For a service business, keeping track of appointments and reducing no-shows is a bear. If you've rejected Web-based services that let your customers book online as too clunky or unreliable, it's time for another look. A new breed of inexpensive appointment scheduling software does much more than let your clients make appointments online.
In fact, the simple ability to book online is a commodity you can get for free. Says Jerry Nettuno, CEO of Schedulicity, "We learned it's not really the calendar. Anybody can have an online calendar. For a service-based business, the relationship with customers is much different than in other types of businesses. Giving them the tools to manage that relationship is where things get interesting."
Marc Woodward, vice president of marketing for GenBook, concurs. "The sophistication of the average small business user demands a rich feature base," he says. For example, "It has to be real-time. Can a customer schedule an appointment and get instant confirmation? They don't want to wait to hear back or be presented with three choices. We've heard anecdotes of customers standing in front of the salon, wondering, 'Can I get my hair cut now? Can I get a massage now?'"
In fact, Melody McCloskey, CEO of StyleSeat, says her service for beauty and wellness professionals is "a platform for people to run their entire business on, from maintaining a website to building word of mouth and retaining clients."
Some of the most useful features of next-generation scheduling software are analytics, social media connections and tools for promotions and daily deals.
Analytics functions, offered by GenBook and StyleSeat, help you identify sales trends, forecast your business' performance and/or identify which employees bring in the most revenue. Over time, you can use this information to promote your most profitable services—or employees. You can also even out your earnings over the course of a season or year, or figure out when is the best time to take a vacation.
Yes, you're already blogging, Facebooking and tweeting—and your online booking system is still another digital tool that you have to manage. Some scheduling services ease the burden by connecting with social media sites. For example, StyleSeat lets users create a promotion onsite, such as a free blow dry for a new client, and that gets automatically posted to the stylist's Facebook page, as well.
Schedulicity offers a widget that can be embedded on our Facebook page that lets people book an appointment from your Facebook page or even from a bit.ly link embedded into a tweet.
And GenBook has a BookNow! Button for your Facebook page. It also collects and publishes reviews to Google Places.
Promotions and deals
Once you have excellent visibility into your calendar, you're able to incentivize clients to come in when you want them to. Does your best mechanic have a lull tomorrow morning? Offer a discount on tune-ups to the first three customers who book.
Online scheduling apps can also save you from Groupon overwhelm. Schedulicity's Deal Manager, for example, lets you meter daily deals and feed them into your appointment book so that you aren't flooded with loss-leader appointments one week and then empty the next. For example, if a spa decides to do a LivingSocial offer, it can set the software to allow only a certain number of slots total or per day to be booked through the deal. The company is set to launch Pop-Up Offers, which will let service professionals assign a discount to a recently cancelled or newly open time slot.
What else to look for
I talked to only a few of the many providers of online scheduling software tools that are on the market. There are plenty more out there, at a variety of price points. Which is right for your company depends on a unique combination of price and features. Here are 11 more features to consider:
1. Real-time scheduling. Customers don't want to wait to find out if their booking request went through. Does the software calendar and confirm the appointment as soon as it's made?
2. Mobile apps. Can you access the appointment scheduling software from your mobile phone or other preferred device? Can your clients?
3. Calendar synchronization. Can you feed the schedule into other calendars you use, such as iCal or Outlook?
4. Automatic appointment reminders. Will the online scheduling application remind clients they have a booking? Can you choose when they're sent? Does it support e-mail and texts?
5. Connection to social media. Can clients access online booking functionality from your Facebook page or from Twitter?
6. Instant promotions. If you've indentified a period or service that's under-booked, can you send out a promotion or limited-time deal from within the scheduling application?
7. Multiple log-in: Can several staffers log in to view and work with schedules? Can you limit access by role, so that, for example, a stylist can see his appointments but not the customer's credit card number?
8. Database. Can it feed clients contact and payment information into a database?
9. Portability: Does the service let you export information into other applications, such as an email marketing program or QuickBooks?
10. Reviews. Does the scheduling software prompt customers to write review? Does it automatically publish them to your own website and/or to other sites like Yelp or Google Places?
11. Ease of use. It's no fun to struggle with a counter-intuitive interface. Select the product that makes sense to you, but make sure to get feedback from your staff and customers, as well.
Image credit: ASurocca