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The Case of Two Investment Firms

As the executor of my father’s estate, I have been dealing with the two investment firms at which he had accounts. The companies’ names are household words, but let’s call them Firm A and Firm B. I will tell you about their written and spoken communication with me. I invite you to decide how well they are doing.

Firm A. When I called Firm A to let them know my father had died, the individual I spoke with expressed her condolences. She told me I would have to fill out a few forms and said she would email them to me. In just a couple of minutes, her email arrived in my inbox. Below are parts of her message. I have changed the identifying information, but all punctuation (or lack of it) is hers.

Subject: ppwrk


Sorry to hear of the passing of your dad… attached is the paperwork we will need to title the trust with you as successor trustee

U are the fiduciary we will need ur social and your date of birth sign at the bottom of the page

The CRA for individual is for your new account, brian will be in touch to set up an appointment with the next steps

Profile Information for your new account

Any questions please call.


Martha Smith
Senior Customer Associate

A minute later I got a second email from “Martha.” Her subject line, which was the entire message, read:

we will also need a copy of the death cert

When I wrote to thank Martha for the forms and her promptness, she responded:

Ur welcome. Any questions at all just give me a call

Four of the five forms that Firm A sent me were PDFs that needed to be printed and completed by hand.

With everything going on in my life, I did not fill out the forms promptly. Six weeks later Firm A called me to see if I needed help. I will call them back tomorrow. Their offices close at 5 p.m. Eastern Time. I am on Pacific Time.


Firm B. When I called Firm B to let them know my father had died, I was asked several questions to determine that I was who I said I was. Once the person I spoke with was satisfied with my answers, I was transferred to another individual, “Katie.”

Katie expressed her condolences and said she would be my individual representative throughout the “transition.” She put me on hold while she searched for my father’s death certificate online; when she came back, she said it was available in public records, so I did not need to send it to her. Katie said she would email forms to me to complete. She stayed on the phone while she emailed me, and she asked me to open the email and see if I had any questions before we hung up.

Katie’s email was completely automated. The subject line was “The Firm B Information You Requested.” The body of the message said:

Dear Lynn Gaertner-Johnston,

Thank you for your recent inquiry. Select the link(s) below to access the information you requested.

The three links led me to three online forms that I could fill out at my computer and print. Katie briefly told me about each one. The forms seemed straightforward, so I ended the phone call. I did have a couple of questions later that day, so I phoned Katie. She called me back within 15 minutes and answered them.

A few days later, I received a handwritten note by U.S. mail from Katie:

Dear Lynn Gaertner-Johnston,

I would like to extend my condolences to you and your family at this time of sorrow.


Katie Brown
Firm B Transition Team

I had some delays getting the information Firm B needed, so I did not send in the paperwork right away. Within a week, Katie phoned me to ask if she could do anything to help. She is available until 8 p.m. Eastern Time.

What’s your impression? You are now up to date in “The Case of Two Investment Firms.” How well do you think Firm A and Firm B are communicating? How would you feel if you were in my shoes?

Learn about our public business writing classes.



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

26 comments on “The Case of Two Investment Firms”

  • Okay, I know it’s ultimately best to forgive poor writing skills and just work to understand the writer’s true meaning. But honestly, how in the world has Martha managed to achieve the title of “Senior Customer Associate” if that is how she writes to her customers?! I am truly appalled.

  • I’d be moving the business from Firm A to Firm B, and sending a copy of the correspondence from Martha to her employer. UR and U in business correspondence is completely unprofessional.

  • Firm B would receive a lot more of my business than Firm A, and for oh, so many reasons! I remember going through similar issues when my father passed away 20 years ago. Email was not prevalent and doing this by phone, transferring from one person to another to another was the challenge. Issues seem even more difficult in the light of such a tremendous loss. Sorry for your loss, Lynn.

  • Dear Lynn Mam,
    Its my pleasure and i cherish being associate with you. Yours articles are wonderful and hats off to your minutes observation.

  • Lynn,

    I’m stunned that Firm A would demonstrate such a lack of professionalism and sympathy! I’m sorry you had to put up with that, but I’m glad you shared your story.


  • It is not just the grammar and writing – it is what the whole experience implies. Firm A doesn’t check back in a timely manner, doesn’t seem to have well established, efficient processes. Why they don’t have form letters with proper grammar for regular business matters, which, sadly, deaths are? How bloated are their fees because of their lack of effective use of technology? How poorly do other parts of the company run? How much of today’s technology do they not take advantage of to make their business costs less and more efficient? There should be checklists or some type of process clearly available for all typical events like this, not a follow on e-mail saying they need another bit of paperwork.

    Firm B seems to be very effecient and effective. They seem to be aware of and using technology and information that is currently available and use it effectively.

    Although both firms properly acknowledge the gravity of the situation, Firm B does it with a very personal touch – and as many of us sadly know, for some reason, when tragedy strikes, those very small things take on great meaning and are greatly comforting.

  • Hello, Jennifer, Lisa Marie, Helenin, Joyce, George, and James. Your views of the situation match mine. I could not believe the first email from Firm A. How DID the writer become a senior associate?

    Jennifer, my experience is that the small things DO take on great meaning, as you noted. Also, I appreciate your suggestion that Firm A’s responses suggest much deeper inefficiencies in the company. I am thinking hard about whether to keep the investments from my father’s estate with that firm.

    Thanks for weighing in!


  • Dear Ms. Gaertner-Johnston,

    First and foremost, I am so very sorry for the loss of your father. I know how difficult losing a parent can be.

    I was fortunate, today, to discover your website. I am looking forward to reading your blog and possibly attending one of your classes.

    Firm A would be seen only in my rear view mirror. Hats off to Firm B!


    Denise Watson

  • My condolences, Lynn. I know you had mentioned your father’s death, and being the executor must bring a whole set of difficulties with it. At least you have one firm that sounds like you can trust them.

    The thing that surprises me most about Firm A is the abbreviated writing! I wouldn’t trust any business that thought that was acceptable. I hate to think it’s an age thing, but there should still be standards for business. I hope you’ll be sending them some feedback!

  • I’m not sure about the questions. You are dealing with low level employees. Yes, they should follow up and write better. But I wonder why you didn’t deal with the advisor. Both firms dealt with this in a perfunctory manner. Should you expect more? Of course. The problem here isn’t the grammar or lack of. Efficiencies or lack of. The problem is that you didn’t speak with the advisor who should have taken personal care of you. That’s the fundamental issue.

  • My condolences, Lynn. While I agree with the opinions already voice, the real concern here is financial. Does Firm A produce better financial results than Firm B? If yes, then is that difference worth the lack of professionalism you received? As difficult as it may be for you now, remember, this is not a grammar test, this is a financial transaction.

  • Hi, Val. Thanks for your condolences.

    I too was very surprised about the quality of writing from Firm A. Strange! However, I don’t normally give unsolicited feedback. If I receive a survey from the companies, I will let them know my views.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • Deborah, thanks for your special insights into the situation. It sounds as though you believe both firms are taking me for granted with “perfunctory” treatment. I did not get that impression from Firm B, but I do feel that way about Firm A.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Hi, Audrey. Not a grammar test!? You gave me a huge laugh in your helpful advice.

    No, this isn’t a grammar test. Nevertheless, I used the opportunity to write about the communication of the two firms, to indicate that these things do matter. They affect how much trust we feel in the people we are dealing with. If someone can’t write a sentence, can I rely on the accuracy of her information?

    Yes, I will remember to look at the financial results of both firms. Thanks for the coaching!


  • In response to Val’s comment above, I understand why you might consider age to be a factor here, and it unfortunately could be. But I can say with certainty that not all younger people believe that kind of writing is appropriate in a business setting. I am 26 and as I said in my first comment, I was appalled to see that a professional individual would write to a customer the way “Martha” wrote to Lynn.

    As I have mentioned in comments on past blog posts here, I believe that there is a clear difference between the writing one uses in text messages, social media and casual email between friends, and the writing one would employ in an academic or business setting. I regret that many in my generation are blurring the lines here.

  • Lisa Marie, thanks for sticking up for your generation! If I can somehow learn Martha’s age, I will let you know. Perhaps age is not a factor in this case.

    I commend you on your high standards.


  • Since we are getting very off topic here, I will add my two cents regarding Audrey’s comment: Past results are no guarantee of future preformance.

  • I’m appalled but not surprised. Very few entry-level people today have decent writing skills.

    Where I work, the customer service department uses boilerplate and templates for all e-mail correspondence with clients. Managers discovered that the customer service reps acting alone often sent e-mail messages similar to Firm A’s. I wonder if Firm B uses boilerplate or templates, or if the condolence note is an item on a process checklist. If so, I think the firm did a great job of making the messages sound professional and genuine.

    I’m sorry you had to deal with this while also mourning your father’s passing.

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