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STOP The No-Shows

Online Scheduling Tools Ease Appointment Headaches For Micro-Businesses
By Mollie Neal

Large businesses have long had the luxury of employing receptionists, telephone operators and online booking tools to serve customers. Ample staff and tools allow customers to make preferred arrangements at their convenience—whether they’re reserving a hotel room, scheduling a service call or booking an appointment.

Now, a new breed of companies is offering Web-based, online appointment booking services to micro-businesses. Companies like Genbook, HourTown and TimeTrade are marketing their tools to service-oriented small-business owners nationwide. Other providers are catering to specific niches, such as Booking Angel for restaurants, Zappointments for health care professionals and ZocDoc for doctors and dentists in the New York area.

Since consumers have become accustomed to self-service scheduling offered by large businesses, they now want the same 24/7 convenience when dealing with micro-businesses and local companies, says Greg Sterling, founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, an online consultancy.

A recent study by HourTown found that 93 percent of consumers experienced trouble while attempting to schedule with a local business. The majority of consumers, 79 percent, would prefer to book online, and 86 percent say that having the option would make them a more loyal customer.

Fortunately, these scheduling services don’t take a bundle of time or money to set up and manage, and they don’t require a high degree of technical prowess to master. In fact, one of these services could be a perfect fit for your micro-business.

How The Services Work
Once enrolled with an online booking service, business owners go into their personal accounts where they access a calendar tool, fill time slots with personal and business commitments, and leave open blocks of time they want to make available for customer appointments. These scheduling tools are typically housed on the booking company’s server.

The business owner receives a Web link that can be embedded on their Web site, in e-mail messages and newsletters, within online display ads like those on Yellow Book and Craigslist pages, and on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Or the URL can simply be printed on business cards.

Basic versions of these services are offered for free—yes, free. More robust and popular options are available for a modest charge of $20 to $50 per month, and include extra bells and whistles and customer support.

The only tool typically required is Internet access. Some providers such as CMJ Designs Inc., which caters to spa, salon and dog grooming services, do require the user to have specific software installed on their office computer. The software can run up to $1,000, but it does integrate scheduling with other business processes.

Online scheduling tools should be feasible for most service-oriented businesses, says Sterling. For businesses that must offer customers detailed product or service explanations, price negotiations, or hand-holding before setting up appointments, it may be a bit more challenging.

Small-business owner Jennifer Brinn runs Reiki & Holistic Bodywork, where she gives holistic massages and leads meditation sessions. In the past, her off-hours were consumed with administrative duties including the endless game of telephone and e-mail tag to respond to inquiries and book appointments with customers.

But since 2006, Brinn has been paying $29.95 per month for her HourTown account. Clients visit her Web site and click a link for her San Francisco or Sausalito office. This takes them to an HourTown profile page, which includes her bio and photo, a list of available services and costs, a box to send comments such as information requests, and a “Book Now” button.

Throughout the day, she checks her PDA or e-mail for appointment requests that she can then accept or deny. In turn, the system automatically updates her calendar. The system also sends clients confirmation e-mails and 24-hour reminders, which Brinn can personally customize with specific messages depending on the recipient.

Benefits Beyond Bookings
Apparently, clients enjoy the service. Almost all of Brinn’s appointments are now made online. People love the instant gratification of online booking. They no longer have to wait overnight for a response or go back and forth several times to find a mutually convenient appointment time, explains Brinn.

“I don’t know how I did it before,” she says.

Brinn says she saves at least two to three hours each day in phone and e-mail tag. She’s also reduced no-shows, eliminated double bookings, and finds it’s much easier to schedule same-day appointments.

The service has also helped boost the bottom line.

“The profile page is important,” says Brinn. “It gives prospects more confidence that they are dealing with a professional and not some hippy-dippy.”

HourTown’s search engine optimization helps her profile pages appear high when people search on sites like Google, Yahoo and MSN. Brinn regularly brings in 10 new clients each week from people who find her online and has doubled her client base to more than 300 individuals.

“That’s pretty good for a small business operating in the Mecca of holistic health practitioners,” Brinn says.

Selecting A Service
With numerous service providers offering different packages and varying price points, how do you find the right fit?

Most providers offer online demos, FAQ pages and free services that businesses can test to determine if the system will work for their particular needs.

When Deanna Maio was launching her business SavvyGals, a life coach service for female executives and small-business owners, she decided to sign on with a booking service even before she launched her own Web site. She looked at 12 to 15 different providers before selecting TimeTrade.

Maio was interested in a low-cost, user-friendly service she could easily integrate with either a Google or Outlook calendar that she’d be able to access from anywhere. Since she works with clients across the U.S. and Canada, she wanted people to be able to book services in their own time zone, have those requests translated to Pacific Standard Time for her Portland, Ore., office, and eliminate scheduling confusion. She also wanted people to be able to select either a phone or office appointment and have automated responses include relevant details such as directions or phone contact information. TimeTrade fit her requirements.

An integrated marketing feature also enables her to use the TimeTrade platform to send e-mail promotional offers for a free initial consultation to prospects. The feature includes a “Schedule Now” link and tracks response activity.

“I could not contact 250 people by phone or individual e-mails and keep track of exactly who decided to take advantage of the offer,” says Maio.

Maio has a tagline for her business: “Stop wasting more time and start making more money.” Online scheduling tools are helping her live by her own motto.

Mollie Neal is a New York-based freelance writer who specializes in covering small-business issues and is always looking for ways to be more productive.

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