Fortune Small Business Tech Edge

Boost sales with online appointment bookings

Switching to a 'click here to book' system helped this spa grow its client base by 400%.

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Spa owner London Elise needs no receptionist.
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(Fortune Small Business) -- Like many business owners who rely on client bookings, London Elise used to check her voice-mail obsessively. She couldn't afford to miss requests for appointments at her San Francisco skin-care studio, Soothe Spa. So Elise, 35, spent much of her day playing phone tag with customers, trying to nail down times that worked for all concerned.

That changed when she began using software that lets customers make their own appointments on her website. Now she glances at text messages on her cellphone to see who has booked a facial or a massage, and she can manage her schedule from home.

"It fundamentally changed the landscape of my business," says Elise.

Customers have booked airline tickets, hotel rooms, and restaurant reservations online for years. But the e-commerce revolution largely bypassed small service providers like Elise. Appointment-making software from companies such as TRX and IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) cost thousands of dollars, did not always offer real-time bookings, and usually needed expensive maintenance by an IT professional.

Now salons, mechanics, accountants, dog groomers - any business that takes appointments - can find a wealth of online booking software sold as a service. That means the appointment schedule is hosted on the provider's servers for a monthly fee. According to a survey by HourTown, a Palo Alto online-booking service, 79% of U.S. consumers say they want to book appointments on the Internet.

"Consumers have a high expectation to be able to schedule online," says Ryan Donahue, HourTown's founder.

HourTown and San Francisco rival Genbook offer free services with minimal features, as well as more elaborate packages that cost between $20 and $80 a month. Booking Angel, an Australian company expanding into the U.S. and aimed at restaurants, charges $1 to $3.50 a booking, rather than a monthly subscription fee.

Elise settled on a $40-a-month package from Genbook that offers instant text-message notification. Other services that she looked at delayed notification for as long as an hour, which Elise feared could cause a therapist to accidentally take a double booking by phone or in person.

Genbook didn't take long to pay off. Over the next 18 months Elise watched her Soothe Spa customer base grow from 100 to 500. For the first time in seven years her staff is booked out for the next three months. She still hasn't hired a receptionist, which would have set her back $25,000 a year, and Elise says the added customers have tripled her revenue - not bad for an investment of $40 a month.

Genbook asks for a client's credit card information, which may make some potential clients balk. But in Soothe Spa's case it all but eliminated no-shows. Clients are notified that they will be charged 50% of the cost for a missed appointment.

"It's made everyone a lot more honest," says Elise.

The caveat with services like Genbook is that your business data are stored on another company's servers. If the provider ever goes belly-up, there's a chance your information may not be accessible.

"The risk of them going under is real," says Steve King, a research affiliate for Institute for the Future, a nonprofit business research center in Palo Alto. "Make sure that if they do, the impact isn't that great" - by regularly backing up the information on your hard drive.

After an appointment Genbook sends an e-mail to the customer asking for feedback. One client wrote that Soothe's salon beds were too hard, so Elise added more padding. Another client said the rooms were too cold, so Elise adjusted the thermostat. And after one woman wrote that the wall paint in the salon's bathroom looked shabby, Elise enlisted a painter to give the walls a new coat that same week.

"Our clients are participating," says a giddy Elise. "It's what I always wanted." And no phone tag required.  To top of page

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