Book ’em Online

Contractors can save time and capture more clients by allowing them to book their own appointments
Book ’em Online
Figure 1 – The business owner can adjust the appearance of the calendar and insert the company’s logo so that it appears identical to other pages on the site. They can control the colors, fonts and other visual elements so that it looks professional and tightly integrated with the company’s own graphics and branding. (Graphics courtesy of BookFresh)

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The typical contractor books flights, hotels and rental cars online, buys books online and watches movies online, but books appointments with clients exclusively over the telephone.

“Every type of consumer, whether of business services or consumer products, expects the ability to book online and for businesses to provide this type of integration,” says Evan Ginsburg, CEO of San Francisco-based BookFresh LLC, a company that provides clients an online appointment system.

“BookFresh is a response to what we’re seeing in the marketplace, where any object can be bought and sold online, but services offered by independent contractors are being left out. What we offer is a way for you to book initial consultation or estimating appointments with clients, whether you’re in the office to take phone calls or not. The big benefit is the time savings of the business owner who isn’t forced to take all the incoming calls. Every missed call is missed business and an opportunity for prospects to call someone else, so now you have the opportunity to capture 100 percent of these prospects 24 hours a day.”


Integrate with website

BookFresh is designed to integrate seamlessly with a business’s existing website and allows clients to book appointments online in real time. Businesses pay for the service with a monthly $19.95 service fee.

The majority of BookFresh customers are smaller businesses ranging from sole proprietorships to as many as five employees. The software can also be designed around the assets of the company, such as a team assigned to a vacuum truck or a video camera inspection vehicle.

The main impediment to most businesses thinking about developing an online booking system? “They’re concerned about the technical barriers to integrating the booking system with an existing website,” says Ginsburg. “The beauty of the system is that it requires very little technical knowledge to get started, and you can try before you buy without commitment. All you need is a little basic knowledge of working with a Web browser.”

Clients without a website can build a simple site around their appointment calendar using tools provided by BookFresh in partnership with website builder Clients with an existing website are given a single line of HTML or XML code that is inserted into the company website and BookFresh embeds an online appointment system seamlessly into the existing site, either through a page link or an online “widget,” a graphic interface that indicates the appointment function. The actual calendar and appointment engine remains on the BookFresh server, but the client never leaves the business website while booking.

“The business owner can adjust the appearance of the calendar and insert the company’s logo so that it appears identical to other pages on the site,” says Ginsburg. “You can control the colors, fonts and other visual elements so that it looks professional and tightly integrated with the company’s own graphics and branding.” (Figure 1)


Customize calendar carefully

Customizing the calendar requires the contractor to give the setup some thought.

“At this point, some BookFresh users are afraid that automating their booking system will lead to a loss of control,” says Ginsburg. “That’s an important concern, so we make it clear that BookFresh isn’t intended to replace workflow scheduling – it’s a virtual receptionist. You won’t be allowing clients to schedule sewer cleaning or pipe rehabilitation or to direct your vacuum trucks. There’s a fine line between booking online appointments and the tools required to control the activities of your organization.”

Users begin by limiting the appointment times to normal business hours – say 8 a.m. to 5 p.m (Figure 2). If the initial contact with the customer usually involves an hour for an estimate, then appointment bookings can be set in one-hour blocks. As customers begin to book, the calendar fills in real time, displaying only the remaining appointment times (Figure 3).

“You can set an appropriate time for travel between each of the appointments, so that if the client books a one-hour estimate, it will block out a half-hour of driving time,” says Ginsburg. “Or you can work the travel time into the length of the appointment. The system can be location-specific and assign travel time based on the location of the customer, according to their ZIP code.”

Clients can choose how much information they wish to enter ­– obviously a name, telephone number and address are required. However, they can also provide email addresses and payment information through PayPal.

“That saves an enormous administration time during intake when you would normally be taking down detailed customer information,” says Ginsburg. “BookFresh will even supply you with map data to show the appointment location. You should be concentrating on delivering services that make money – not answering phones or performing data intake.”


Individual appointments

The appointment system will supply a single calendar, or multiple calendars for multiple teams or employees under the same account (Figure 4). For example, if there’s a dedicated person dealing with residential drains, then that person can be assigned a dedicated appointment calendar. Each staff member calendar can be assigned a photo and a job description.

“That’s the basic installation,” says Ginsburg. “But how much interaction you want with the system and how much you want it to do is up to the business owner. For example, if you use Outlook, iCal, or Google Calendar you can integrate the BookFresh calendar with them, so you only need to enter your own scheduling information once and there isn’t any need to re-enter a lot of data.”

The system accepts website appointments 24 hours a day and can be configured to alert the business owner by phone, text message or email whenever a client books. The contractor will have the option of either accepting or rejecting the appointment proposal – a feature designed to prevent strangers from booking unwanted appointments. Once the appointment is accepted, the client receives instant notification.

If the contractor schedules a one-hour lunch, or a day’s vacation, then that time will be automatically removed from the time slots available to clients. If the contractor needs to move an appointment, then the original appointment can be dragged and dropped to another time slot and an automatic message is sent to the customer, asking if the rescheduled appointment is acceptable.

“Today’s customer thrives on this sort of instant interaction,” says Ginsburg.

“When you provide the customer with quick feedback, it commits them to spending their money with you, instead of finding someone who happens to be answering the phone at that particular time, and that’s a huge business benefit.”


Appointment notifiers sent automatically

Once the appointment time approaches, BookFresh can also be instructed to send an automated reminder to the client prior to the appointment, whether by text, telephone or email. The owner can choose the timing of the message – a day before the appointment or three days, for example (Figure 5).

“Set it and forget it,” says Ginsburg. “You reduce appointment no-shows and the customer feels confident that you’re keeping your part of the bargain by showing up for the appointment.”

Businesses offering a slate of predictable services with regular completion times and fixed unit costs may also choose to offer those services on the calendar. Examples may include flat-fee drain snaking, or septic tank pumping.

“This works well for a business that knows the service is going to take exactly an hour or 90 minutes, and knows the material costs involved,” says Ginsburg. “But open-ended services, such as drain inspection, which present a considerable number of variables, wouldn’t make good candidates.”

If customers choose to share their PayPal account information with the contractor, then payments can be accepted automatically from the client’s PayPal account.

“The time period for bill payment can be specified on the calendar site,” says Ginsburg. “All the contractor needs to do is set up a business PayPal account to link to the BookFresh calendar.”

Contractors with their own Facebook page can also provide calendar access directly through that page through a “Book Now” button. That same button can be added to a Craigslist ad, or an email solicitation.

At any time, the contractor can use the BookFresh customer tracking database to create reports on client history, including when someone last booked with the business, and how often they use the business.

Once the system is set up to the contractor’s satisfaction, the company’s answering system message should be changed, explaining that clients have a choice of leaving a message, or booking immediately through the company’s website. Existing customers should be contacted and familiarized with the benefits of the new appointment scheduling system.

“Send them an email and familiarize them with the new options they have to book with you,” says Ginsburg.

Contractors can also sign up to activate automated review requests to solicit positive reviews from clients. Those same reviews can be shared with the clients’ friends.

“Finally, if you haven’t seen a customer in a while, you can notify your regular customers through email that you’d like to see them again – perhaps even provide them with a promotional offer or a service discount,” says Ginsburg. “A six month follow-up is common.”


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