The Pros and Cons of Online Service Appointments
Consumer trends are driving online scheduling options
It’s no secret today’s customers are demanding more convenience than ever before. And, as consumer expectations and technology keep shifting, HVAC contractors are seeing a rise in the importance of online scheduling. While some are continuing to stick with a phones-only approach, many have begun to give customers options to request service and specify appointment times through website portals.
According to Matt Bergstrom, president of Thornton & Grooms in Farmington Hills, Michigan, his company has been offering an online option for customers to book appointments for more than three years. But it’s just been in the last year and a half that he has seen a noted increase in the number of appointments initially coming from the website.
“This year, it really started to get consistent,” Bergstrom said, noting that 10 percent of appointments are now being initiated through Web requests. And, he added, “I expect it to keep growing.”
Thornton and Grooms implemented online appointment requests out of a desire to add convenience for customers. Bergstrom believes the growth in adoption of mobile devices has fueled the use of online booking.
“I really think it comes from having that smartphone in your hand and iPad in your lap,” he said. “Those two things have really started to drive it. We basically did it for customer convenience, so, whenever you’re thinking [you need] to schedule the plumber or the HVAC guy, you can jump online and do it, even if it’s 2 a.m.”
Janyer Dominguez, chief technology officer of Bruno Air in Bonita Springs, Florida, has seen a great response to his company’s online contact forms, which may be due in part to customer demographics.
“Although we do not know the exact demographic breakdown, we have noticed more of our clients are in their mid-20s to mid-30s,” Dominguez explained, noting that 60 percent of Bruno’s appointments currently come from Web forms, which include online requests from third-party sites such as Angie’s List as well as its own website.
He continued: “These younger customers are usually new homeowners, and our records show that 60 percent of them are women. We have noticed that our older customers still prefer the traditional ways of contacting us by calling first.”
Paul Sammataro, president of Samm’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Plano, Texas, is a big believer in offering online options to customers, especially since he doesn’t think anyone wants to be on the phone these days. Sammataro has had online form submissions for service enabled on his website since 2005.
“Back then, my Web developer really wondered why I did it, but on the first day it went live we had two submissions for requests,” Sammataro said. And, according to his most recent data from the last few months, more than 25 percent of the company’s requests for service have come from online forms.
While the response rates that contractors are receiving from their online options may be varied, they’re on the right track to aim for customer convenience. According to Michael Goater and Eric Andrews, cofounders of Success4others LLC, there is a broad trend across all markets to minimize the effort a potential customer must make in order to do business with you.
“The most successful contractors are the ones who are asking themselves, ‘How can I make it easier for my customers to do business with me?’” Goater said. “The reality is that most contractors make operational decisions based on what is easiest for them and not the customer. People, by nature, are looking for the path of least resistance — they want things to be easy. The easier it is to do business with you, the more people will do business with you.”
Andrews added, “Now, more than ever, people have busy schedules. Giving them a way to view your availability for service and sales calls makes it easy to accommodate both their schedules and yours.”
Ara Mahdessian, cofounder and CEO of ServiceTitan, which has developed a business management software system specifically for HVAC, electrical, and plumbing contractors, also commented on the impact of changing consumer habits.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly busier. When they need something, many of them — particularly the newer generation — don’t want to have to put down what they’re doing, pick up the phone, wait for it to be answered, and then wait to be asked for their name, phone number, and so on,” Mahdessian said. “As the new generation grows older and increases homeownership, we only see this as something that is going to compound in the near future.”
And, consumer expectations are also being formed by their interactions with large, tech-savvy companies, according to Christopher Rywelski, vice president and general manager of RazorSync, a publisher of mobile field service software.
“From the customer’s perspective, self-scheduling is the new normal. Think of the consumer experience from larger companies like Uber or Netflix, and you’ll see that customers are accustomed to taking a much more active role in the service experience,” Rywelski explained. “By being engaged and connected through technology, the consumer is in the driver’s seat and likes having that freedom. Self-scheduling allows the customer to submit a service request at any time — day or night.”
CONTRACTORS REAP THE BENEFITS
Not only do customers experience benefits from the ease of online scheduling, but contractors who implement it can reap multiple benefits, as well.
At Thornton & Grooms, Bergstrom said the greatest benefit he’s seen since the implementation of online scheduling is the ability to “smooth our call curve back to the customer.”
Going into more detail, he explained, “It’s reduced our peak call volume first thing in the morning [because] it allows us to get that customer’s information, shoot that customer an email back with details and an estimated appointment time, and then call them later in the morning when we have a gap [in call volume].”
Additionally, Bergstrom said the company has also benefited from how easy the online scheduling form makes it to capture the customer’s email address.
“The other nice thing is it’s driving customers to the website,” he added, which increases customer awareness of all the services offered by the company as well as some of the new products being offered, such as Wi-Fi thermostats.
Goater expanded on the importance of tracking customer leads from online scheduling, noting that, once a potential client’s information has been captured, it can be used for “marketing campaigns and future messages based on the customer’s behavior.”
And, customer behavior is very relevant to online scheduling, according to both Andrews and Mahdessian.
“If customers can see your availability and schedule it themselves, you’ll most likely have fewer cancellations, re-schedules, or even no-shows,” Andrews pointed out.
Mahdessian added that customers who initiate an appointment online are likely to have tight schedules and are less likely to aggressively price-shop.
“The people you get on the Web are generally busier, so when you come out and give them a quote, they’re not going to invest a whole lot of time to shop around and get eight quotes,” he said. “They’re the ones who want to pay a slight premium to make sure they’re getting it done correctly.”
Contractors can create the impression that they’ll do the job well by offering customers a well-executed option to schedule online, according to Rywelski.
“Regardless of whether they are big or small, contractors who offer a self-service portal automatically create a positive first impression as a bigger player and a technologically aware organization,” he said. “It’s a great way to start off the relationship by presenting a professional face to the consumer.”
Yet, even as more contractors have begun offering customers the ability to request and schedule appointments online, there is great variation in how they have integrated this process into their business practices.
At Bruno Air, Dominguez said all of the online customer inquiries are still general.
“There isn’t a drop box yet where you can choose the reason for your inquiry. We are developing a system to classify these calls, so when an operator follows-up with customers, they know their problem already. We also ask customers for feedback on where they heard about us,” he said.
Dominguez continued, “We are still in the developing stages of creating a proprietary system that will let customers book appointments directly online.”
Bergstrom said Thornton & Grooms has not yet integrated its online requests into its enterprise software.
“Our software doesn’t have the capability to do that, so we just ended up having them build something into our website. We can take the information from there and cut and paste it into our dispatch software,” he said, adding that he’ll be looking for a more streamlined solution when he starts shopping for upgraded software.
Of course, there are already options for a complete, end-to-end approach on the market, and Rywelski and Mahdessian both pointed out the features and benefits available at this level of integration.
To begin with, Rywelski said scheduling is part of RazorSync’s DNA.
“It’s a core component of our solution, and one step that allows automatic online workflow from service request to assignment, invoicing, payment, and even reconciling through QuickBooks,” he said. “We also coordinate with calendar applications like Outlook and Google calendar.”
In ServiceTitan’s software system, Mahdessian said online scheduling is the front portion of a start-to-finish solution. After the initial appointment is booked online, many of the follow-up mechanisms, including phone and email reminders for the customer, are automated.
An additional feature offered by ServiceTitan provides the customer with a special notification on the day of the appointment, said Mahdessian.
As an example, he said, “When the actual day comes for that appointment, and our technician Joe is on the way, ServiceTitan will send the customer a profile of Joe that includes a picture of him and a short story about Joe. It might say Joe is our licensed HVAC technician of 14 years, and he is an expert with Carrier systems like the one in your home. He has two kids and loves basketball.”
Mahdessian explained the reason for this type of notification is to “defuse fear and build rapport with the customer,” which leads to increased sales.
While researching the technology and developing a system that enables online scheduling requires commitment and investment, contractors who’ve made the leap say it’s well worth it as it strengthens communication between the contractor and consumer. Sammataro, who has been accepting online requests for the last decade, said every investment he’s made in this direction has not only paid off, but been necessary. Plus, he has also extended his reach to customers by making his online scheduling form available on his Facebook page, on third-party sites, and on his mobile-optimized site.
Sammataro summed up his simple philosophy: “We try to give you every opportunity to get ahold of us.”
SIDEBAR: OLD-FASHIONED FOLLOW-UP
While the practice of allowing customers to schedule HVAC appointments online is growing, there is still a significant emphasis placed on follow-up phone calls.
As Matt Bergstrom, president, Thornton & Grooms, Farmington Hills, Michigan, put it, “People seem to prefer to be contacted by phone, even when they book an online submission.”
He said Thornton & Grooms’ practice is to call every customer to confirm the online request.
Janyer Dominguez, chief technology officer, Bruno Air in Bonita Springs, Florida, added that his staff also responds to online requests by phone.
“Our company still calls these customers personally and sets up these appointments,” Dominguez said.
According to Ara Mahdessian, cofounder and CEO, ServiceTitan, many of the contractors using the company’s online scheduling also follow up with phone calls.
“A lot of our contractors also like to reach out personally as soon as possible on the phone so they can attach a personal experience for the customer,” he said. “The online experience is very dry, but when a CSR with a great voice calls and follows-up, that conversation builds personality, trust, and ultimately leads to better service experience and higher likelihood of a sale.”
While consumers are becoming more accustomed to online appointment scheduling, they still lack a little faith the contractor will show up, Mahdessian said.
“Until we go through this process enough times and consumers start to build trust into this new system, that call back is a great way of instilling confidence and building rapport with customers, as well,” he said.
Publication date: 8/3/2015