The Appointment Principle

Beagle Research did some market research earlier this year that we are now announcing. The project aimed to understand some of the nuances involving scheduling appointments for services and walking in. What we discovered was in some cases reassuring and in others surprising, and I present some of our findings here.

All services are not created equal in the eyes of a representative cross section of Americans. It was clear that without an appointment people will be more patient waiting for services from someone who is perceived to be a professional. This finding holds true for financial advisers, loan originators — you name it — even portrait photographers.

Time and Money

Doctors are in a class by themselves. A large percentage (46.5 percent) of people without an appointment will wait a very long time to see a doctor but a smaller number will wait indefinitely if they have an appointment and they are less patient. A sizable minority — over 30 percent, depending on the service in question — expect that, if they have an appointment, their service session should start the moment they walk in the door.

The least patient demographic in the survey is the age group of 35 to 44 year-olds. This makes a great deal of sense to me. The demographic represents people who are getting into the full swing of their careers, they may have young kids, and they have cash to spend and reasons to spend it. What they lack is time, including time to wait in line for services. It strikes me that a primary question that any service business should ask is, what would that demographic like? If you can make 35- to 44-year-olds happy, you are likely to be on track with everyone else.

Consumer services are a different story entirely. Customers have the shortest fuses waiting for the attention of auto repair people, retail help and the like, even if they have no appointment. Ironically, 84 percent said they prefer walk-in service for routine maintenance such as oil changes. The survey panel told us that their perceptions of a service correlate with appointments. They used words like important, high-quality, tailored-to-me and professional to describe appointment-based services.

Make the Appointment

My conclusion is that appointments are a good idea for almost any business trying to present a tone that is professional and offering high-quality services — regardless of the professional status.

However, how well-received is appointment scheduling? If given a chance, will people do what’s needed to set up an account online that would make scheduling an appointment quick and easy? The answer is yes. More than 80 percent said they would do that for services they take on a regular basis.

For the business considering implementing an appointment system there are several advantages. Beyond the perceptions of professionalism and high quality, service businesses that implement appointments have better insight into their resource requirements. There’s nothing worse than over-scheduling people to work on a day when traffic is light — except under-scheduling on a day when it seems like the world wants to come through your doors. Neither situation is good for business.

Appointments can certainly help alleviate the worst of the peaks and valleys. So a business that implements appointments side-by-side with walk-in service may actually see an improvement on the walk-in side too because the staff will be better able to fit in an occasional walk-in. More importantly, if a sizable portion of your customers expect to walk in and begin with no waiting at all, then a business that keeps people waiting even a little is risking its profit margins without even realizing it.

The SaaS Answer

Scheduling appointments was once tedious and expensive. It was tedious when the service provider relied on a pencil, a big appointment book and a bigger eraser. It became expensive when the first automation systems became available, and as a result, only large, expensive and professional service providers could afford such systems. Like many other aspects of modern business, the situation has changed with the advent of SaaS (Software as a Service) computing. Today, you can hook up a SaaS-based appointments scheduling system to your Web site and be in business in no time.

Appointment scheduling might be one of those golden nuggets that comes out of this recession. A business can perform valuable innovation without changing anything about its core service, simply by offering the ability to make appointments. Innovation ideas like this are cheap and easy, and they don’t come along very often.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected]. Disclosure: TimeTrade, a company in the appointment scheduling market that offers both SaaS and conventional appointment scheduling systems, sponsored this research.

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