When I pick up my mail, the first thing I do is quickly shuffle through the pile and pick out any hand-addressed letters. Experience tells me these will be the items that are important to me – birthday cards, party invitations, thank you notes. No matter how high the mail pile, these items stand out from a homogenous sea of slick direct mail packages and faux “official” correspondence. They are the stuff of “real” life.

When it comes to business mail, I’m more impressed by truly personal communications than I am by free samples, special offers, or discount coupons. It’s a case of actions speaking louder than words. As a business, it’s easy to say that you take personal care of each customer, think of clients as family, and go the extra mile to make a difference. But, how do you prove it? Today’s unprecedented technological advances make it easy to create “custom” messages based on all kinds of criteria from demographics to buying history; but – when it comes to building meaningful relationships – people still want one-on-one attention. They want to be treated like a real person.

For most businesses, it’s not feasible to communicate personally with each client; but in the B2B world, where the sales cycle is longer and your business might be built on a few strong and strategic partnerships, it can work. Smaller businesses can also use some of these techniques selectively – focusing efforts on a few key customers or prospects. Either way, getting personal can have a positive impact on your relationships and your bottom line.

4 Instances Where a Simple, Personal Touch Goes a Long Way

1. Customer Service: Please, I’m begging you. The first place to think about a personal touch is with customer service. This is, after all, where you get to showcase how well you care for your clients. Wherever possible, avoid sending me into a labyrinth of automated call attendant selections. Depending on call volume and available resources, I understand that a certain amount of automation is required; but keep it to a minimum. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been standing in my living room, pacing back and forth, making rude gestures, and shouting “Agent!!!!” into my telephone receiver because I’m that desperate to talk to a real, live person. Don’t turn me into raving lunatic. It’s not good for business.

2. Apology: If you do mess up, you need to apologize. Again, from personal experience, let me assure you that few things rub a disgruntled customer the wrong way more than a boilerplate apology. Whatever you did to screw up, I took it personally and I expect a personal apology. If you were my boyfriend, I’d want a hand-written note, some nice flowers, and a promise to be a better man. A nicely-formatted HTML email with links to your latest product releases is not going to make me a fan.

3. Thank You: I did something nice for you – I referred a customer, placed a big order, re-upped my contract, upgraded my service. The basic manners that your mother taught you apply in business as well as your personal life – say “thank you.” I don’t mean just that you should start your confirmation email with the words, ‘thank you for your order.’ I mean you should send me a personal note to thank me. An email will do, but something that’s actually delivered to my real-life mailbox will knock my socks off.

4. Holidays: Last week I received the usual holiday card from my insurance company. Once again, they sent the same form letter and mini desk calendar that they’ve been sending since 1964. I’m touched. Even better, they packaged the damn thing with a letter about renewing my policies. Seriously? Was that to save on postage? It’s the holidays. 2009 has been a rough year for many. This is a time to thank your loyal customers with sincerity and a personal touch. Sure – you might be sending me a Harry & David gift basket or Fruit-of-the-Month membership, but I’ll be more impressed if you send a personal note talking about the business we’ve done this year and all the challenges we’ve overcome. I’d prefer to get a card featuring candid shots of your staff and some personal insights into their holidays than one with a gold embossed, holiday-agnostic image meant to convey joy, cheer, and good will toward men.

As businesses, we have so many amazing, automated tools at our disposal to find, engage with, and service our customers. In particular, the explosion of social media platforms and various widgets has expanded our consumer dialog into new dimensions. Still, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned note – written expressly for the intended recipient – to make a lasting impression. Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Do you have other ideas about how to create impact by getting personal?