At first, most dealership customers were reluctant to use online scheduling for service appointments. Now, they appear to expect it. 

Online appointments and other scheduling technologies have been at dealership service departments’ disposal for some time. But they are gaining more widespread use for a variety of reasons. Those include technology advancements that have made them easier and more convenient for customers to use.

Dealers are reaping their own benefits from such systems.

“Our shops’ efficiencies have really increased because these technologies eliminate over- and under-bookings that cause bottlenecks and under-utilized hours,” says Roy McAlister, fixed operations director for Thomas Nissan and Thomas Toyota in Joliet, IL.

“As a result, our repair-order count is up 45%, which doesn’t happen if you don’t have a good scheduling system that gives you 360-degree views into your workflow and schedule calendar,” he says.

Part of the increased use of online scheduling stems from changing customer habits says Bob Atwood, management instructor at the National Automobile Dealers Assn.’s Dealer Academy.

“We’re seeing growth in service-efficiency technologies because most of our customers nowadays don’t want to call someone to make an appointment,” he says.

“Today’s customer wants to connect with the dealership by text, email or the Web, and expects the dealership to be technologically advanced enough to enable them to do that,” he says.

Buddy Toups, service manager for Infiniti of Lafayette in Lafayette, LA, agrees. “For Infiniti customers who live their lives by appointment, our ability to let them book appointments online and commit to their self-scheduled time and day is a critical requirement that we must simply meet,” he says.

To deliver on such customer expectations while improving workflow throughout the shop, dealerships like Toups’ use software-driven appointment scheduling, traffic management and service write-up tools to replace manual, paper-based processes.

“Like most dealers, we used to book and schedule appointments manually, using paper forms,” he says. “We then had to key this data into the dealer management system, a process that was terribly inefficient and not very user friendly.”

His shop uses Xtime’s automated scheduling tool that avoids overbooking and helps keep things moving along.

“We can instantly see what our day looks like and proactively respond,” Toups says. “We have a complete view of how many loaners are needed, how many waiters are scheduled and how many hours we have scheduled for technicians. We can also add notes or ‘customer alerts’ for customers who may have special needs.”

Show-up rates average about 80% for customers booking online appointments with Thomas Nissan and Thomas Toyota, McAlister says. The average repair order runs  $390. 

Whether customers book appointments via the dealership website or by phone, service-scheduling tools working in conjunction with a store’s customer-relationship management system make the process easier, faster and easier to track, Toups says.

“We have access to customers’ entire service histories at our fingertips as we’re speaking to them,” he says. “It helps us improve service and customer satisfaction and maintain our desired level of productivity.”

Customers using the dealership’s service e-menu tool to book appointments can themselves choose recommended vehicle-specific services in addition to service work they desire.

Because the online appointment schedule is the same as that seen by dealership staff in real time, customers book only available days and times.

Electronic service notifications keep customers advised of their vehicles’ service needs based on scheduled maintenances, recall notifications or other service reminder or promotion emails.

Maximizing shop utilization keeps technicians productive, says Xtime CEO Neal East.

Dealers are offering automated service scheduling and traffic control tools to respond to service customer concerns of convenience, trust and value.

More satisfied customers usually spend more dollars with the dealership, East says. “At one OEM, with more than 500 dealers, we saw an across-the-board increase in retention of 3% in 2012.”

Workflow visibility eases service adviser and manager stress levels, reduces scheduling logjams and lessens the possibility of telling customers to “call back later,” something they often end up not doing.

“When a customer calls on the phone, he or she has a need, and if service can’t accommodate them at that moment, they will go elsewhere right away,” NADA’s Atwood says.

“The service department must get those callers’ vehicles onto their lot right way, even if they can’t get techs on the vehicle until later that day or even the next,” he says. “Pop for a rental car for those customers so they’re not held up. And wow them with your service.”

A life-long dealership customer is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in business, Atwood says

“Even when customers book their own appointments through this technology, we always stress to the service managers in our classes that they telephone or text the customer to verify their appointment has been received and confirmed,” he says.

“People answer texts in places like business meetings, where they probably wouldn’t answer their cell phone,” he says. “They’ll respond to a text sent by the adviser asking permission to go ahead on brake work and the like, which shortens the permissions process and keeps work flowing throughout the shop.

Ross Corey, service manager for Audi St. Paul, says his service advisers use a mobile application called ServiceTab that enables them to greet service customers while having all necessary customer and vehicle information at hand.

The computer-tablet tool provides digital signature capture, and then it pushes all new data to the DMS and into the repair order for the technician.

“I like it because it makes my advisors get out from behind their desks and meet with customers at their vehicles in the service lane,” Corey says. “We’re surprised at how many customers say they like it because it helps us give them a more personal touch.”

Atwood suggests that service managers whose advisors use these mobile write-up tools make sure they prompt advisers to ask the right questions to ensure a more thorough vehicle walkaround. 

Corey likes how the technology enhances the customer experience, expedites daily operations and makes “everyone’s life easier.”