Book me in! Online appointments on your website
There are so many permutations with respect to online appointments, if you need help working out what’s what, please get in touch.
Taking appointments is part and parcel of many businesses, especially health-related practices, but it also applies to consultants, lawyers, accountants and so forth.
Making it possible for website visitors to view and make appointments online is good for business, but it does require some thought because there are some technical issues to consider and a few gotchas. Ultimately it’s a business decision based on the cost of doing it, the likely revenue it may generate and also the cost of not doing it.
A couple more points:
- you can be helpful to your website visitors at various levels – it’s not all or nothing
- even if you don’t implement online appointments now, there are things in here that may affect what appointments software you select in the future
What the visitor wants…
…though they may not get it all – you decide that. In brief, they want:
- to be able to view free slots
- to know that what they are looking at is completely up-to-date
- the ability to select a slot
- and book it
and it’s only at the booking stage would they expect to register or log on. You may lose up to 30% of business if you try to make people log on too early. Even losing 5% is a bad idea.
The process of taking an appointment
Let’s step back a minute and look at the appointment-taking process.
Bear with. Because it’s useful to highlight the steps in a fully interactive booking:
- someone phones you requesting an appointment
- you ask them when they want it
- they ask when’s available
- between you, a time is negotiated – not necessarily a fast process
- entering the booking into a diary – computer or otherwise
- you may ask for a deposit – this is to help prevent does not appear situations
- they find their wallet
- between you, the deposit payment is transacted
In this time, both your telephone line and the person (perhaps you) administering the appointment are fully engaged. This is therefore a ‘blocking’ process.
What we’ve learned
There are three parts of the appointment taking process:
- viewing what slots are available
- booking the slot
- taking a deposit (optional)
The issues with phone booking
The most important has to be that your office is unlikely to be open 24 hours a day so you’re missing out on potential business.
The second issue is that you have to have someone on hand during office hours to take bookings and each person can only deal with one booking at a time, though this means that double booking is less of a problem.
The online process has to cover the viewing, booking, deposit taking elements, but possibly without the benefit of any human intervention.
So how do you make online booking work?
This depends on how you manage your appointments diary at the moment. If it’s paper, then you can skip over many of the technical issues by going entirely online. On the other hand, if your office has a computer-based appointments system then you need the ability to operate this in conjunction with web appointment requests – and do this out of office hours too.
For the remainder of this article, the assumption is that you have bought in some software to manage your appointments. If this software is ‘perfect’ then all you have to do is use it, but if it’s not perfect, then you may want to continue to read to see what the issues are.
Some of the problems
DNA – the customer ‘does not appear’
If someone books and fails to turn up you incur an opportunity cost. This is the bugbear of anybody running an appointments-based business and it’s almost certainly going to be worse with online bookings as compared to those done by telephone. And obviously this is going to be more of a problem with new prospects as opposed to existing customers. There are two ways around this:
- only take appointment requests online and confirm them by phone during office hours
- take a deposit by payment card when the appointment is requested (there are variations on this)
Keeping the free slots list up to date on the website
As the visitor comes to your appointments page, the free slots list needs to be loaded from your appointments database. Whether or not this is possible will depend upon the software that you are using.
If your existing software can’t deliver this now, then you may want to get onto your provider to ensure that it does happen in the future. To maintain a web free slots list manually is possible, but we would require an enormous amount of discipline by the administrators.
If the visitor hangs around on your appointments page, there is an increasing likelihood that the data on it will become stale. There are various strategies for dealing with this.
Ideally you would allow for late bookings because it’s a likely source of revenue and if you can do it but your competitors can’t... you know the score. Of course an appointment requires both the person making the appointment and the person they are going to see. This infers the need for bi-directional communication between the system and that person – probably via mobile phone or email.
You may have seen, and it’s likely many of your customers have seen, how easyJet and Ryanair do online bookings. You may have also noticed the little prompts you get like ‘5 people are looking at this route’, ‘only 2 places left at this price’. This is all very cool and shows that their systems are highly interactive, their systems are always on, and their offices never close.
The ease with which you can implement 24-hour operation will depend largely on the software that you are using for appointments. Indeed, the ability to handle 24/7 operations may be a critical factor in any future software choice.
Your software supports 24-hour operation
Should your software pass muster, the next decision is whether or not you are prepared to leave your appointments computer on 24 hours a day so that it can process new requests. The standard issue office computer is not usually designed with always-on mostly-unattended operation though in many cases it should be absolutely fine. Long term there will be issues with power cuts or someone inadvertently switching it off at night.
The better option is to have some kind of server – a server is a computer that does a particular job and is designed for always-on unattended operation. The server can be located on- or off-premises and if off-premises could be a ‘cloud’ service – if you know about or have used Hotmail, Gmail or Dropbox then you will be familiar with cloud services because they are all cloud services. In this case, the cloud service will probably be provided by the people who sold you the appointments software.
Your software doesn’t support 24-hour operation
The options you have are more limited but you should still be able to give your website visitors a better-than-nothing experience. How good this experience is will depend upon your ability to keep things up-to-date manually.
Your implementation options
|Don’t take online appointments at all||This is probably not viable in the long term, particularly if your competitors provide this service.|
|Take appointment requests using a simple web form and confirm it later by phone or email||The fact that they have filled in something may get their commitment. You have to guard against the potential DNAs during the confirmation process.|
|Manually updated free slots listing used with a simple web form (as above)||This makes it easier for the visitor because at least they know when they can’t book and it improves your staff productivity as they don’t have to have a long discussion about available times with prospects or customers on the phone.
It will take discipline to keep the free slot list up to date and out of hours, the list will become out of date as appointment requests are made.
Given the possibility of people wanting the same slot, the web form could give the visitor the ability to put in alternative appointment times.
|Real-time free slot listing used with a simple web form.||This is appropriate if the volume of requests out of hours becomes such that visitors are frequently requesting the same slot.
In practice, the technical requirements for this level mean that it’s a stepping stone to visitors actually selecting a slot online.
|Appointment selection for existing customers||The customer would enter their registered email address, password and perhaps even their customer account number (if such a thing exists).
The selection would be logged, the slot put on hold for a period to prevent others choosing it. The existing customer would be 99% sure that the appointment slot was theirs.
Final confirmation would come from the administrator during office hours.
|Appointment selection for new prospects||To guard against DNAs, the system would only hold the slot for a short period while it takes a deposit from the prospect. Otherwise it would be similar to the above.|
|Late or short notice booking||When a visitor wants to make an appointment at short notice, the person they want to see may need to confirm that they are available.
To bring them into the loop, it may be necessary for the system to send a notification txt, email or both to them. They would then go to an admin section of the appointments system and say yes or no to this particular request.
Your customers will want to change or cancel appointments too, and probably at short notice.
If you find yourself wanting to make online bookings on websites you visit and being irritated when you can’t, then it seems likely that your visitors will feel equally irritated if they can’t on yours. Long term you probably have no option, but even if you don’t go for it right now, do hassle your software provider to make sure that you will be able to in the future.
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