn’t). It would have been considered the height of rudeness to ignore the writer of a letter. It also kept the Royal Mail in business with all this correspondence going back and forth.

Not anymore. For all the hype given to customer service and customer care – each an oxymoron if ever I heard one – businesses now seem to use letter writing and even emailing as a barrier against having to deal with anyone they don’t really want to, rather than a useful form of communicating with those who use their services.

For a long time now, it’s been easy to blame the postal service for letters that were “never received” because we are increasingly aware of the falling standard of service in that particular area.

Remember the days of first class mail when letters were delivered before the ink had even had a chance to dry? And two deliveries a day? Yes, two. As someone who has been in the practice of including a return address on envelopes, I can never understand how letters can go missing. They either go to where they were meant to go, or they are returned to where they came from. Where else can they go?

Even if they fell behind one of the sorting machines, surely someone would eventually be tasked to do some serious sweeping or dusting and would find them? Apparently not.

The ability (if companies are to be believed) of the Royal Mail to make vast volumes of letters vanish without trace would make the magicians Penn and Teller green with envy.

Where the theory on lost mail falls apart is that the same thing apparently happens with emails – and they can’t fall behind sorting machines.

When you email companies, even repeatedly, and they never respond, or when you leave phone messages and no one ever gets back to you, what is the explanation or excuse this time? They seem to think that if they ignore you, you’ll go away. Wrong.

Given how often it happens, with the best will in the world there is only explanation: companies don’t care anymore.

They don’t care enough to employ the staff that it requires to answer emails or phone messages, and they certainly don’t care enough to answer letters.

I used to have this theory that if I took the time and trouble to write an actual letter, written in as comprehensive a way as possible rather than the truncated style of emails, which the recipient could read and digest in their own time, then I fully expected that I would be shown the courtesy of an equally personal and comprehensive reply. Wrong again.

Having learned that particular lesson the hard way, I generally do my corresponding now by email because that seems to be the only “language” businesses speak anymore – but it makes no difference, emails still go unanswered.

Just recently I have had occasion to write or email (and not always with complaints I hasten to add) the office of the Attorney General (no reply); the national Chief Fire & Rescue Adviser (no rely); my local council (no reply); the manager of my local airport (no reply); Sky TV (no reply), and so the list goes on.

It can’t all be lost letters, emails not received, or even coincidence; rather, I would suggest, that companies and businesses and even government departments seem to think they don’t need even to acknowledge receipt of letters or emails, much less reply to them, because what is the sender going to do, write again?

They’ll just ignore that as well. They apparently seem to think that eventually people will give up and go away, hence why the answer to the problem still lies firmly in our hands.

Neil McNicholas is a 
parish priest in Yarm.