Better than a Cover Letter

Cover letters seem to be going the way of, well, letters in general. Most are not well-written and most, quite frankly, go unread.

But there are two new versions of the old cover letter that are worth considering. They’re two faces of a single coin, and one of the two may work for you.
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The first is a “Pain Letter,” and it’s the creation of Liz Ryan, CEO of The Human Workplace, a think tank that tries to bring humanity back to the hiring and employment process. Ryan says that if you’re going to take the time to write a letter, why not make it earn its pay? Her pain letter starts with company research. “Every Pain Letter is unique. If you don’t want to take the time to research the employer before you write a Pain Letter, don’t even bother writing it,” she writes in a recent Forbes article.

She writes: “Start your research at the organization’s own website. Read about its business. What do they make or sell? Who are their clients? What sorts of issues do you imagine that the organization is dealing with?”

The next step is to decide what kind of pain you’re in the business of solving. If you’re a writer, you might solve the pain of missed deadlines and boring copy. If you’re an internal auditor, you might solve the pain of nasty surprises when the external audit is in progress, or position yourself as an early warning signal for problems the company didn’t know it had. If you’re a project manager, you solve the pain of projects that go over budget and get off track. You get the idea.

Everyone is in the business of solving some kind of pain for an employer. Your next task is figuring out what kind of companies experience that pain. In her Forbes article, Ryan uses a payroll clerk as an example. Companies that are growing rapidly or responding to new rules of worker classification or overtime might be in significant pain. Those would make the best targets for the payroll clerk’s job search.

Pain letters are never addressed to “Manager” of “Whom IT May Concern.” They go directly to the person who would hire you, so more research might be in order. Have you noticed by now that there is no mention of a job posting? That’s because there isn’t one; pain letters go to people who have problems they need solved. Managers will sometimes create positions for people who can solve problems.

Once you’ve imagined a problem or pain point for this manager, your opening hook acknowledges this. “I read in the July 14 Business Journal that your company plans to double its workforce over the next five years. I imagine that kind of rapid growth requires great systems and experienced payroll staff.”

Your next paragraph is a statement that shows you know how to solve that kind of pain. (Ryan calls these Dragon Slayer Stories.) “At ABC Company, I was responsible for implementing a new pay band system for over 1,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada. We managed to launch the system and implement the new bonus system on time with zero employee complaints or payroll errors.”

End with a warm invitation to meet over coffee to discuss how the manager is working on her company’s challenges. That’s it. Short, but effective. Assuming your enclosed resume backs up your qualifications and results, you just might get a meeting with a manager who’s in pain. As long as her pain isn’t physical, that’s the best kind of manager.

Next: An alternative to the Pain Letter.


1 thought on “Better than a Cover Letter

  1. […] recently wrote a  post about how the cover letter is being replaced by the Pain Letter. A pain letter takes what you know through research about an industry or company and makes some […]


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