The days of organizing your small business with a big desk calendar are fading away. From event scheduling to automated reminders and notifications, online scheduling software helps small business owners accomplish more by letting them focus on their core business. We look at what you need to know to find the best online scheduling software for your small business needs.
Essential Online Scheduling Software Features
Before you begin shopping for an online scheduling solution, you must know exactly what capabilities your organization needs. Some small businesses simply need to schedule customer appointments, while others may also want to incorporate reserving specific equipment or other resources.
Small businesses with specialized needs might prefer what's known as multi-variant scheduling—a system that can track reservations for multiple resources. "Think, for example, of a company with five employees," says Josh McCarter, CEO of online scheduling solution provider Booker Software. "Everybody has different skill sets, they all work different hours, they provide different services, they may need different equipment, or they may need to perform certain services in certain rooms or classrooms."
That's a much different scheduling paradigm than a one- or two-person accounting firm.
Depending on the small business, it may be appropriate to find a platform that lets customers reserve time directly, while also allowing employees to schedule walk-in and call-in appointments. "Imagine a scenario where you book a walk-in, but you forget to block it off on your online schedule. And then somebody books an appointment online for that same time slot," McCarter says. "Now they're driving in and they show up, and you don't have availability because you booked somebody on a walk-in that was different than your Web scheduling."
Marc Woodward, vice president of business development at Genbook, an online scheduling software company, suggests that small businesses find a scheduling platform that's easy for their customers to use. "Clients should be able to find the service they want and book a convenient appointment time in just a couple of minutes," he says. An increasing percentage of customers will use their smartphones and tablets to book appointments, so any scheduling solution should also be mobile friendly and work across a wide variety of devices.
In this day of online customer reviews and the influence they wield, a scheduling platform that can capture and publish reviews can serve double duty. "This helps a small business promote its reputation through the testimonials of satisfied customers," Woodward explains. Small business owners may also want to evaluate the kind of appointment reminders the system can send—this can help maximize both their time and their customers' time.
Prepare for Online Scheduling Success
Expect to do a bit of legwork if you want to get the most out of your online scheduling platform and make it as simple and efficient as possible. According to Woodward, small business owners should not go live with online scheduling until they do the following:
- List the services they offer with correct durations
- List the staff members that provide services and their schedules
- Accurately list all lead times and availability settings
- Enter existing appointments into the calendar
- Block off busy times in the calendar
This lets everyone avoid the classic email and phone tag, and it ensures that appointments don't inadvertently overlap—which could potentially throw the entire schedule out of whack.
Another task to handle before your online scheduling system goes live:
- Determine whether different appointments will have their own pricing tiers
- Determine whether particular resources require longer or shorter appointment times
Hair salons and other service-focused small businesses often run into situations where senior-level staff charge more for their time versus other employees, and where the same service may have different durations based on who's performing them. "That variance, in both the pricing and the service duration, is one of those variables that you configure as you set up the system," McCarter says.
Watch Out for These Online Scheduling Challenges
The desire to get a new online scheduling platform up and running sometimes leads to a public launch that isn't quite ready for prime time. Woodward recommends that you get your accounts—with staff, services and other resources—completely configured before you let customers start booking.
"We also strongly recommend that you make test appointments, which lets you not only become familiar with the booking process, but it also lets you see whether the settings appear to customers the way you'd like," he says.
Small businesses that launch an online scheduling system may find that they're spread across multiple platforms—for scheduling, for managing CRM and customer communications, and for handling payments or invoicing. "Businesses, especially those with fewer than employees, tend to have a lot of disparate systems," McCarter explains. "There's tremendous benefit to aggregating those different feature sets on one platform where the data is easily shared." Consolidating some of those functions into one scheduling system with robust functionality takes time and effort, but if it's done well, it will be worth it.
More Online Scheduling Software Resources
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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