Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an online scheduling tool was considered a “nice to have” feature, allowing customers to check availability and book appointments directly through a company’s website or social media page. But due to today’s social distancing and business capacity requirements—and the sheer fact that people are performing more tasks online—it’s quickly becoming a far more vital part of many businesses’ operations.
Take The Toy Nest, an indoor play space for kids and toy rental company in Falls Church, Virginia. Since the business opened in June after the shutdown, it has faced state-mandated capacity restrictions. Owner Lisa Bourven surveyed customers and determined that she could safely and comfortably allow only two families in the facility at the same time.
The Toy Nest started using the online booking tool from Acuity Scheduling so that parents could ensure their families would be able to get in once they arrive. While not required, today about 80% of Bourven’s customers book in advance online. “It gives people the peace of mind that they have space to really look without being breathed upon by others,” she says.
Reasons to embrace online booking
Online scheduling helps capacity-constrained businesses avoid crowding, long lines and disappointed customers, says Agnes Teh Stubbs, retail analyst at Software Advice, a business software review site.
And beyond the convenience factor, scheduling tools offer extra features that can add value to the customer experience. For example, many tools’ online forms allow businesses to take special requests from customers or provide health and safety or other useful information prior to a visit. They also allow a business to collect extra details such as email addresses of visitors, which may come in handy if COVID-19 contact tracing is later required.
“Many customers say they go online first to see what [a business] is doing to ensure a safe shopping experience,” Stubbs says. “If the business offers an appointment service, it’s another way in for customers who might otherwise be reluctant to go shopping.”
Beyond pandemic-related concerns, online scheduling is a great marketing tool. While your business might learn very little about a walk-in customer, online scheduling allows you to capture a range of information for use in marketing campaigns. It’s also useful for lead generation: Whenever someone makes an appointment at The Toy Nest, Bourven adds their email address to her mailing list.
Most scheduling tools will also add customers’ appointments to their electronic calendars, so they will get reminders and are less likely to forget about them.
Choosing the best online scheduling tool
Good appointment scheduling software makes the process as easy as possible for both the customers and the business. There are many to choose from, but a few popular scheduling tools include Calendly, Acuity Scheduling, Setmore and Square Appointments. These tools generally work by accessing the business’ or individual employees’ electronic calendars and allowing customers to reserve any open slots.
Some scheduling tools are geared toward specific industries, such as restaurants, salons, home service providers, doctors and dentists. These offer templates and workflows that are customized to these industries’ business and compliance requirements.
As you wade through your options, here are some recommendations from Stubbs on what aspects and features to look for in a scheduling tool:
Easy-to-use, intuitive customer interface
Make sure the tool can automatically synchronize across multiple devices, including mobile.
Real-time scheduling information and automated reminders
Some software can also manage a waitlist, so if a booking is cancelled, another is substituted in.
Integration with your existing business software
This includes integrating with your preferred online calendars (and those of your customers), your payment processor (especially if you need to collect payments when appointments are booked) and your employee scheduler (so you can adjust the number and timing of employee shifts based on reservations). Consider also syncing your scheduling tool with your customer relationship management (CRM) tool, so booking information can be used for marketing.
Maintaining your brand identity
A good tool will also help you maintain your company’s brand identity during the scheduling process, Stubbs says. Bourven says she chose Acuity in part because it embeds seamlessly into her website.
If you’re in a business that is new to online booking, you may be wondering if it’s necessary to invest time and money in a tool that may fade in importance after the pandemic subsides. But that’s unlikely to happen, Stubbs says. As customers get accustomed to making appointments online, it will only become a more valuable customer service tool.
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