Guide to selecting an online booking system

Government regulations around Covid-19 mean that many more businesses now need formal booking systems to manage social distancing between customers.

Guide

18 min read

1. What is an online booking system?

Where eCommerce systems help businesses to sell tangible products, online booking and scheduling systems sell or manage ‘time’ for customers to make and pay for reservations with service businesses such as:

  • Nights in accommodation such as hotels, apartments, hostels etc. (e.g. Cloudbeds, Inn Style, Guesty, etc.)
  • Tables in a restaurant (e.g. OpenTable, ResDiary, etc.)
  • Appointments in beauty salons, health care professionals or with advisers (such as Appointedd, Acuity, Fresha, etc.)
  • Admission slots/tickets for experiences, activities and one-off events (e.g. Digitickets, ArtFund Art Tickets, Eventbrite, Ticket Tailor, Ticket Source, etc.)
  • Places for ongoing classes and training (e.g. Class4Kids, Bookeo, SimplyBook, etc.)
  • Space in rooms and venues (and hire of related equipment) (e.g. Skedda, Hallmaster, Planyo, Ivvy, etc.)

When implemented, booking systems or processes become critically important to the success of the business, and must make it easy for:

  • Customers to find availability and then complete a booking
  • Staff to have clear visibility of bookings so they can manage peak periods or actively promote quieter times

Government regulations around Covid-19 mean that many more businesses now need formal booking systems to manage social distancing between customers. They can also be a useful mechanism to capture customer information to support test and trace programmes.

There are so many systems on the market, it is time consuming to research them but can be even more time consuming to make the wrong choice.

This guide outlines the key things to consider when choosing a system to help you get up and running quickly.

2. How do I know if I need an online booking system?

Not all businesses will need an online booking system. Similarly, some businesses will need a more complex system than others. Here are some things to consider.

When a manual system works

Some businesses will manage fine by continuing with a manual booking system, where an online system may add unnecessary complexity and expense to the process. Sometimes, taking reservations face-to-face, over the phone or by email, then logging them in a notebook at reception or blocking out time in email calendars works well. For example:

  • A very small business with few staff who are all on the premises.
  • A loyal customer base who are quite happy with (or even prefer) existing booking arrangements.
  • Where the amount of time needed for each booking will vary dramatically depending on the customer. There are instances where it’s easier to have a 1-2-1 dialogue to work out what’s needed or to build a personal relationship, e.g. an architect going to measure a house, or a mobile hairdresser who wants to allow longer appointments for clients with special needs.

Back-office online system

In the scenarios above, customers probably benefit from not having to book themselves online. However, as a result of Covid-19, many businesses have more staff working from home, who might not be able to see a notebook at reception!

In this case, it could be worth having an online booking system but keep visibility of this for staff only, so all staff can access the same view but still manually input customer bookings as they come in. It could also be used to email or text appointment confirmations and reminders for customers.

This will be particularly valuable for businesses where office staff are working remotely during Covid-19 and need to easily provide information to those working on the premises who have no time to answer the phone:

  • Vehicle repair garage
  • Dentist
  • Beauty salon

Customer facing online system

For larger businesses or for those with a larger volume of potential customers, a full customer facing system may be required. This is also true for businesses that previously rarely reached capacity and could easily work on a first-come-first-served basis but now need to limit the volume of customers due to social distancing.

For example:

  • Children’s classes
  • Visitor attractions
  • Cafes and restaurants

These systems can bring huge benefits. More and more customers find it quicker to book services online 24/7 rather than pick up the phone in standard office hours. In these cases, not having online booking will mean a business will lose customers to competitors.

Also, from a staff perspective, it should save a significant amount of staff time if they’re not having to manage every single booking. It also prevents double bookings and other admin errors. This is especially important in larger businesses with more staff or a more complex service offering.

And finally, these systems can give you real insight on your business with data that is much easier to analyse than manually extracting it from a notebook or staff diaries.

3. Reviewing your existing approach

Before deciding to implement a new system, it’s worth collating feedback on your existing process. If you’re rushing to put in place a new system due to the Covid-19 situation, then you can do this quickly through a few phone calls.

  • Customers: Ask some of your customers what they think of your booking process and if booking online would make things easier.
  • Staff: Chat with your staff to gather their views. Remember to include staff across the business. An online booking system will potentially support all functions from admin, finance and operations, to sales and marketing.
    ○ Do they have pain points with the existing system?
    ○ Do they think the business is losing new customers due to the existing process?
    ○ Do they see any potential opportunities?

4. Listing your requirements

A booking system can impact many areas of your business, from admin to marketing to finance, so you must consider how you will need it to support all your key functions. The following headings are a useful framework to map out what you might need and are expanded below:

  • Your services and sector
  • Your customer journey
  • Marketing
  • Look and feel
  • Training and support
  • Reporting
  • Technical considerations

Your services

Many online booking systems are either specifically tailored for the needs of a specific sector or have options suitable for different sectors, such as restaurants, hotels or classes. If your business fits neatly into what is typical for your industry, then it should be straightforward to find a suitable system.

List out all the combinations of what you offer and how you offer it as this will help you check whether any given system could work for you. For example, do you offer:

  • standard bookings and group bookings?
  • exclusive hire and private sessions?
  • physical events and virtual events that might require integration with video conferencing like Zoom?
  • additional information or items you normally add to a booking, e.g. dietary requirements, advance food orders for a group, or table layout or hire of equipment for a conference room?

If you have a more diverse offering, (such as a restaurant that also provides cookery classes), you could either look for a system to cover everything, move one aspect of your business onto the system initially, or consider a custom-built option.

Customer journey

The key element of any system is your end customers and how you need to support them. Remember you don’t always need a website to implement online booking - some systems will work if you link to them from a social media page.

Do you need to manage booking against availability?

  • Real time booking: This means, when a customer is booking with you, they will only be able to book the actual options still available at that moment in time - such as events or activities that still have tickets available or restaurant sittings that still have tables. Also, any cancellations will automatically make that slot available once again.
  • Waiting lists: A more sophisticated option is to include a waiting list functionality if customers are unable to find the appointment time they want.
  • Calendar synchronisation: A ‘nice to have’ element offered by some systems is external calendar synchronisation which automatically updates customers’ and staff calendars (such as Google Calendar and iCal), reducing the risk of them forgetting to add the appointment.
  • Time zones and languages: For businesses with international customers such as those in the tourist sector or consultancy, some systems will support many languages and allow you to list availability in different time zones - based on your own time zone but with times adjusted to international users.

Do you have rules and terms and conditions?

  • Time limits: Some systems allow you to set limits on how far ahead customers are able to book, or limit how close to a booking they can reschedule or cancel.
  • Managing acceptance: If there’s any terms and conditions involved in your booking, (e.g. cancellation policies) you may want your system to be customised so customers confirm acceptance of these as part of the online booking.
  • Waivers: Likewise, for physical activities, you may need customers to sign waivers acknowledging the risk involved such as digital consent from parents for their children to participate in classes.

Do you need pre-arrival support for customers?

  • Reminders: In addition to booking confirmation emails, many systems support automated email or text reminders to reduce no shows. These are also useful for including any reminders about how your service is now different as a result of Covid-19.
  • Health declarations: Following Covid-19, many service providers such as dentists will now need customers to sign declarations about their health or confirm they’ve had no recent exposure to anyone testing positive before they come onto the premises. Some online systems can automate this process.

Do you need to gather customer feedback?

  • Auto-feedback: Most systems will offer the option to automate email requests for feedback after an appointment. This is very valuable to embed customer follow-up with minimal effort, but it is still best supplemented by other methods, such as a senior member of staff or business owner picking up the phone directly to customers from time to time.

Does the system need to take payments?

Customers will pay up front through the booking system for services such as tickets and events, and so your booking systems will need to fully integrate payments and receipts.

Others, such as beauty salons and restaurants (where the actual amount the customer spends will change on the day), traditionally tend to take the booking online then the payment on the day.

However, do consider that due to Covid-19 restricting the capacity of many businesses, the impact of no shows is now even greater. Therefore, businesses that typically don’t take payments, up front, may wish to take deposits and adapt their system temporarily to do this. The benefits of doing this will need to be balanced against the costs of managing online payments, and the risk of alienating customers.

That said, the flexibility to use this may be important and should be considered before choosing a system.

Whatever option is chosen, check it meets your needs for:

  • Credit cards
  • PayPal
  • Bank transfer
  • Deferred payment processing where you take a credit card up front (e.g. for hotels)
  • Gift vouchers
  • Currency options for international audiences

Marketing

If you actively market your service, you will want to investigate whether your online booking system can support:

  • Promotional codes
  • Gift voucher management
  • Member discounts
  • Bulk discounts
  • Proximity discounts - e.g. for those making repeat bookings
  • Deals for early birds or last minute bookings

If you’ve never considered these before, this could be a whole new avenue for your business to explore.

Look and feel

Whatever option you go for, the main thing is ensuring that you are able to put a clear ‘book now’ button on your website.

Then you need to decide how important it is for the booking functionality to look like your website and brand (often referred to as a white label system), or whether you’re happy for it to carry the brand of the system provider.

Generally, it will be a smoother journey if customers don’t feel they’ve been ‘kicked out’ to another system with a different brand name. However, many customers are used to how these systems work so will not be put off, and as including your own branding usually comes with a cost, this may be an unnecessary expense for a small business.

Training and support

Consider the level of training your existing and future staff will need and check whether the supplier has a good range of demos and support materials.

When your system is up and running, there could be times where things go wrong and you need additional support from the supplier, so if you’re going with an international provider, make sure they do offer support in your business hours.

Consider if wider support could be needed - e.g. a small hairdresser is unlikely to need a 24-hour service, but a large tourist attraction with many international customers booking 24/7 may need that level of support.

It’s worth looking at review platforms and the social media pages of your shortlisted suppliers to see the types of service issues faced by customers and how the supplier responds.

Reporting

If website or customer data is critical to your business, many online booking tools can provide a good level of reporting to allow you to analyse customer behaviour and performance.

  • Report generation: Many systems allow you to run and download reports on booking volumes by category (e.g. room, service or individual client), staff capacity, outstanding payments and revenue.
  • Analytics integration: Many systems also integrate with other analytics platforms such as Google Analytics, allowing you a full view of online customer behaviour and the performance of your offering. If your website is critical to your business and you often analyse site performance this will be a key requirement.

Technical considerations

Internet access

Cloud based systems will require staff to have internet access, even for bookings made over the phone.

Integration with other software

Consider whether it would be useful for this system to link up other tools you use in your business such as your POS or accounting systems, in which case you may want your chosen online booking system integrate with these.

Chat function

Although not essential, as part of implementing a customer-facing online system, larger businesses may also wish to consider including a chat function on websites to support any customer queries 1-2-1 rather than asking customers to switch from online to phone calls.

5. Types of systems and implementation options

Once you’ve listed your requirements, it’s a good time to understand how these systems work and the technical implications of implementing them before you really begin researching options.

Online booking solutions usually involve one of the following approaches:

  • Using online booking functionality provided by your website platform. If you built your own site using a platform such as Squarespace, Wix or Go Daddy, you could potentially use their booking functionality.
  • Using a third party booking system. You can add to this your website (or link to from your social media pages if you don’t have a site or don’t always need customers to go via your website). There’s various ways this can work. You can embed many systems into your site using a widget plugin or Iframe embed which would enable customers to complete a booking using the third party system, without leaving your site (although you might find you are restricted in terms of how this looks on your site). Alternatively, you can often link to a separate microsite to complete booking (however customers would need to leave your website to complete their booking on the third party platform).
  • Bespoke solution for very complex or highly specified requirements, where a custom solution is designed for your business, so you have full control of the customer journey and experience.

6. Shortlisting a system

There are a huge number of platforms and systems available on the market and many are specific to sectors - for example there are a number of appointment booking platforms, digital ticketing platforms, restaurant booking platforms etc.

Having a wish list of requirements and understanding any technical implications will make it much easier to create a shortlist of systems that suit your needs.

1. Find systems

First you need to see what systems are out there.

  • Google: Start by simply searching on Google for online booking systems in your sector (restaurants/cafes, visitor attractions, hotels etc). It is useful to see what’s on the market.
  • Research competitors: What systems do they use? Are their systems specifically designed for your sector?
  • Speak to people who use online booking day-to-day: Inevitably you will know (or have a friend who knows) someone who uses online booking in their job. Find out what they like or don’t like about it, any issues they’ve come across or new opportunities they’ve found.
  • Be a customer yourself: Make a point of booking things online and considering how easy or otherwise you find it.

2. Check against your requirements

Next step is to obviously see which system fits best against your requirements.

Now you’ve gathered more insight, it’s also worth reviewing your requirements list again and prioritising what’s essential and what’s ‘nice to have’. This will help you draw up a shortlist of potential options for a closer look and arrange to view live demos of the systems.

3. Research

Now see what other users are saying about your shortlisted systems. Have a google and look on their social media accounts (particularly Twitter support) to see what users are saying about them.

Also look at review sites such as TrustPilot and comparison sites such as Capterra and Get App.

4. Demos and free trials

Finally arrange demos or free trials of your chosen system and have a good look through the tool.

7. Costs

Before making a final decision you’ll also need to consider costs.

A good online booking system involves complex functionality and so most systems will have a charge attached. Due to the exceptional circumstances of Covid-19, some providers are offering free trials for several months or significant discounts. However, take care you understand the long term contract and costs if you take any of these offers. And if you provide a credit card up front, then diary in the end date of your free trial so you can cancel without charge if it’s not suitable.

Standard pricing structures can vary significantly. Some of the most common are as follows.

1. ‘Free’ to your business

Some providers offer solutions that are ‘free’ to the business and pass on the cost of the system and the card payments to the customer by adding a percentage onto the customer’s purchase. This does make life simple for the business, however if you choose an option like this you will need to check that adding extra costs onto customers does not alienate the people you aim to attract. Customers often prefer transparency on what they will be charged, and some will react badly if they feel they are ‘tricked’ into paying extra. If taking an approach like this, test it and be prepared to change if necessary.

2. Freemium model

Some booking systems work on a ‘Freemium’ model where there is no cost to the business for a basic service which might have limited functionality, and only permit limited numbers of transactions or staff users. (Remember there will still be the cost of credit card transactions.) As your business grows, there will be different price bands for you to access more functionality, process more transactions or have more staff users, however the freemium approach can give you an opportunity to test the system in your business before committing to any extra cost.

3. Commission

Some systems will charge a percentage commission on each transaction. This might be handy for reducing outgoings in quiet months for a seasonal business. However, in busy times you might find other pricing structures work out cheaper. Double check the system’s policy on charging commission on bookings of sales that are then cancelled, and how easy this is to manage and keep track of to ensure you’re not overcharged.

Comparing options

Different pricing structures can make it hard to compare one system against the other. It’s important to relate them directly to your business.

  • Understand your current costs: how much are you spending on staff time and systems just now processing your current bookings and any related fees and commissions
  • Work out a few scenarios:
    ○ Firstly, if all of your sales last year had been on each of your shortlisted systems, roughly how much would that have cost you?
    ○ Then consider your projections for this year and that levels of demand may now be different post Covid-19 and work out a few alternative scenarios, to predict likely costs.

Overall business impact

When working through these comparisons and calculations remember to think through the following:

  • Additional costs and reduced revenues
    ○ Costs for any professional support in choosing and implementing a system
    ○ Costs for technically integrating the functionality with your website and any other systems
    ○ Cost and time spent on staff training
    ○ Lost sales from customers who may be put off by an online booking system (if any) but remember in many businesses it will still be possible for staff to process a booking for a customer who is unable to use online booking

  • Reduced costs and increased revenues
    ○ Longer term savings from reducing staff time on booking and payment admin
    ○ Increased sales from enabling booking 24/7
    ○ Increased sales from being able to automatically remind customers to attend their appointments or add on additional bookings
    ○ Increased sales from being able to use reporting insights to target your marketing more effectively

8. Setting up a new system

Once you’re ready to implement a new system, many suppliers offer a free trial period which is an excellent opportunity to test a system before making a final commitment (and as mentioned above, some suppliers are extending this period due to Covid-19).

Regardless of whether it’s a free trial or not there a few things to consider to make it as smooth as possible.

Decide who will lead the implementation

For small businesses with straightforward booking systems, it will often be possible to set it up yourself, just using the various support materials provided by your chosen supplier.

For more complex businesses, especially if significant changes need to be made to an existing website or system, it might be worth considering professional support.

Regardless, you will need a named individual in your organisation to be the main point of contact and who will ensure that all areas of the business that will be impacted by the new system will be kept fully in the loop.

Staff first

Before putting your system live to customers to use directly, you may want to phase it, so staff use it first as they transition from a manual process - even just for a few days. This will help to iron out any issues and ensure staff have time for proper training, so they are completely confident and able to support any customer calls relating to the system.

Timing

It’s always easier to launch something like this at an off-peak time to reduce pressure on everyone and avoid alienating customers from any unforeseen issues. However, following Covid-19, many businesses will need to implement systems right away. Most customers will understand that in these circumstances a business may have some teething problems with a new system.

You could also consider a phased approach, putting some of your services onto the system initially before moving everything across. Just take care that you consider the customer experience here and ensure that it’s very clear to customers what they can book online and what they will need to book over the phone or by email.

Business continuity

Remember to update your business continuity plans with any implications as a result of your new system. In general, it will bring great benefits, e.g. staff will be able to access key information even if they’re not on the premises. However, if you previously relied on a notebook by the phone, you might struggle if your shop loses internet access for a day. Simple steps like printing out the daily diary the night before and having a copy at reception could be a simple precaution.

9. Reviewing your system

Early days

  • Daily check-in: For the first week or two, you’ll need to check in with staff every day to see how the new system is working and any adjustments that need to be made. Once everything is running smoothly, you can decide the best time to enable customers to book online directly if you haven’t already.
  • Staff feedback: Every few weeks, specifically ask your staff for feedback on the system and any improvements they’ve noticed or opportunities they see. Don’t just assume staff will tell you.
  • Customer feedback: You may have integrated a customer feedback option as part of your booking system. If so, ensure you take the time to read over the feedback and follow up. If not, then use other methods to catch up with a sample of customers and see what they think.

Quarterly review

  • Reporting: Remember that most systems will be able to give you more information than you’ve ever had before, such as your most popular products and services, as well as financial information. Make sure you take the time to review it and identify future opportunities.
  • Costs: Check the system pricing plan you are on is working for your requirements such as levels of transactions and staffing.
  • Processes: Inevitably your processes will have changed across your business. Update any staff induction packs and processes for new staff in future.

Annual review

  • Is your system still the best for you?: With the work involved in adopting a new system, generally you want to avoid changing unless there’s a very good reason. But a lot can happen in a year and if your business has grown or diversified you may find you need to upgrade to a more sophisticated version of your existing system, or change entirely. It’s such a key part of your business that the wrong system could be a real barrier to future growth.

Our DigitalBoost programme can offer you free 1:1 consultancy, webinars and online support to help you build and integrate a booking or ticketing system to your business. Find out more by contacting your nearest Business Gateway office.

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