The Service Line with J.N. Halm … Of walk-ins and appointments

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I had just three things to do that day and I still managed to get myself in a tight spot even before midday. I almost bungled my own agenda for a day I thought was so well planned. By the time I got to the barbering salon. I had less than an hour to get a haircut, get my very dirty vehicle washed and thereafter rush off to my next appointment—one that I could ill afford to miss.

The sight of a number of other customers waiting for their turns at the barber’s shop meant I had a decision to make. It was either to wait patiently in line for my turn and from there go for my meeting or forgo the haircut, go get the vehicle washed and then off to the appointment. After a brief moment, I decided to go for the latter option of washing the car and going to the already scheduled meeting. However, before I dashed off, I got the attention of one of the barbers and told him to book me for a later time. He agreed and I was off.

From there, everything went smoothly. I managed to get the vehicle washed and I made it to my meeting on time. I later came back to get my haircut at the appointed time. Interestingly, it was at that time rather that my day almost got worse. A customer I met in the shop did not understand why I was getting ahead of him in the line. The barber tried explaining to him that I had booked an appointment earlier on, but the chap was having none of that. I could understand his frustration. I guess he had been sitting there for a while, waiting patiently for his turn, only for me to come in and seemingly be given “preferential” treatment.

As the whole situation unfolded, I could not help but feel sorry for the barbers as well. As a regular customer, I had become friends with them. All they wanted was to make some money and there they were in a middle of an unpleasant position. Since I was done with all my meetings and my house was not too far from the salon, I told the barbers to go ahead and give the other chap his precious haircut.

Businesses that offer appointments-based service and service to walk-in customers are always bound to face the situation that my barbers faced that Friday afternoon. It comes with the territory. Unfortunately, in my experience, I do not see many of these businesses handling such situations very well, especially in this country. One would have thought that since making of an appointment is an accepted and common way by which customers get service from businesses all over the world, businesses would have mastered the art by now, especially when combined with handling customers who just walk in.

There are some businesses that serve customers strictly by appointments. For these businesses, managing their daily schedules is not too much of a problem. For such businesses, the only challenge will be customers missing their appointments, not rescheduling on time and coming in at the wrong time. In such situations, the only challenge is the inconvenience that is caused to the daily schedule of the business.

Then there are those businesses who do not do appointments at all. You walk in. you are served. You leave. Simple and straightforward. For those businesses, where there are more customers than they can serve in a given day, appointments might not work too well. Businesses that enjoy some kind of monopoly in their areas normally fall into this category, like the waakye seller in my neighbourhood.

However, when a business has to combine serving by appointments with serving walk-in customers, then there arises the kind of situation I faced at the barber’s. It is not uncommon for that situation to arise with hotels and eateries where customers mostly will book rooms or tables in advance. However, few hotels and restaurants will turn walk-in customers away. As long as there are rooms and tables available, these walk-ins will be served.

There are also some situations where an organisation must serve customers, regardless of whether they have a prior appointment or not. When a patient is rushed in to a health facility, in a life and death situation, there is no time to ask if the one has an appointment or not.

The truth is that even for businesses that serve by appointments only, walk-in customers can be very beneficial for the business. For one thing, serving customers who just walk-in without a prior appointment can have a positive effect on the word-of-mouth advertising about the business. Depending on how the business handles walk-in customers, customers will know that the business really cares about customers and is not only in business for the money. When a customer who badly needs a service gets served when he or she least expects to be served, the one will go out with a very good impression about the organisation.

Also adding walk-in customers to the company’s appointment-based service customers increases the customer base of the company. When walk-in customers are served and served well, they can easily be converted to return customers who can then be given appointments. In a sense, walk-ins can be a major revenue stream for businesses.

The one demerit of walk-ins is the fact that they can disrupt the schedule of the business. Many businesses try to solve this by squeezing in walk-ins. It works if the walk-in can be served quickly without causing an inconvenience to the customer who has booked for the service ahead of time. For some other organisations, the solution is to leave spaces open within the daily schedule of appointments to accommodate walk-in customers.

The whole idea behind scheduling of the day is to ensure that anyone who has booked an appointment is not made to wait for more than a couple of minutes. Effective organisations are those that are able to undertake the balancing act between keeping their regular customers who have book appointments satisfied while ensuring that new customers who just walk in are also given a great time.

The challenge with combining these two sets of customers is deciding who gets priority when there is a clash. Should priority of service be given to the one who booked the appointment ahead of time or to the one who just walked in? What the organisation decides at that moment has serious implications for the service quality perceptions of customers.

As with many of these customer-related issues, there are some researchers who have taken an interest in the subject matter and have done some work on it. Three scientists—two from the Antai College of Economics and Management of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai and one from Carroll School of Management of Boston College—did some good work on this matter sometime in 2017.

Using the operations of two healthcare facilities in New York City, these researchers were able to develop a model to determine the optimal appointment schedule that a business can handle in the presence of potential walk-in customers. The study also found that when appointments and walk-ins are handled properly, businesses can reduce their cost of operations.

The key is for every organisation to have clearly spelt-out walk-in policy. For businesses, where every single day is full with appointments to the point where there is not time for walk-in customers, the task is quite simple. Adopt a no walk-in policy. Every walk-in customer must be encouraged to book an appointment. Front line staff must ensure that they take their time to inform every customer who walks in without an appointment what the policy of the business is. These customer-facing employees must however ensure that they do not treat walk-ins any less than they would regular customers. As a matter of fact, these first-time customers must be given such a treatment that they would want to come back for more. One way to get new customers to book in advance is to offer them discounts for booking ahead of time and for having the patience to wait.

Policies that are not enforced are worse than no policies at all. Therefore, it is important that businesses that draw up policies adhere to them religiously. It is true that when customers know that they cannot just walk in for service without a prior appointment, they tend to form a very favourable image of the business. They begin to see that business as a sort of exclusive club to which they would want to belong. It is however important to restate that the no walk-in policy must be implemented only when the business has enough clients that book for services throughout the week. It is not for businesses that are now starting who need all the customers they can get just to survive.

The management of walk-ins and appointment-based services can make or mar a business’ prospects on the market. A lack of proper management can lead to overcrowding at certain times of the day and nothing to be done during other times. This situation can lead to negative word-of-mouth advertising which can ultimately lead to loss of revenue.

In a country where people find it extremely difficult to stick by their commitments to do anything according to scheduled appointments, managing such appointments can be very tricky, if not almost impossible. However, these are necessary decisions that every organisation that handles both appointment-based as well as walk-in customers must take. Every organisation must look at its own unique situation to do what is important for its business and its customers.

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