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The Secret of My Success:
Thank-You Notes


People often ask me for advice on how to be successful. "Is there a secret?" they say.

As we all know, real success comes slowly and is due to a number of different factors all coming together over a period of years. Being successful takes intelligence, natural talent, knowledge, skill, hard work, smart choices, persistence and luck.

Although there is no real shortcut, there is a secret: a secret so powerful that you can use it to open doors that might otherwise be closed, and to influence people to help you time and again. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is the secret that has a lot to do with my success.

The secret is simple: Write thank-you notes.

Making a Friend at IBM

Years ago, when I was just starting as a professional writer, I also worked as a computer consultant. One day, I happened to read in a computer magazine that IBM was having a big conference for consultants a few hours from where I lived. I decided it would be a good idea to attend the conference, so I drove there to see if I could get in.

Once I arrived, my request to attend the conference led me to Bill, the IBM person who was organizing the conference. Bill was a nice enough fellow, but he didn't want to let me in. He said the conference was only for professional consultants and was by invitation only.

Well, I can be persistent when I need to, and finally Bill agreed to let me attend some of the conference sessions. "You can go to the afternoon workshops," he said grudgingly, "but you can't go to the dinner or to anything else." However, I wasn't going to complain. I did show up, uninvited, to an invitation-only conference for important consultants, and I felt lucky that anyone would even talk to me.

During the conference, I found out Bill's mailing address at IBM, and the minute I got home I sent him a thank-you note. I told him that I found the conference valuable and that I appreciated his consideration.

Over the years, I got to know Bill a lot better, and I found out he was a wonderful, thoughtful man. However, at the time, I didn't know him at all. All I knew was that he responded to my note by allowing me to register with the IBM Consultant Relations department as an officially recognized consultant.

During the next few years, I was not only invited to IBM's conferences, I was able to spend time with Bill and the various people he worked with. He had a lot of experience, and I spent many hours listening to his stories and learning from him. Bill went out of his way to set up meetings for me with important IBM executives and to introduce me to influential consultants. He helped me in so many important ways, I can't even begin to list them all. And when the time came that the IBM Consultant Relations department needed to build their own computer network, they hired me as a consultant to come to their headquarters and do the work for them.

Why Thank-You Notes Are So Effective

I would like to believe that I was hot stuff. After all, it's pleasant to think that Bill was able to talk to me for only a few moments and see what a truly valuable human being I was. The plain truth, however, was that the consultant's conference was filled with people who were more knowledgeable, more experienced, better known, and far more important than me. But I had one advantage.

Out of several hundred guests, I was one of the few who bothered to take the time to thank IBM for having me. IBM (and Bill) went to a lot of trouble and spent a lot of money for these people, and I was the only one who took a few minutes to send a thank-you note.

Why are such notes so effective? Although it is easy to sit down and write a short note, hardly anyone does, and the moment you do, you set yourself aside from the crowd. Moreover, people like Bill work hard. How do you think they feel when someone takes the time to thank them for a job well done, or for spending a little extra time doing something special for someone?

How would you feel? You would feel great, and you would never forget the person who took the trouble to write the note that made you feel so good.

Della and Josh

"My mom always made me write thank-you notes," said Della, and no one who knows her would be surprised that her good manners would pay off handsomely over the years. However, even Della did not anticipate how a simple note would change her life.

It was 1990. Josh was a good-looking, intelligent, single guy living in Southern California. He had recently wound up a successful business, and had decided to move to Hawaii and start afresh. Earlier that year, Josh had ended a long-term relationship, and since then, he had been dating a succession of women. He was ready to settle down. In fact, he was looking for someone to go to Hawaii with him, but, after several months of searching, he still couldn't find the right woman.

Instead, Josh prepared to go alone. He sold some things, packed the rest, made his travel arrangements, and, as a final gesture to his old life, planned a going-away party at which he could say goodbye to all his old friends.

A few weeks before his departure, Josh hosted the party at his own place, and seventy-five people showed up. One of them was Della, who had been brought by a friend. Della had been introduced to Josh briefly several years before, but he didn't remember much about her, and, at the party, he was so busy with all his guests he barely had time to talk to her.

The next morning, however, Della wrote Josh a thank-you note. She didn't know his last name, so she addressed the note to "Josh" at the street address where the party had been held.

Josh, of course, didn't expect anyone to write a note, especially someone he barely knew, and of all the guests who had been at his house, Della was the only one who bothered to thank her host properly.

To Della, sending a thank-you note was simply an expression of her good manners. To Josh, the note meant a lot more. "Her thank-you note was like Cinderella's glass slipper," he recalls. "I was waiting for a sign. That thank-you note was the sign."

Josh called Della, asked her out on a date, and ten days later, they were on their way to Hawaii. Before long they were married and now, years later, they have three wonderful daughters — Clara, Celeste anid Emily — and are one of the happiest couples I know.

Your Mother Was Right

Did your mother ever nag you to write thank-you notes? Well, she was right.

Of course, you can't expect to make a friend like Bill every time you write a note, and certainly, Della's luck was exceptional. However, the reason you write a thank-you note is to thank someone, and, believe me, there is no one who will not appreciate the gesture.

In principle, the warm feeling you get from writing a thank-you note should be enough to satisfy you. That, of course, is what your mother tried to teach you. What you may not realize, however, is that the habit of thanking people goes a long way toward making you successful.

The reason for this is simple. All of us need the help of others, and anything we can do to show our appreciation is going to make other people want to help us.

When Should You Write a Thank-You Note?

Good manners require you to write a thank-you note whenever someone:

  • Sends you a gift
  • Entertains you at their home
  • Does you a kindness
  • Offers you an important opportunity

The first two situations are straightforward. Whenever you receive a gift and whenever you have been entertained at someone's home, you must write a thank-you note. The circumstances do not matter. Who the people are does not matter. You must send them a note: this is not negotiable.

If you do not feel like it ("I didn't want to go in the first place, and the food was terrible, and my hostess didn't even seem to notice when her baby threw up all over my new blouse"), console yourself with the thought that you are being polite. Writing thank-you notes is what well-mannered people do, and it is good manners that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

When someone does you a kindness, you may or may not be obliged to send him a thank-you note. In general, you do not have to write a note to thank someone for doing his job properly. For example, say you are looking for a book at the library, and the librarian is polite and efficient. She is merely doing her job, and you do not need to send her a note (although you should be gracious and thank her at the time).

Suppose, however, you have a special request, one that requires the librarian to put in an unusual amount of effort helping you. Once you receive that help, it would be the mark of a real gentleman or lady to send a written thank-you note. When you do, I guarantee that (1) your note will make the librarian very happy, and (2) you will stand out because very few people bother to write such notes.

So, when someone helps you, how do you know when you should write a thank-you note? The answer is simple:

Harley's Rule of
Thank-You Notes

Whenever someone spends more effort helping you than it would take to write a thank-you note, send a note.

If someone offers you an important opportunity, be sure to take a moment and thank him for his help. For example, from time to time I am interviewed on radio or TV. I consider each interview a chance to talk to a large group of people, so after the interview, I send a thank-you note to the host of the show as well as the person who books the guests.

The next time someone provides you with an opportunity, send that person a note. It's easy to do, and you can be sure your thought will be appreciated and remembered.

Receiving a Thank-You Note

I write books for a living, and over the years I have autographed more books than I can remember. Every now and then, a salesperson who works for the publisher will ask me to send a book to someone to whom they are trying to make an important sale.

One such request stands out in my mind. A salesperson asked me to autograph a book for someone who works at a large software company. "Her name is Dolores," the salesperson told me, "and she is thinking of using your book as part of a promotion they are planning."

I sent the book and, to my surprise, a few days later I received a handwritten note from Dolores. It read, "Harley: Thank you for the signed book. It was very thoughtful."

How did that note make me feel? In all the years I have been writing books, Dolores is the only one who ever sent a note thanking me for a book (and I have given away a lot of books). True, many people have been grateful, but she is the only person who took the time to write and mail a note.

Now, Dolores didn't send me a note because she thought it would make her more successful. I bet if you asked her, she would simply say she was being polite, and she would wonder what all the fuss is about. But think about how you would feel if you received such a note. Wouldn't you be more likely to want to do business with Dolores and her company? I know I am.

What Do You Write in a Thank-You Note?

You may shy away from writing thank-you notes because you are not exactly sure what to do. Don't worry, it's easy.

Thank-you notes are short, and they do not take much time to write. Start with a blank piece of paper or a blank card, and write the following:

  • The date
  • The person's name
  • One sentence explaining why you are thanking the person
  • A second sentence, saying something nice about the gift, invitation, or help you received
  • Your signature (which must be legible)

Here is an example:

December 3, 2003

Dear Sebastian:

Thank you for the lovely birthday gift. The bookends look great in my bookcase, and I appreciate that you remembered me on my birthday.

Alice

Notice that Alice did not say, "I would like to thank you..." She said "Thank you..." When you write, do not tell the person what you would like to do just do it.

Of course, you can write a longer note. Nothing restricts you to two sentences. However, two sentences is the minimum. Here is another example:

December 21, 2003

Dear Ms. Murphy:

Thank you for the time you spent helping me over the phone the other day. I realize you are busy, and I appreciate your spending so much time helping me untangle my account with your company.

Barry Simmons

One thing about the business world is that no one ever has enough time to carry out all of his duties. Thus, you will always be appreciated when you thank someone for his or her time. In many cases, that is the most valuable gift the person has to give you.

Questions and Answers

Writing thank-you notes should be quick and easy, not a burden. However, I don't want you to take shortcuts that might undermine the impact of what you are doing.

To help you, here are the answers to some common thank-you note questions:

QUESTION: Does it count if I send a thank-you note by email?

No. You can always send an email message in which you thank someone for something. However, this does not count as a real thank- you note. A real thank-you note is written on paper and is delivered in an envelope.

QUESTION: Does this mean I have to write every thank-you note on paper?

Yes.

QUESTION: But I am too busy.

The person who sent you the gift or helped you solve your problem was also busy. The reason thank-you notes are so meaningful is because they do require time and effort, and the fact that you are busy makes your note all the more important. I suggest you buy some attractive notepaper or some blank cards to keep near your work area. Once you have the tools at hand, writing and addressing a thank-you note will only take a moment.

QUESTION: Can I save time and make the whole process easier by buying a preprinted card with the words already on it and just sign my name?

No. You have to write your own note on blank paper. You can use a card that is blank on the inside. However, you must write the words yourself.

QUESTION: Someone gave my husband and me a gift. Can I sign both our names to the thank-you note?

No, a letter can only be written by one person, and may only be signed by one person. However, you may write a note on behalf of yourself and someone else, as long as you are one of the people doing the thanking. ("Dear Aunt Edna: Barry and I thank you for the lovely salad bowl..."). You may not write a thank-you note for someone else, nor may someone else write a thank-you note for you.

QUESTION: I forgot to thank someone for something important. When is it too late to write a note?

It is never too late to write a thank-you note. You may have to grovel, but you must still write the note. ("Dear Sylvia: Yesterday, I happened to notice the brass candlestick holders you gave Harold and me several years ago for our anniversary. Although I am ashamed to admit it, I realized I never thanked you properly for your gift...")

QUESTION: Someone gave me a gift a long time ago, and I never sent a thank-you note. How much time has to pass before I am not obligated to send a note?

There is no statute of limitations on thank-you notes. Until you write the note, you have not fulfilled your social obligation.

QUESTION: I helped someone who later sent me a small thank-you gift. Do I have to send that person a thank-you note for the gift?

No. You do not have to thank people for thanking you. However, as with all gifts, you must acknowledge it in some way, so the person knows you received the gift. You may tell him or her in person, over the phone, or by email.

QUESTION: I was recently interviewed for a new job. Do I have to send a thank-you note to the person who interviewed me?

Yes. Look on it as an opportunity to demonstrate your good manners.

The Best Reason to Write Thank-you Notes

So far I have given you several good reasons to write thank-you notes. First, you will be showing gratitude to people who deserve your thanks. Second, people will respond to your good manners. Through the years, this will result in many new opportunities, which will help you become successful.

In additon, when someone sends you a gift, writing a thank-you note tells the person that you received the gift. If you have ever sent something that was never acknowledged, you will know how important it is for someone to know that his or her gift arrived safely.

These are all good reasons to write thank-you notes, but there is one more that is even more important.

Imagine that you have to choose a person with whom you are going to spend a lot of time. You have narrowed the choices down to two people who, superficially, seem the same. But then you find out that one person always writes thank-you notes, and the other person doesn't.

If you are like me, you would choose the thank-you note person. After all, doesn't it seem likely that such a person would be more gracious, friendly, and better-mannered, and isn't that just the type of person we all like to be around?

When you get in the habit of thanking people for their gifts and for their help, you yourself become a gracious, friendly, well-mannered person. Yes, it does take time to write thank-you notes, and it is not always convenient. But, over the years, putting in that effort that will change you for the better — and you do spend a lot of time with yourself.

Perhaps, then, that is the real secret of success.