A business letter salutation is the first impression you have about your professionalism to prospective clients, partners or vendors. When you don't have a long, personal history with the recipient, it is always better to ere on the side of caution. Follow proper protocol and business etiquette.
The Need for Professionalism
Business letters are used to work with financiers, business partners, employee relations and customer service. A poorly written business letter may be detrimental to getting or retaining relationships. The business letter salutation is the first component of any letter and needs to maintain proper business etiquette and protocol. An improper business letter salutation can turn someone off such that the rest of the letter, the meat of it, is ignored. Technology has changed how a lot of correspondence is sent, with email having many informalities drawn in. Intelligent business executives know that something as simple as salutation helps define your reputation as a professional.
There is one primary standard for a business letter salutation: "Dear Mr. Brown". This indicates a level of respect to the person receiving the letter. Many letters are sent to people you have no prior relationship with or may only have limited dialogues. It is important to greet the person and do so with formality. A colon (:) follows the salutation. Include suffixes with the name, such as M.D.. For ladies you are unsure of the marital status, use "Ms." rather than "Miss" or "Mrs.".
There are some deviations to the standard business letter salutation. These are contingent on the information you have in sending the letter as well as how well you know the person. If you are unsure who the recipient is, the proper salutation is, "To Whom It May Concern". If you are sending a letter to a person but are unsure of the recipient's gender, do not risk offending the person, use both names: "Dear Taylor Johnson". For situations where you are in excellent terms with the recipient, and consider them a close business colleague or friend, you may be less formal using the first name.
The speed and quickness of email has made it an informal medium. Regardless of the nature of email as an information transfer agent, there are still standards for business letter salutations in the body of the email. Assuming you can use the first name of a CEO at a company you hope to do business is making an assumption that can lead to a quick deletion.
The professional standards apply in email as well and doing so sets a professional apart from the rest. The one thing with email is being able to get to an informal relationship faster than through traditional mail submissions. If the response of the recipient is signed with only his first name, you can use this as permission to use his first name in subsequent emails. In that case, a business letter salutation might look like: "Hi John,".
When in doubt, it is always safer to be more formal. If the recipient calls and says, "Hey, stop this 'Mr.' stuff, I feel like my dad," you have now been given not only the permission to be less formal, but an opportunity to develop a more personal relationship with the recipient.
Business Writing Blog: http://www.businesswritingblog.com/business_writing/2006/01/greetings_and_s.html
Purdue Owl: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/653/01/