By Lim Kee Yeong

Lim Kee Yeong, Director of SME Banking, Affinbank
Lim Kee Yeong, Director of Enterprise Banking, Affinbank

To most companies, any incoming call, email or message may mean business opportunities. The need to ensure the caller or message sender is aware the communication is duly received and will be acted upon can potentially translate to a feeling of enhanced confidence. It is most ideal that all incoming communications are attended to immediately; but this would mean additional manpower, solid processes and technological solutions are deployed. If timely responses to all communications are not possible, especially when many are received outside of normal business hours, a holding reply is perhaps the next best thing and should be an option versus a missed call or total silence.

What is a Holding Reply?

What is a “holding reply”? Everyone does it every day, from a simple “Give me a minute,” or “I will call you back,” to a slightly longer “I don’t have the answer now, let me come back to you.” These are examples in allowing the respondent more time to revert or attend to any queries. In a business setting, a holding reply generally means a response a company extends to the sender that his/her message has been received, and a more detailed communication or action can be expected in due course.

While seemingly straight-forward, the practice of providing a holding reply can come in many shapes and sizes, including a simple message about office hours and a request to call back, all the way to the use of a chatbot or complex AI-enabled tools to first resolve issues, then to diagnose a further follow-up where necessary. Obviously these come in different levels of sophistication and different price points.

Why Need a Holding Reply?

If a company has made available channels of communication to the public round-the-clock, it is expected and ideal that a timely response is provided. With expectations set high by today’s consumers, the ability of SMEs to handle any communication, either positive or negative, in a timely manner can be a differentiating commercial capability. Once a communication cannot be immediately attended to (including after normal business hours), how it is handled next by the business may make a difference in today’s competitive world.

All of us acknowledge the importance of a quick reply in the world of business. In the absence of an ability to handle queries and messages due to heavy volume, manpower shortages or process shortcomings, a prompt and interim response should be provided via a holding reply. The unfortunate fact is that such practice is not widely applied even by many large corporations. It is definitely not a norm for most SMEs. Why is it so? Its importance and effectiveness will depend on how companies and entrepreneurs perceive it. Some deem it as unnecessary and a wasteful use of resources, while some view it as a basic courtesy or gap-filling tool. Few will strategically value it as an opportunity. Understanding its potential benefits will the first step in appreciating why it’s needed.

Appreciating the Practice

To SMEs, chances are that email and messaging apps are the most commonly used communication approaches. These are considered as essential basics by today’s consumers. Fancy and complex holding-reply solutions aside, SMEs will most likely introduce a holding reply practice as a matter of “general courtesy” in mind for a start. This is a move to be positively commended, but should evolve over time based on business volume, industry need, specific segment/product proposition or differentiated commercial strategy.

Good communication etiquette and increasingly demanding consumer expectations calls for a swift reply to any query. Such an understanding should be a business norm by all responsible and responsive companies, including SMEs. It may be a simple topic, but when assessing a holding reply practice, whether semi-automated, fully digitally-managed or manually handled, the following potential advantages and viewpoints should be considered:

  • It is an avenue to project an image of responsiveness;
  • It sets an expectation of a positive customer relationship approach;
  • It inculcates an internal culture of responsible customer management;
  • It indirectly buys time to remedy the issue at hand; and
  • It plays a part in resource planning when the subjects of these communications attended by holding replies are dissected, i.e. service issues, business prospects or fulfillment gaps. Something must have gone wrong or right when numerous communications cannot be answered swiftly.
The Art of a Holding Reply

For SMEs, beyond appreciating the potential benefits if implemented well, it may also mean investment of time and resources. But the downside is equally challenging if not well handled. Taking into account both the positives and negatives, SMEs ought to ponder these, especially the larger and fast growing ones. The following practical essentials should also be considered when embarking on a holding-reply practice:

  • Different degree of sophistication (and costs) can be deployed progressively based upon volume, purpose and engagement intensity;
  • While ideal, a holding reply does not need to be instantaneous at all times; an appropriately timed response is equally impactful;
  • Keep the message simple yet meaningful to the customers. Include an expected timeline to revert where feasible;
  • Ensure a proper follow-up process after the holding reply for timely closure of issues;
  • In circumstances where a further holding reply is necessary, consider a customized approach for said case; and
  • Appreciate it as a key tool to comprehensively optimize its outcome and benefits.

It is worthwhile to note that a holding-reply practice can certainly be inexpensively introduced but also a double-edged sword if mishandled. Circumstances where a customer gets a holding reply promising a swift follow-up, but ending up disappointed are the risky downsides. Such displeasures may translate to further loss of business and bad-word-of-mouth effect. On the other hand, embracing this useful customer-focused practice as part of overall commercial strategies can certainly add meaningful value to a business when executed well.

Lim Kee Yeong is Director of Enterprise Banking at Affinbank


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