“To Whom It May Concern” is kind of like that favorite old sweatshirt you pull on when you just can’t -- or don’t want to -- consider wearing anything else. It’s easy, it covers a multitude of sins, and it gets the job done. But is it doing more harm than good for you in business settings? That answer is a hard “Yes” when it comes to your sweatshirt and a little more nuanced for “To Whom It May Concern.”

It’s largely considered an outdated and lazy way to approach correspondence. The internet gives us almost infinite ability to search for the names and contact information of the people we need to reach -- and honing good communication skills is crucial to success.

So, before you slap another “To Whom It May Concern” on your outreach email or cover letter, read through this simple guide to determine when to use it, how to use it, and which alternatives to consider instead.

When to Use “To Whom It May Concern”

Before each piece of correspondence you send, ask yourself, “Who is the intended recipient of this message?

If the answer is, “Anyone,” you should be safe to use, “To Whom It May Concern.” If, however, your end reader is someone with a specific role or title, keep digging to find their name. It can be difficult to know when it’s appropriate to use “To Whom It May Concern,” so here are a few scenarios where it’s usually alright:

1. Recommendations/reference checks

If you’re providing a reference or recommendation for a former colleague or employee, the request might come through an automated system that doesn’t include any information about the hiring manager.

They don’t expect you to research them or their company, they just want your thoughts on the candidate they’re about to hire. This would be an acceptable time to address your audience with, “To Whom It May Concern.”

Example:

2. Company complaints

Lodging a formal complaint with a company? It likely doesn’t matter if that complaint reaches an administrator, customer service associate, or the CEO -- you simply want your complaint to be heard and addressed.

Example:

3. Introductions

If you are introducing yourself to someone you’ve never met, it could be appropriate to use, “To Whom It May Concern." For example, if you received a request for a quote, or information regarding your business, from a generic company inbox or feedback form, you might address your response, “To Whom It May Concern.” Just make sure to ask for their name in your message.

Example:

4. Prospecting

This is acceptable but not ideal. If you’re a salesperson conducting outreach -- it’s your job to put in the time and research to know exactly who you’re contacting.

Ideally, you should build rapport with them over LinkedIn or Twitter -- or reaching out via a mutual connection -- first. If there seems to be no way to find their personal information, you might reach for “To Whom It May Concern,” but don’t expect a high response rate.

Example:

How To Use It Correctly

If you’re using a formal greeting like “To Whom It May Concern,” it’s important to format it correctly. Here are a few tips:

  • Capitalize the first letter of each word
  • Always use “Whom” instead of “Who” or “Whomever” (In the case of “To Whom It May Concern,” “Whom” is the object of a verb or preposition and is appropriate to use in this context)
  • Use a colon after “To Whom It May Concern” rather than a comma
  • Add a double space before beginning the body of your message

As we’ve identified above, if you’re using “To Whom It May Concern” you’re likely approaching a business formal conversation. Don’t let sloppy formatting muddle your first impression. These tips should always set you up for success.

When Not To Use “To Whom It May Concern”

Whenever possible, avoid “To Whom It May Concern.” It’s largely outdated, suffy, and lazy. With our access to the internet today, it’s fairly simple to find the name and even email address of the person with whom we wish to speak.

Because of this, “To Whom It May Concern” can demonstrate a lack of effort in correspondence which doesn’t set a positive tone for the rest of your business relationship.

Here are a few tips for finding almost anyone’s name:

  1. Ask your HR rep or recruiter - If you’re writing a cover letter or email to a hiring manager, ask your recruiter or HR rep for the correct name.
  2. Visit the company’s LinkedIn profile - At the top of their profile, you’ll see a hyperlinked prompt that says, “See all [number of employees] on Linkedin.” Click that prompt to see a list of all employees. You should be able to skim the list until you find the person, role, or title you’re hoping to connect with.
  3. Visit the company’s “About Us” page - Smaller companies might list all employees and their titles on their “About Us” or “Team” page. At the very least, you’ll find a general company inbox where you can send a request to learn the name of the person you’re trying to reach.
  4. Pick up the phone - Call the company where your prospect works and ask the receptionist or administrator for that person’s name, contact information, or advice on how best to reach them.

It might take a few extra minutes, but finding the name of the person you’re reaching out to is important. Show your email recipient their name matters to you and find it before resorting to “To Whom It May Concern.”

Alternatives to “To Whom It May Concern”

Sometimes it’s just not possible to find a contact’s name. In these cases, here are a few alternatives:

  1. “Dear Hiring Manager”
  2. “Dear Recruiter”
  3. “Greetings”
  4. “Dear Recruiting Department”
  5. “Dear [Name of department you’re interested in]”
  6. “Dear [Name of the title or role of the person you’re pursuing]”
  7. “Dear Customer Service Manager”
  8. “Hello”
  9. “Dear Search Committee”
  10. “Dear [Name]”

The internet removes many excuses for using “To Whom It May Concern.” Before you slap it in an email, consider the recommendations in this post. And wipe a few other outdated or lazy phrases from your vocabulary, including “Looking Forward to Hearing From You,” “Best Regards vs. Kind Regards,” and “Dear Sir or Madam.

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Originally published Jul 24, 2018 8:30:00 AM, updated July 24 2018

Topics:

Sales Communication