This month I answer a reader's question about Web-based scheduling services.
I am a social worker in a group private counseling practice. We track our billing using software that has a scheduling module built in, but we've never used it. It seems too clumsy, too difficult to customize around the personal schedules of nine therapists. We've stayed with paper appointment books. This works but is cumbersome, especially when someone calls in and asks, "When is my next appointment?" or when you have to flip through nine books to find the first opening someone has for an urgent caller.
Is there an intelligent way to evaluate appointment software, short of downloading trial versions for installation? We have been told the wave of the future is online, Web-based scheduling services that allow a prospective client to book an appointment at any time without a phone conversation.
--Terry Moore, Omaha, Nebraska
There are many different appointment scheduling applications, and there's no easy way to evaluate their suitability for a given situation without using trial versions, as available.
Start by analyzing your business needs, as I outlined in an earlier column. That article was about choosing accounting software, but the same principles apply in your circumstances: First analyze your needs, then rate the capabilities of each application in that context.
Stand-Alone or Integrated?
The appointment schedulers I've seen built into financial management or billing applications never seem to be quite as good as the stand-alone programs. Of course, the downside of using a stand-alone appointment scheduler is the lack of integration with your billing app.
Regular readers will know I'm a fan of Web-based business application services. They tend to be easier to set up than packaged applications that you install on your own PC, and they usually handle software updates and data backups automatically.
Web-based apps are also more likely to offer online self-service. Customers can access certain capabilities over the Internet, if you permit it.
Benefits of Client Self-Service
Allowing your clients to book their own appointments online delivers several benefits. It can increase client satisfaction since it lets them easily schedule an appointment based upon their top priority, whether that's the earliest possible booking, the most convenient time, or seeing their favorite therapist. Clients can also cancel appointments or change times.
A Web-based service is available for your clients to use 24 hours a day since it does not depend upon someone answering your phone during business hours. This also relieves your staff of some tedious scheduling-related tasks.
You'll still need someone to answer the phone to schedule appointments: Not every client will have Internet access, and some will not feel comfortable booking appointments online.
AppointmentQuest Web-based Scheduling Service
AppointmentQuest Online Appointment Manager is a highly capable Web-based appointment scheduler with client self-service capabilities. It offers six membership packages with varying features and capacities, priced at $7 per month and up.
You can try out AppointmentQuest by signing up for a free 30-day trial account. I found the application process easy, but setup proved time-consuming and somewhat problematic.
You must go through a multistep procedure to configure schedules, add personnel and locations, and more. I got lost somewhere in New Account Setup and couldn't figure out how to resume the setup process.
I wound up stuck in Suspended Schedule Status. I knew--and the online help confirmed--that customers can book appointments only when the schedule status is Active. However, the online help did not explain how to change the status to Active. Online help that tells you what you already know isn't very helpful.
I finally used a Web-based form to query support and was pleasantly surprised when, despite the stated 48-hour turnaround, I received a detailed e-mail response within a few minutes. I was then able to complete the setup.
Despite the setup glitch, I'm impressed by AppointmentQuest. It offers a wealth of scheduling capabilities. You can change the appointment interval, set an appointment lead-in or lead-out to add time between clients, and establish an appointment cancellation deadline. I think it would be simple to set different work hours (including split shifts), days off, and vacation days for each therapist.
You can customize the Web interface for both you and your clients, changing fonts and colors. You can add your business name, logo, and contact information. You can also modify appointment e-mail notification messages and policies for both clients and staff.
It's easy to check availability, and you can activate the Online Appointment Scheduler for use by clients. There are several ways to link from your Web site to your appointment data, including options for both new and returning clients. The client interface is intuitive and easy to use.
Credit Card Billing
The AppointmentQuest package that appears most appropriate for your practice is Gold PRO, which handles an unlimited number of appointments for up to ten employees, for up to 24 months in advance.
E-mail appointment reminders can be sent to clients and therapists, as well as to an office administrator. Gold PRO supports both rescheduling and recurring appointments.
Appointment and contact information can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook or the Palm Desktop. You an also export data to a spreadsheet and prepare appointment books in PDF.
You could even opt for credit-card processing, which collects fees or deposits from clients when they make appointments. That feature requires a merchant account, and AppointmentQuest charges transaction-processing fees that vary depending upon the plan you select.
The Gold PRO package costs $100 per month. Discounts apply if you agree to a six-month or one-year contract. For your group, the cost for this plan would amount to about $11 per month per therapist. This sounds pretty affordable to me, though it does cost more than a paper appointment book. You'll need to decide if the scheduling capabilities are worth it.