Appointment Scheduling in Today’s Call Center

By Ken Marty

Almost all businesses require some type of appointments, and call center businesses are no exception. What is an appointment, anyway, but just a complex way to look at a schedule?

In the “old days” before the personal computer, you bought the time-tested appointment book – or even a simple notebook or binder – and promptly started taking appointments, writing down names and blocking out time with a combination of Xs, slashes, and arrows. Of course, it was always full of eraser marks, Wite-out (remember that stuff?), and the everlasting coffee ring when the book was used as a coaster several times during the day.

At the end of the day came the unbelievable delivery of this information to the customer, probably making copies and either faxing them off or storing them until the client picked them up, or even worse, trying to relay all of the newly acquired appointment information over the phone.

Today things are not all that much different, but there are better methods to achieve the same result in our more professional, twenty-first century world. The same information still needs to be recorded, changes still need to be made, and the delivery of information still must take place. Recording the information has become much more complex, but the end result increases efficiency at least twofold.  I have yet to see the elimination of the coffee ring, but at least with these more modern methods the client won’t have to see it.

What information needs to be collected? There are two kinds: information about the shift and information about the resources involved. The shift is a no-brainer; it’s the start time and end time (or the start and duration of the appointment). The resources, on the other hand, tend to take on a life of their own.

Normally, everyone thinks of the resource as a person or some contact, but that’s not always the case. The resource may represent needed equipment, another vendor, or a customer, but the resource might also be the location where the appointment will occur. This will all depend on what your client requires. An appointment can include multiple resources, but it must include at the least one – otherwise, what’s the point?

The resource can and will become a more complex issue when you start factoring in items such as vacation time, sick time, and whether or not to allow double-booking. Taking that one step further, each resource probably will need several ways to be contacted. Of course, once you start talking about how to notify someone it always leads to some hierarchy of how and when he or she needs to be reached; such as, “Call my cell first.  If I don’t answer, call me at home, but always send me an email and text me twenty-four hours before the appointment.”

Therefore, you can see that the shift element of an appointment is quite simple and straightforward; it’s the resource who has become accustomed to using a cell phone, BlackBerry, or a Web browser that needs to be won over and probably will prove to be the biggest headache for you. But it’s that resource who pays the bill, so you have to deal with it.

Once an appointment is taken, it can lead to another issue: whether to also book a “recurring” or “follow-up” appointment days, weeks, or months in advance. This makes it imperative for the appointment-scheduling package to be equipped with flexible searching options in order to quickly and precisely determine the next available open appointment.

Then there’s the issue of how appointment changes are made.  We’d all like to think that things are written in stone and will never change, but the fact is that everything changes. With today’s technology, changes are more global than ever. Everyone has access to the Internet – these days, who doesn’t have a cell phone with Internet access?

A cancellation or appointment change should alert all parties involved in real time so adjustments can be made with everyone on the same page. This could be performed by allowing each party to confirm or deny a change request with the click of a button, a response to a text message, or a simple “yes/no” to an IVR announcement. If an appointment is canceled, the resources from another scheduled appointment, whether later in the day or week, could be contacted with the opportunity to move to an earlier time, all without human interaction.

The final step of the appointment-scheduling process is the delivery of information. The appointment schedule is really geared to being the input mechanism of the process. For a total solution, it needs to take advantage of other systems such as IVR calls, SMS or email messages, or even website.

IVR, SMS, and email are excellent ways of communicating with customers and receiving feedback to be applied to appointments. A website is really the icing on the cake by providing anyone in the know with the ability to make changes or see at a glance when the next appointment occurs.

There are many Web-based appointment-scheduling packages available today, but finding one that integrates well with an existing call center system is the trick. A Web-driven appointment schedule empowers clients to handle their day-to-day business. It can provide different views of the schedule (daily, weekly, monthly) plus the ability to handle any changes a client would like to make, all in real time. It can even provide the client with the ability to run reports against their appointment schedule or, even better, to see at a glance confirmed or cancelled appointments. Moreover, the best part is that the capability is provided by the call center and is tied directly to their account.

Appointment scheduling will never be a one-size-fits-all part of life. Each client is going to want it done their way and will expect different options. Clients really don’t care how the technology works; they’re more focused on the services provided to them. That’s where a call center has the opportunity to distinguish itself from its competition by providing additional services with appointment scheduling, such as IVR reminders and confirmations, SMS text, and email notifications.

Ken Marty is a software engineer at Amtelco and was the principal designer of Amtelco’s several scheduling solutions for call centers.

[From Connection Magazine March 2010]

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