Appointment Taking in Today’s Web 2.0 World

Amtelco Cloud-Based Platform Solution

By Brett Torvik

I was in college before the dot-com bubble burst. Every semester I dialed into the university’s automated system to register for courses. A creepy touch-tone lady instructed me to enter my course numbers using the DTMF keypad.

This was prior to the invasion of IVR systems. It was the only way. To make matters worse, the timetable of classes and course numbers was not online, but instead came bundled in a tome large enough to rival the phonebook.

Today, students can simply surf the Web, sift through a few screens, click a couple of buttons, and voilà: schedule complete! Kids these days have it so easy!

Call Center Insight: The call center industry can learn much by taking a long look at the university experience, particularly in regards to streamlining the process of taking and communicating appointments. My alma mater did a fine job of adopting a twenty-first century solution to a form of appointment taking; after all, what are college classes but an agreement between teacher and students to meet at a preappointed time on certain days?

As a consumer of instruction, I would sort through the offline catalog of classes, choose those best suited for me, and add them to my schedule. However, the university’s software wasn’t equipped to keep me from double booking a time slot. I could sign up for a 12:00-1:00 p.m. lecture even though I already had a 12:30-1:00 p.m. class. By the time I spotted the overlap, all available seats were filled, and it proved difficult to secure another open time slot for the class in question. Appointment-taking software should give its users the flexibility to choose whether double or triple booking is acceptable. In my situation, a pop-up warning or confirmation email could have helped me avoid an undesirable outcome.

This mistake, however, could have been limited, or mitigated altogether, if the university recognized that some of its students could use the aid of reminders. They did provide a static online calendar to view your schedule, but in the real world, appointments can change: classes are cancelled due to weather or a teacher’s illness. At times, impromptu study sessions are added in preparation for midterms and finals.

Surprisingly, this sort of information is still spread by word of mouth, or worse, in the case of a teacher’s illness, with a note on the door. Instead, each student should be able to access a real-time, dynamic calendar of events, and their teachers should have the power to update their schedules and communicate changes instantly via any number of contact methods, such as telephone, email, or SMS messaging, depending on the students’ preferred method of contact.

My experience with college course registration demonstrates a few of the challenges that appointment taking brings. The example oversimplifies the reality of the task, though, as classes mostly come in predictable half-hour or hour blocks; variability is limited in comparison to the scope of appointment-taking with which call centers must be prepared to deal.

Call Center Opportunities: Not only should an appointment-taking solution be smart enough to handle in-house staff scheduling duties, it also should allow the call center to resell the same service to its clients through a secure Web portal. Any business that books appointments with pen and paper needs a solution like this, and call centers that cannot provide one are missing an opportunity to profit from the ongoing shift to the digital world.

Hospitals nationwide are increasingly feeling Uncle Sam’s nudge to use Electronic Health Records (EHRs), which are digital versions of a patient’s medical history. At present, progress remains in its infancy, but for how long?  It is 2009, but I cannot go online to book an appointment with my general practitioner. If the airline industry can manage real-time online reservations, why not clinics?

President Barack Obama recently unveiled a goal to deploy EHRs for every clinician within the next five years. Once medical records are ubiquitously accessible online, appointment taking will be in tow, with this mammoth market catching up and joining the rest of us in the Web 2.0 world. Will your call center be ready to seize the opportunity?

Call Center Essentials: For call centers, appointment-taking software must be generic enough to meet all of their clients’ needs, while guiding agents to gracefully and professionally handle calls at lightning speed. That is why it is imperative to be able to request and retrieve the next available appointment slot for any given schedule. When every second lost means dollars down the drain, speed counts.

Also, a variety of colorful snapshot views of the data – by month, week, or day – gives the agent the perfect tool for swiftly assessing the schedule and processing the call. Next, the details of a schedule should include customizable resources, roles, and appointment types. Possible resources range from teachers and lecture halls to doctors and hospital beds – any person, place, or thing that might be associated with an appointment.

Appointments for Joe the plumber differ greatly in recurrence and duration from those required for a pediatrician. Further, each resource should be able to define their weekly schedules – work hours, out-of-office hours, etc. The hard-working Joe might need the occasional personal day, so a means of overriding his default schedule template is also in order.

Schedule resources, in some instances, have unique specialties. For example, a doctor (resource) can fill a prescription (appointment type), but a nurse cannot. This is where roles come in play. Roles define the type of appointments assignable to each resource. This type of administrative setup allows your clients to control who can be assigned to what and when.

Call center message taking is in a constant state of evolution. It was not that long ago appointments were stored in a physical book on the shelf. A call would come in, the agent would place the caller on hold, open the book, find the appropriate page, and pencil in the appointment. Next, delivery of the book posed its own challenges. It was time-consuming and awkward. The call center faxed the schedule, or the client picked it up on location. How cumbersome!

The advent of Internet calendars presented new opportunities, but out-of-the-box solutions on the Web today are not calibrated for call centers that charge by the minute or per call. Once a call comes in, the agent opens a Web browser, logs into the site, navigates to the correct schedule, and only then begins to take the appointment.

Call Center Success: Connecting to an external application wastes time. This means money lost for you and your clients. Your call center needs an appointment-taking program tailored to defeat this time crunch. Success relies on seamless integration with your call processing or call scripting software.

Once your call center is wed to the right dynamic Web-based appointment-taking solution, you and your clients will both have real-time access to the latest up-to-date schedule. Both parties profit. If you are not yet taking advantage of such a system, or your current message taking process is so Web 1.0, it is time to seek out a better way, to think like the future inventors of the next big thing.

Brett Torvik, a software engineer at Amtelco, is the lead developer for the company’s suite of online CRM products, chief among them Client Management Intelligence (CMI).

[From Connection Magazine March 2009]