Building a business online has always been easy, at least in theory. Find your audience, deliver a persuasive message, and bring leads to your website. If your content can persuade those leads that your products will solve their problems, they can make an online appointment or place an order and make their payment. The system is automatic.
That system doesn’t work for every kind of business, though. E-commerce platforms like Amazon can process sales automatically, but for service providers — like accountancy firms or medical spas — there’s an intermediary step: The lead has to make an appointment.
That’s harder than it sounds. A customer who buys a product online will receive it when the courier drops it on her doorstep. If she has to sign for it, couriers will tell her when they’re coming. The customer will be expected to sit at home and wait — it’s up to the customer to shift appointments and meetings to suit the delivery company’s schedule.
A service company, such as a tax advisor or a beauty salon, can be more flexible — but only up to a point. The customer will have a choice of times, but only among the times still available. Figuring out when a business could serve a customer used to mean a difficult and lengthy conversation. The owner of a hair salon, for example, would have fielded a phone call, opened her large scheduling book, and tossed times at the customer, one after the other, until they both hit on a time that worked.
The End of Tedious Processes
It’s a tedious process, but it’s no longer necessary. The rise of digital calendars like Google Calendar has meant that customers can now review a business’s schedule online and immediately see which times are available. Companies can make specific schedules for particular kinds of services. They can utilize privacy settings to avoid showing who’s made which appointment while showing which hours are bookable. Customers can browse days until they find an available slot that suits them.
But, digital appointment technology has gone further than simply letting businesses publish their calendars online. It can let customers cancel and reschedule appointments. Technology solutions for appointments can empower them to choose who they want to make an appointment with. It can accept payments when people book appointments, and it can even compare the customer’s schedule with the business’s schedule to suggest dates and times that work for both sides.
Online appointment software has created a host of new opportunities. By easing the appointment-making process, it’s made sales much easier for service businesses — provided those businesses know how to make the most of it.
That’s what this guide is about: how to make the most of the openings generated by the latest online appointment technology.
Finding Customers to Make an Online Appointment
Those opportunities begin with customers. Before you can book an appointment with a customer, you first have to find the person and convert him.
Finding customers takes some work and practice. You’ll need to know what kind of demographic groups you’re targeting and where you’re most likely to find them. In practice, you’re going to have two options: You can target your demographic via Google using search terms, or you can search for them via demographic on a social media platform.
Bear in mind that if you’re targeting by search term, you’ll still be able to refine the search terms to take location into account.
Options For Online Bookings
A nail salon in Ventura, Calif., could target “nail care” and limit the appearance of its ads to searchers within the business’s catchment area. The ads the company uses could also stress the ease of making an appointment immediately. For example, the ad could include a button that takes the customer directly to the appointment page. The call to action in the ad could be “Book Now!” and really mean it.
Businesses looking for customers on social media have even more flexibility. The advantage of social media is the close relationship it offers between a business and its customers. A service business could create a Facebook page, build a following, and then tap that following any time it wants to fill a gap in its schedule.
That creates a whole host of opportunities. A restaurant, for example, could take online bookings, freeing hosts from having to answer the telephone. It could put a “Reserve a Table” button on its website, only showing those times for which diners can make reservations. Plenty of restaurants already do that. They market their restaurant through their usual channels and drive diners to their website to take reservations.
More Online Booking Opportunities
But an online appointment platform would let the restaurant go even further. When someone cancels, the restaurant could announce on its social media page that it has an unexpected opening. It could then provide a link to its appointment page, where the first follower to respond could book that time.
The owner of the beauty salon could broadcast a live makeover on social media and tell viewers that there are three appointments open next week, available on a first-come, first-served basis. She would then put the URL of the appointments page on the screen.
In effect, the features of an online appointment platform allow businesses to combine their regular marketing with the instant conversions that have always been enjoyed by e-commerce. Customers can book appointments when they reach a website and respond to special offers promoted by the business.
Appointment software doesn’t make finding customers any easier. But it does make looking for customers more worthwhile by making it much easier to convert them.
Setting Online Appointment Availability
Online appointment software makes for a powerful tool. It’s even more powerful than online calendars — a digital calendar will only let you share your schedule with other people and access it. Appointment software also lets anyone access your calendar, enter his own events, and pay you for the privilege.
That can make it a fairly complex tool that requires a bit of setting up.
Once you’ve created an account, you can expect to be taken to a calendar that shows the different service providers available on any given day.
That’s important because when you’re taking appointments for a business, you might well be offering appointments for more than one person. A nail salon will have more than one manicurist available to attend to customers’ nails. A financial consultancy might have experts who specialize in small business owners, self-employed people, or pensions. Each of those employees will have his or her own schedule and availability.
You’ll need to enter their details, as well as the details of your company, so customers can choose who they want to meet. It’s also worth remembering that when you’re entering details into a platform like appointment software, it’s not always clear what information will be seen on the customer-facing side and what will only be viewable on the back end. Assume that everything you enter will be public, and keep it professional. That’s a good approach to take, anyway!
More Online Appointment Best Practices
Once you’ve set up your corporate account and each service provider’s account, you’ll be ready to starting entering staff members’ availability.
You can expect to find that by default, each service provider will be available all day during work hours. That’s great if all of your service providers work a 9-to-5 schedule and never have any paperwork to do. In practice, you’re likely to have to be more selective, especially if at least some of those service providers are freelancers or part-timers who only work a few days a week.
Removing whole days will often be as simple as unchecking a box next to the day. Changing a person’s start or end time usually only requires selecting different times from the drop-down menu.
But there are some other issues you’ll need to consider, too.
First, you’ll need to think about the interval time between appointments. Meetings have a habit of running over and starting late. Setting gaps between them adds buffer space so a service provider can catch up if things run late. A teacher whose evening conferences with parents run five minutes longer than planned can quickly get back on schedule if she creates a 10-minute gap between each meeting. Those intervals also ensure the service provider has time to move from room to room — or to grab a coffee or a bathroom break during a busy day.
Considering Online Appointment Challenges
Bear in mind, though, that the longer the interval is between meetings, the fewer meetings you can squeeze into one day. And if you use strangely numbered intervals, the start time of your next meeting will look unusual. Give yourself a half-hour interval between each appointment to enable each appointment to start on the hour or the half-hour. Give yourself 10 minutes, and you might produce a strange-looking list of options.
A bigger challenge is how to make a service provider available at different hours during the day. A tax consultant might be available for a couple of hours in the morning and then again for a couple of hours in the afternoon. You’ll need to block out any hours on the calendar during which appointments aren’t available. Those hours aren’t booked, and they won’t be visible to customers as anything other than busy. But blocking them out so the service provider is able to maintain control over his or her schedule should be straightforward.
Sometimes, a service provider might want to be even more creative than that. A beautician might need an hour to apply hair dye and 30 minutes to wash and blow dry once the dye is set. In between those two periods, she could have an hour to take another booking. The client will be in the salon for 2.5 hours, but the service provider would be available to service another client during an hour of that time.
Solving Appointment Challenges
You should be able to use split-service settings. These allow you to set a break in the middle of a service period.
One really useful option when you are setting appointment availability is the ability to integrate other digital calendars into the appointment calendar. This won’t always be helpful. Someone who’s expected to be available to take appointments from 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, is likely to have a pretty empty schedule during those hours; she’ll only have work appointments. But many people won’t be available all the time. They’ll also have other meetings they need to attend or other things they need to do.
If they can integrate the events on other digital calendars with their appointment calendar, customers would be able to easily see which times are available.
That integration should work in the other direction, too. Service providers should be able to add their appointment calendar to their digital calendar so they can see their entire schedule in one place.
Taking Time Off
A service provider will display two kinds of time on her online appointment calendar: the times she’s busy and the times she’s available. But that’s not entirely true: Sometimes a service provider won’t be listed as “Busy,” but will still be unavailable.
We’ve already seen that it’s a good idea to leave a short gap between appointments to prevent delays and take short breaks. But you should also take long breaks. If you’re working all day, you’ll need a lunch break — and even if you’re not, you’ll still need time to catch your breath, clean up your tools, or write up notes.
It’s very tempting, as you’re offering your appointment schedule, to make as many hours available as possible. The more time customers and clients can buy, the more money you can make. But that way lies chaos, unfulfilled obligations, and burnout. If you’re constantly running from one appointment to the next, your work schedule becomes unbearable.
More to Consider About Time Off
It’s something you can only do for a short time. If you want to keep accepting appointments over the long term, you need to schedule time off. It’s important to build plenty of breaks into your schedule. You might not create the biggest offer of available hours. However, this can ensure you are working at your most efficient and have the stamina to keep accepting appointments.
Also, it’s not necessary to mark this time in your calendar in a way that allows others to see that you’re not taking bookings. Just mark them as “Busy.”
In fact, selecting a few hours each week for yourself brings you another benefit (as though having a few hours to yourself isn’t benefit enough): Potential clients will see that you’re in demand. They’ll understand that there’s a shortage of available hours and feel an extra urgency to make a booking.
If you’re starting to offer your appointment calendar to potential clients, you might want to try blocking out a few hours initially so no client feels she’s first. Again, you’d reduce the selection of hours available, but the increased urgency should make up for those losses. As your schedule fills, you can always unselect those chosen hours and make them available again.
Accepting appointment bookings is pretty straightforward. You choose how many appointments you want to accept each week. You create your pitch and then offer your schedule on a platform that can take those bookings (and, ideally, accept payment for them, too.)
But there’s one decision that always feels difficult: how long in advance to set your appointment reminders.
Those reminders are important. If you leave them out entirely, there’s a good chance clients will forget their appointments, leaving you with no-shows — and no profit. There’s even a chance that your vendor will forget them. Either spells trouble. Clients will want to reschedule as soon as they remember — and if they’ve prepaid, they may well feel they have the right to a different time. That means you’ll only be getting paid once for two different sets of hours.
If the vendor forgets the appointment, not only will you have to reschedule, but you’ll also develop a bad reputation. Clients should be able to feel that once they’ve booked their appointment, that booking will be respected.
Reminders For Everyone
That means you’ll want to send appointment reminders to both vendors and clients. The question is when to send them. Appointment platforms provide a broad amount of flexibility, allowing you to choose how many minutes, hours, days, or weeks in advance of the appointment to send the reminder.
The aim is to find the right balance between a reminder sent so early that the appointment is forgotten and so late that you can’t make an adjustment if something has changed and the recipient needs to reschedule. That’s crucial: If a client can’t make an appointment, you need to be able to find another time and sell that slot in your calendar to someone else. As long as you can do that, rescheduling won’t be an issue at all.
On the other hand, if your vendor can’t make it, that’s never going to make a good impression on the client — but the sooner you know, the sooner you can fix the problem. You can offer the client the same time with a different vendor or a different time with the same vendor.
One easy option is to send multiple reminders: one a long time before the appointment, another a few days before the appointment, and a final reminder an hour or two before the appointment. While that ensures that neither the client nor the vendor forgets, it can also be annoying. Sending multiple reminders creates the impression that you’re so important that your appointment can’t possibly be missed. It means clients may walk into appointments with a negative attitude, and there’s a chance they won’t want to come back. Your service provider will already be starting the relationship with a deficit.
There’s a way to square this circle. If you’re allowing clients to book appointments a long time in advance — more than a month, for example — do send multiple reminders, but disguise those reminders as content.
The appointment platform might offer you a prewritten reminder you can use. Don’t use it. If you’re only issuing one reminder, personalize it so the recipient wants to read it and responds to it. When sending multiple reminders, use each of those reminders to build your client’s knowledge.
Case Studies on Reminders
If you’re offering appointments for a tax consultancy, for example, your first reminder could include advice about the paperwork the tax consultant will need to see. Your second reminder could offer advice about common tax mistakes people make. The third reminder could offer a checklist to prepare for the appointment.
Even an appointment for something as simple as a beauty treatment could do the same thing. One reminder could ask the client if she has any special requests regarding shampoos or other products. The next could offer tips for beauty treatments the client could perform at home. The third could suggest some treatments the client could request when she shows up for her appointment. If the reminders deliver value, they’ll be welcomed.
In practice, the scheduling of your appointment reminders will depend on how far in advance people are making their appointments — and how far in advance you let them make appointments. If they’re booking on the same day, a single reminder half an hour before the appointment will do the trick. But if they’re booking a long time in advance, you have an opportunity to make those reminders work for you.
Connecting Your Email to Your Appointment Calendar
Create a Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, or Apple account, and you’ll get both an email address and a digital calendar. On the face of it, those two elements have little in common. One is a communication platform: Email lets you send messages and files to other people. A calendar is a method of scheduling time, helping you keep your hours organized and ensuring you don’t miss any events.
But there’s a reason that technology companies bundle email accounts and calendars together. They work better together — and not just because connecting your email to your calendar makes it easier to send and receive reminders. It also adds a few additional, and even more powerful, benefits.
First, because so many email and calendar platforms are connected, you’ll probably need to connect a new calendar to your email to synchronize it with those other calendars.
More Tips on Connecting Calendars
So if you’ve created a special appointment calendar, connecting that calendar to your Gmail will help bring your appointments to your Google Calendar. Your appointments won’t take over your Google Calendar — they’ll appear as a new calendar layer you can see when you check your events. You’ll lower the odds of missing an appointment because you didn’t check your appointment calendar or didn’t see the appointment reminder.
In fact, if integrating your appointment calendar with your email does add your appointments to your regular digital calendar, you should find that you receive notifications, as well as reminders. That will give you a little more control over how you’re reminded about upcoming appointments.
There’s another benefit to connecting your email to your appointment calendar, although it won’t apply to every calendar or every email platform. One of the features built into email platforms such as Gmail is the software’s ability to analyze the contents of messages, particularly automated messages.
Case Studies For Bookings
If you book a plane ticket online, for example, the travel site will email you a reminder informing you of the date and time of departure, as well as your arrival time. If you are using Gmail and have updated the appropriate settings, those dates will automatically be accepted on your calendar.
Connecting your email to your appointment calendar can deliver the same result. Depending on the platform, it might read appointment confirmations and add them to calendars. While service providers can enjoy having an entire extra layer of schedules added to their calendar, clients get to have their appointments added automatically to their calendars.
Clearly, this isn’t going to work for every email platform or every appointment calendar. But when it does work, it can make controlling your schedule a great deal easier.
Sending Scheduling Links to Customers
The appointment process should be straightforward. The client reaches your site and flips through your appointments calendar. He picks a date and time that works for him and presses the “Book Now” button. He makes a payment and confirms the booking he wanted to make.
Once the booking has been made, the client receives an email confirmation. If his email platform doesn’t add the date automatically to his calendar, he can add it to his calendar himself. He’ll also get the reminders you’ve already set up.
But it doesn’t always work that way. For one thing, as we’ve seen, it’s not always easy to browse an appointment calendar to find a time that works. It would be much easier if there were a way for the platform to compare the client’s calendar with the vendor’s calendar and only present options available on both.
Scheduling in Action
Let’s say a business talks with a lead. They agree to set up a time to meet in person and talk again. Instead of tossing possible times back and forth, the business could send the lead a link to a scheduling page. The lead enters her own calendar details and sees the possible times she could book.
It does make scheduling much easier, but it can also feel a little creepy. Not everyone wants to give a company access to his or her entire calendar. When you send the scheduling link, be sure to add a line or two assuring the client that the scheduling software can’t actually read the contents of events; it only checks whether a time is available or busy and adds that information when compiling options.
There’s another problem, though. Not only do other calendars not automatically add every appointment to a calendar platform, but people don’t do it themselves, either. They forget.
They forget to add the event to their calendar, and they forget all about the appointment until they see the reminder. By the time they see the reminder, they’ve often forgotten what exactly they booked — or they’ve double-booked themselves.
Appointment Page Linking
That’s one reason it’s important to send a link to the appointment page. That page should include all the details related to the appointment. It should tell the person where and when the appointment will take place and contain a short summary of what will happen at the appointment. It should also include a list of things that the client should bring; most importantly, it should include instructions that tell clients what to do if they need to cancel or reschedule.
Send that link automatically with the confirmation email. If you’ve made the booking yourself, send the client the link as soon you’ve booked the appointment. You want her to be able to check it and get back to you so you can make needed changes as early as possible.
Most of the appointments you book will be set up a long time in advance. Clients will think ahead, look for a time they can comfortably make, and match the availability in their calendar with bookable times in your appointment calendar.
Sometimes, though, you might find yourself taking bookings on very short notice. You could even find yourself taking same-day appointments. These are very special appointments, and it’s worth looking at them carefully.
For both clients and vendors, same-day appointments are disruptive. Clients won’t know at the beginning of the day whether they’ll be getting the service they want; vendors won’t know whether that hour will be filled — or how. Both sides will have to adjust their plans as the day progresses.
That’s why people generally avoid them. If they can’t, it’s because there’s a reason. That reason is an opportunity.
Other Things to Consider
A vendor, for example, might want to take a same-day appointment to fill a gap left by a last-minute cancellation. If the vendor’s offered a no-fee cancellation policy, that change to the schedule will cost the vendor revenue unless he can fill it quickly. The urgency is all on the vendor’s side, which gives clients an advantage. The vendor could simply tell people there’s suddenly an appointment available that day and hope someone fills the gap. But if no one takes the appointment quickly, the vendor will feel pressure to offer discounts or specials to draw people to the appointment.
It’s worth figuring out in advance what kind of discounts you want to offer to land same-day appointments. Create a schedule that sets the price for the first offer, then drops it as the appointment time approaches.
You’ll need to be careful about using this schedule too often; you don’t want people to ignore the first offer to grab a bigger discount later in the day. But as the day wears on, the urgency to take the offer will increase for clients, too, and you don’t want to be figuring out your pricing on the fly while you’re worrying about an empty slot in your schedule. You’ll find things much easier if you know in advance what kind of discount you’re prepared to give a client who can spontaneously come in.
Balancing Client Needs
Sometimes, however, the urgency will be on the client’s side — and that gives the vendor an opportunity. A beauty salon client, for example, might find she has to fill in at an event at the last minute and needs a treatment that afternoon. A business owner could find himself in need of urgent tax advice and want to come in for a consultation that day. A property investor might need to get a home inspector to a site immediately so she can put in an offer before the end of the day.
In each of those situations, the client’s urgency means it’s likely he or she would be willing to pay a premium for those appointments. How much extra clients would be willing to pay will vary. It might be as little as 10 percent or as much as 100 percent for a same-day appointment. You’ll have to test those price points yourself, and you can do that in advance.
As you market your appointments, charge a premium for a same-day appointment (assuming you have time available). Note at what price point the bookings start to tail off. Landing those late bookings might be inconvenient, but the extra revenue could well make that inconvenience worthwhile.
Finally, one of the biggest benefits of using an online appointment platform is the ability to take payments when you take bookings. This is hugely valuable, although it’s not going to be relevant to every business. Restaurants don’t usually take money when they take reservations (though a few high-end outlets do collect a fee on no-shows).
But there are plenty of businesses that will want to take a booking fee or a deposit at the moment the client sets the appointment. It’s the closest a service-oriented business can get to the kind of hands-free online sales enjoyed by e-commerce companies.
But that means you’re going to have to use billing software to accept the funds and be able to transfer them to your bank account. You’ll also need to send your clients receipts for their purchases. Ideally, the billing software will come folded into your online appointment platform, but if you need to shop around, there are a couple of things to look for.
Criteria For Billing Software
The first, and most important, is the fees associated. The cost of taking money online varies widely. PayPal sets the standard, but there are a plenty of other options, usually with lower rates for less convenience. TransferWise, for example, is cheaper than PayPal but less user-friendly.
Start with PayPal, and compare other platforms’ rates. Bear in mind that clients might balk at entering their credit card details into a payment system they don’t trust or know. You can always offer the option of only using billing software on your site, meaning there’s no payment option while booking.
While the client makes the booking, she’s informed of the price; your billing software automatically issues an invoice for the client to pay once the appointment has been secured. That separates the billing from the payment — and might require the use of two different software applications — but it could make your accounts easier to manage.
And that’s the other thing to look for in billing software: The program you use should be transparent so you can easily see your orders, amounts, and any fees you have to pay. Use the billing software baked into the appointment calendar, though, and you should be fine.
E-commerce sites have had things easy for a long time. They’ve been able to set up online stores and build marketing channels that pull in customers. They’ve been able to take orders, issue goods, and make money while they sleep.
Service businesses are never likely to have things quite that easy, but online appointment platforms make it much easier to close sales and organize the hours they have available to make money.