Can online scheduling services save time and money?

Appointment Quest is just one of dozens of online scheduling programs available on the Web.
Appointment Quest is just one of dozens of online scheduling programs available on the Web.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

As people have become more familiar with the Internet, Web services have flourished. Whether it's the explosion of social networks or the evolution of the software as a service (SaaS) business model, people are using the Web more than ever. Companies are taking advantage of this trend in many ways, one of which is online scheduling.

At its most basic level, online scheduling is an interface in which multiple parties can make appointments or schedule tasks over an Internet connection. It can take many different forms. Coupled with services like e-mail and calendar software, online scheduling can streamline administrative duties and free up employees to attend to other tasks.

There are two major categories of online scheduling: internal and external scheduling systems. Companies use internal systems to allocate resources and assign tasks for work within the company itself. By contrast, an external system serves as an interface between a company and its customer base.

Many companies rely on third party vendors to provide online scheduling services. In some cases, a company will purchase software and run it on its own computer servers. A few companies commission customized systems designed for their specific industry's needs. Other companies subscribe to services hosted on the vendor's own Web servers.

There's no shortage of online scheduling vendors on the market. Each company offers a suite of applications designed to make scheduling simple and organized. Some focus on specific industries, while others take a more general approach. There are proprietary products as well as open source approaches available. Some have subscription fees, some have a one-time purchase price and some are free of charge. It's up to the customer to research products and compare them against his or her needs.

For some companies, the most important consideration regarding online scheduling is financial. Can online scheduling save money? If leveraged properly, a well-designed online scheduling system can help administrators cut costs and make better use of their resources. The key is to implement a system that's easy to use and maintain.

How are companies using online scheduling systems to handle complicated internal scheduling? Keep reading to find out.

Keeping Online Scheduling Internal

Schedulebook offers several options in online scheduling services.
Schedulebook offers several options in online scheduling services.
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Why might a company use an online scheduling service for internal scheduling? For one thing, it gives employees the chance to create and view schedules even when they aren't in the office. This comes in handy for people who are on business trips or need to check resource availability from home.

Online scheduling services also can create centralized scheduling systems that span multiple divisions or departments. In some companies, different segments of the organization don't know what's going on with other parts of the business. A centralized system makes it easier for different departments to collaborate on projects together. It reduces the need to reconcile one department's schedule against another.

Companies use internal online scheduling systems in several ways, including:

  • Allocating resources, such as conference rooms or equipment
  • Assigning shifts
  • Making appointments and coordinating meetings
  • Scheduling production

While there are plenty of offline scheduling systems that can also complete these tasks, they normally lack the accessibility of online systems.

Online scheduling systems are particularly well suited for certain industries. One in particular is the nursing industry. Nurses tend to work long shifts. Their shifts can vary a great deal -- they might work a day shift on one day and a night shift later in the week. Often, individual nurses will want a specific shift more than another. As a result, many hospitals allow nurses to trade shifts with each other, or to pick up extra shifts.

As you can imagine, this becomes a scheduling nightmare. An administrator has to make sure that each shift has the proper coverage. If the administrator needs to fill a shift and can't get in touch with a nurse who wants it, he or she might have to hire a temporary nurse. Sometimes, that also means that someone has to train the temp so that he or she knows how to follow the proper procedures. Even if there are available nurses on staff, those nurses might not have the skill set necessary to qualify for certain shifts. Keeping the schedule organized and filled is time consuming and challenging.

A few hospitals have implemented online scheduling systems as a way to address this complicated issue. Nurses can log into the system from home to select shifts and contact each other to make trades or cover another nurse's shift. Because they no longer have to relay schedule changes through another human being, everyone can spend more time focusing on other job duties. Some hospitals report that they don't have to hire temp nurses to cover empty shifts as often. A few have customized systems that allow a nurse to cover a shift only if he or she meets specific qualifications.

The result means less paperwork for the nursing administrators and more freedom for the nurses. Some of the hospitals saw a rise in nurse morale and job satisfaction as a result. Also, because the hospitals saw a reduction in the need for temporary workers, they saved money [source: Incentive Magazine].

While the nursing industry is in many ways unique, other industries can also benefit from an online scheduling system. Companies need to educate employees on the system and make sure it fits the needs of their organizations before implementation. It's not realistic to think that just by installing an online scheduling system, everything will work out fine.

What about companies that use external online scheduling systems? How are they used, and why? Find out in the next section.

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External Online Scheduling

A sample schedule calendar view based on a Web service provided by Net Appointment. ­
A sample schedule calendar view based on a Web service provided by Net Appointment. ­
©2008 HowStuffWorks

Companies that use online scheduling with external customers usually do so as a supplement to traditional scheduling systems. For example, a car dealership might allow customers to schedule a service center appointment online. Customers wouldn't have to call in to the center and speak with a representative. Instead, they would first register an account on the dealership's Web site. Then, they'd open the schedule and choose a time slot. The system might ask them about the nature of the service. At that point, the system would either send an e-mail to the customer or a representative would call to confirm the appointment.

Many businesses can take advantage of systems like these. Here's just a small sample of companies that could use online scheduling systems:

  • Airline reservations
  • Doctors' offices
  • Event sites
  • Party rental agencies
  • Restaurant and theatre reservations
  • Salons and spas

One of the considerations companies must make when implementing such a system is how much time it takes to complete a given task. While an appointment might have a specific time limit, that doesn't necessarily mean the business can accommodate two appointments back to back. That's why most online scheduling systems allow businesses to create time buckets. The bucket acts like a buffer, giving the business a little spare time on either end of an appointment. Subsequent appointments can't overlap the buffer. This helps keep all appointments on time and decreases delays.

Online scheduling can also give business owners an idea about how close to capacity they'll operate on a day-to-day basis. Using this information, owners can rearrange employee schedules to maximize efficiency. When coupled with an internal scheduling system, owners can balance customer needs and employee satisfaction.

Most businesses don't abandon traditional scheduling systems completely for online ones. They don't want to neglect customers who are unable or unwilling to use the Web to make appointments. In that respect, they consider online scheduling to be a convenience feature rather than a pivotal business function.

Customers' adoption of online systems depends on several factors. Those include technical, regional, generational and cultural traits. It's entirely feasible for a company with offices in different cities to see dramatically different usage levels of online scheduling among customer bases. For example, a chain of restaurants might have a lot of customers who prefer to schedule reservations online for restaurants in big cities, but see very few online reservations for locations in rural areas.

Just as companies need to consider if an internal online scheduling system makes sense for their business, they need to take these factors into consideration for external systems. It's important to keep in mind that such systems are supplemental. While they might make it easier to stay organized and reduce customer calls, they won't entirely replace traditional scheduling.

To learn more about online scheduling and other topics, schedule some time with the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Anderson, Mary Alice. "E-Scheduling." MultiMedia & Internet@Schools. Mar/Apr. 2007. Vol. 14, Issue 2, pp. 29-31.
  • "AutoRevenue Announces @utoScheduler 2.0." PR Newswire. New York. Jan. 29, 2008.
  • Beene, Ryan. "Online scheduling, parts sales build service work." Automotive News. Feb. 2008. Vol. 82, Issue 6293, p. 20.
  • Davis, Bruce. "Few tire dealers try online scheduling." Tire Business. March 2008. Vol. 25, Issue 24, pp. 21-24.
  • Howard, Courtney E. "Save time, schedule online." Electronic Publishing. March 2001. pp. 57-58.
  • "Online Scheduling Speeds it Up." Ward's Dealer Business. Dec. 2007. p. 46.
  • Palmer, Alex. "Right on Schedule." Incentive Magazine. Feb. 2008. Vol. 182, Issue 2, pp. 38-40.