How to Get a Date

Remember the service economy? Every once in a while you have an opportunity to interact with it: getting a haircut, an oil change or a spinal realignment, taking the dog to the groomer, visiting a financial adviser, summoning a plumber.

How is it that the Internet earthquake didn't crack a single window in this not-so-little burg? Companies that sell hard goods have had to come to terms with the Net as a new means of distribution, but sellers of services have published at most only digital brochures and business cards on the Web. You can zip through your entire Christmas list by visiting a string of online stores during your lunch hour. And yet, if you wanted to schedule an hour of court time at the indoor tennis club, you'd be out of luck.

But take heart. The Net is about to barrel through the service economy like a dyspeptic rhino, goring those that don't step lively. It will change the way consumers and businesses schedule service delivery, and it will change the way they value those services. This latest Web-driven revolution (no, we're not done with revolutions yet) is called e-scheduling. Understand it, and you'll have discovered another powerful tool for attracting new customers, building loyalty among existing customers, cutting costs and increasing satisfaction. Ignore it, and you can expect to feel the sharp pain of that rhino horn.

Consider the following scenario. Say you need to get your brakes checked before driving to the relatives' for Thanksgiving. Using a PC or laptop (or cell phone or PDA), you can peruse a calendar that shows open slots at your local dealership. Since volume in the service department is low on Wednesdays, it'll offer a half-price oil change if you bring the car in then.

And if, for some reason, you needed to switch dates, that's also easy to do. The finalized appointment is sent instantly to Microsoft (Corp.) Outlook (or your calendar program of choice). You get your pick of receiving either an automated phone call or an e-mail on the day before the appointment to confirm that you'll show up. Credit card billing makes payment simple (and if you don't show up, your credit card is charged a nominal sum-perhaps $10-to encourage you to give the dealership advance notice next time).

Imagine being able to schedule any kind of service appointment that way. Schedule six years' worth of dental checkups on your Palm Inc. VII while sitting in an airport lounge, or a first flute lesson from the den, at midnight, after coming home from the symphony. Imagine having a software agent that could automatically do scheduling on your behalf, surveying your calendar and fitting a session with the personal trainer into each week, followed by a massage, with enough time afterward to get dressed and hotfoot it to your next meeting.

Early adopters of e-scheduling capabilities will gain a real competitive edge-remember how the most active stock traders gravitated toward brokerages that offered online trading first? And consider the cost savings of the entirely automated transaction above: No one had to answer the phone, the customer never got put on hold or hung up in frustration, and the system incentivized customers to schedule appointments during slower times and discouraged them from going AWOL.

"We look at e-scheduling as something that will improve service to our customers, reduce cost and enhance our operations," says Paul Halpern, head of corporate development at America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses, a national chain of 94 optical retail stores based in Pennsauken, N.J.

Halpern's in-house technologists built their own simple scheduling system, which America's Best added to its site early in 1999. It didn't cover all of the available time slots, and it required that appointments be made at least 24 hours in advance. Still, Halpern says, "our customers love it. They see an ad on TV late at night, and they can go on the site immediately and make an appointment."

As of this summer, only 1 percent or 2 percent of America's Best customers used the e-scheduling service, but Halpern expects that number will grow to between 5 percent and 10 percent once the company completes its rollout of ServeClick software from Connectria Inc.

What really excites Halpern about ServeClick is that it supports the ability to overbook. But wait...overbooking at the optometrist? "Hotels and airlines have been using sophisticated booking algorithms for years now, to estimate the show rates-when customers actually show up and when they don't," says Halpern. With an ability to keep tabs on chronic no-shows, e-scheduling systems could be pretty darn accurate at pegging the real versus the "as booked" workload.

St. Louis-based Connectria is one of five significant vendors angling for a slice of this market (the others are, Inc., Inc. and Xtime Inc.). Most have chosen to provide back-end scheduling services that the client company deploys on its site. The client thus keeps control of the customer experience and can brand and customize the scheduling offering. The business models differ slightly. Some vendors charge a fee based on the number of resources (optometrists, for example) that can be scheduled online; others charge a flat monthly rate for companies or sole proprietors.

E-scheduling opportunities are available to companies of all sizes, including big ones. Midas, one of whose regional offices is working with San Mateo, Calif.-based Xtime, could refer a customer who wanted a Saturday morning muffler appointment at a fully booked shop in Phoenix to another location nearby with an open slot. Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., company that administers the SAT and GRE, among other standardized tests, takes 8 million reservations a year and serves a very computer-savvy customer base. Working with Xtime, what if it could slash the phone- and mail-processing costs of just half of those reservations?

Sole proprietorships and small companies could also see dramatic benefits. Al Lowe, the interim CEO of Issaquah, Wash.-based, counts a group of four massage therapists among his clients. Lowe says they were able to eliminate a part-time receptionist position from their payroll. Lowe adds that e-scheduling makes it easier for small businesses to conduct high-end loyalty-marketing campaigns, for example, by sending out e-mails (perhaps with discount offers) to customers who haven't made an appointment in six months.

E-scheduling can help service providers identify and reward their most frequent customers. Connectria President Richard Waidmann predicts that a service provider with unfilled appointments might some day engage in Inc.-style discounting to fill them.

And it's not difficult to imagine the business-to-business uses of e-scheduling, like letting distributors arrange for manufacturers' deliveries at convenient times or allowing customers to book product-training classes online, or even enabling an administrative assistant to make plans for a temp to cover his weeklong vacation.

When e-commerce swept through the world of tangible products, we saw all kinds of startups try to become successful bookstores and toy stores and electronics stores on the Web. It has been a jarring journey for most. Few people, thankfully, launched pure-play Internet landscaping services or podiatry practices. So as the service providers go online, perhaps they can benefit from the learning of the past five years. Buy the technology, don't build it. Use the Web to improve the customer experience and reduce costs. For most companies, this is a new channel, not a new line of business. Think about how new modes of interacting with customers can accelerate and enhance what you already know how to do well.

And then, as a reward, schedule yourself for a ginko-peppermint body wrap at the spa.

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