Q&A: The business case for online bookings

Online booking systems such as bookitlive make it possible for customers to book a huge variety of services online, and they make good business sense for merchants, too.

Whether you’re a driving instructor, a bike shop or a podiatrist, online booking systems are replacing the traditional appointments book and making it easier for customers to book – and pay for – your services. We spoke to David Godbold, from bookitlive, to find out how online booking systems work and what benefits they offer business owners.

When did bookitlive launch and where did the concept come from?

bookitlive launched in 2008. Founder Craig Dickson was frustrated that he couldn’t make an appointment with his massage therapist on a weekend and couldn’t check their availability without phoning them. He worked with a web developer to create an online calendar and booking system that would work for his therapist. Craig realised that it could benefit other businesses, even internationally, and began selling bookitlive to others.

What sectors does bookitlive traditionally work with?

We keep discovering new sectors, but our main ones are:

  • automotive – car servicing
  • training – such as diving schools and golf schools
  • activity centres – trampoline centres, paintball and go-kart centres
  • health providers – physiotherapists, chiropractors etc.
  • fitness classes – group classes or one-on-one sessions
  • professional services – lawyers, conveyancers, tax accountants etc.

Which service sectors are taking up bookitlive most enthusiastically?

In the past six months, we’ve seen huge growth with indoor trampoline centres, mostly in New Zealand – to the tune of processing $1 million in booking payments.

We’ve also seen growth with driving schools – 32 schools have recently signed up for bookitlive. The instructors tend to be older, but they have realised that their students, who are usually in the younger demographics, prefer to book online.

bookitlive also works for them because students can book lesson packages and then it’s an automated process to book in the lesson times.

There are two million SMBs out there. How do you promote bookitlive to them?

We’ve tried different promotional approaches. In the early days, we attended a lot of trade shows and expos, but we didn’t get a good ROI [return on investment]. We’ve found that it’s hard to convince someone that they need to accept bookings and payments online, unless they’ve already decided that’s what they want to do.

Nowadays, we use SEO and tagwords based on a defined set of keywords, categorised by different industries, so that people looking for an online booking solution find bookitlive.

We’ve also found that someone who uses bookitlive as a customer to make a booking may later approach us as a booking solution for their own business. In fact, the owner of the driving schools booked diving lessons for his son through bookitlive and saw how it could work for his business.

How does bookitlive work with SecurePay?

bookitlive is similar to a shopping cart. It’s an interface to schedule bookings and take payments. Clients either embed bookitlive in their website or use a mini-website.

Now, merchants simply select the SecurePay option, put in their merchant details and they’re done.

We use SecurePay to process payments in four different currencies.

What are the biggest trends in online booking systems for 2015?

It used to be common for people to just book an appointment time and pay later. Now, we’re seeing lots of growth in businesses booking and getting paid upfront. It means they get the money in advance and the customer is more likely to attend the appointment. It also means the business doesn’t have to chase up outstanding payments later on.

We’re also expecting to see more mergers and acquisitions in 2015. For example, in the US, Square bought BookFresh, so it could generate more business by owning the front end, not just acting as the middleware. We’re seeing payment gateways buying booking systems, so they can offer an end-to-end solution. We’ve been approached twice in the past 12 months.

What are the biggest challenges, from a merchant perspective, of online booking systems?

The biggest pain point we’ve seen for merchants is the lead time involved in getting an internet merchant account from the bank – typically, we’ve seen it take upwards of four weeks. For established businesses, the requirements can be quite different to how they are used to operating – for example, having to have a written cancellation policy on their site. It can also be hard for new businesses that don’t have transaction histories to support their application.

In comparison, typically merchants can be set up with bookitlive and SecurePay Online Payment in two-to-four days.

What are the benefits for businesses of automating bookings?

The benefits of an online booking and payment system are substantial. It means more customers, more revenue, you save money and you reduce no-shows, plus you remove the phone and email tag.

How has the online booking system evolved?

We don’t just build it and it’s done; we’re constantly developing new functionality. We do weekly and fortnightly releases – pretty common in the software business.

Some major developments for bookitlive have been:

  • introducing payments, in addition to bookings
  • booking processing for daily deals, like Groupon
  • the availability calendar, which lets merchants only display the dates when there are bookings available, rather than customers having to try different dates to find open times
  • our promotions and package module, which lets merchants create discount packages, with automated redemption; fitness classes can provide voucher codes so that customers can pay the class price or enter a voucher code.

How popular is your Facebook widget compared with website buttons?

All businesses that have a website will use the booking buttons or embed bookitlive. If they are on Facebook too, they can also use the widget. However, quite a few small service businesses don’t have a website – they just have a Facebook page and the widget.

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