Enterprise Toolbox

SAN MATEO (06/12/2000) - Normally I'm a pretty upbeat kind of gal, but this week I'm feeling rather grouchy. I've been trying for the past six days to contact my broadband service provider and schedule an appointment.

I've sat on hold for hours at a time and have been routed to voice mail systems only to leave messages and never receive a return phone call. I still do not have an appointment scheduled to troubleshoot a problematic circuit that's plaguing me.

Is this week's column a rant against broadband providers? No, that's a separate column altogether. My recent frustrating experience while trying to schedule my appointment started to get me thinking about ways that businesses can reduce customer frustration and increase repeat business.

When it comes to appointment scheduling, a new breed of online service is emerging that promises to improve customer relations at businesses of all stripes. Any company that offers a service could benefit from an online appointment scheduling service.

Business-based online appointment scheduling services let consumers access your services more easily. These services let consumers see in real time what appointment times are available and set up or cancel appointments, and some can send the consumer an appointment reminder via e-mail.

From the business perspective, online appointment scheduling attracts and keeps customers while reducing overall customer service expenses. Appointment handling is more efficient, and the amount of time lost to cancellations is greatly reduced.

Possible solutions

TimeTrade.com Inc. (www.timetrade.com) recently launched its real-time online appointment scheduling service. The service offers a 24-hour secured method for customers to reach you to access your services.

I find TimeTrade's service compelling for a few reasons. First, it offers multiple entry points for customers to access service providers. It includes a data-center option that lets customers access your services via Web browser or wireless device.

It also offers a call-center option that lets customers call in to schedule appointments. A call-center representative accesses the subscriber appointment database and sets up a time for the customer to receive service.

TimeTrade provides a redundant appointment scheduling solution. You might even implement it as a backup measure to support your current in-house customer service solution.

You can use TimeTrade to schedule one-on-one appointments (such as what I was attempting to do with my broadband service provider) or to schedule many-to-one appointments, such as a training class. You can test drive TimeTrade at www.timetrade.com/testdriv.htm.

Two other online appointment scheduling offerings are available, one from Xtime.com (www.xtime.com) and the other from jacknabbit.com (www.jacknabbit.com). They also go after tackling the challenges of managing appointment scheduling for service-based businesses.

Xtime takes a slightly different tack from either TimeTrade or jacknabbit through the use of its Time Inventory Management Engine, or TIMEngine, technology. The TIMEngine platform can be implemented across a wide array of business sectors with minimal customization. Moreover, it supports both Web-and telephone-based access to appointment scheduling.

Key to Xtime is the client's ability to leverage appointment scheduling information as part of a more strategic CRM (customer relationship management) solution. Companies that can integrate appointment information with other customer-related data can improve customer satisfaction levels.

Both jacknabbit and TimeTrade operate in a similar vein, although jacknabbit offers some differences. Customer access is provided via a Web browser. The service can be hosted on your Web site or on jacknabbit's servers.

Customers who make appointments with you using the jacknabbit service can synchronize the appointment time with their personal calendars. Moreover, your customers see available appointment times based on parameters you set.

Worth it?

I find merit in the idea of using one of these services either to replace or augment existing customer service arrangements. However, I am concerned that these services are relatively new and unproven.

After my frustrating appointment scheduling experiences of the past week, I'm all in favor of any solution that will improve the customer experience.

However, I think businesses that may consider one of these online appointment scheduling services should be cautious.

Ask for a trial period. During the trial be sure to ask about security, redundancy, and for the details on the SLA (service-level agreement) offered by the service provider. Pricing also differs among these solutions from a flat monthly fee to per-transaction pricing. Be sure to get all the details before signing on the dotted line.

Would you consider online appointment scheduling for your business? Write to me at maggie_biggs@infoworld.com.

Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

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