An online booking system is fast becoming a fundamental part of running your small business.
But they can be bewildering on first glance – to ease the stress, we’ll explain what an online booking system is and why it would be beneficial to your small business. We’ll also show you what features you should be looking for and some of the best examples on the market.
What is an online booking system?
An online booking system is a platform or software you use to manage reservations for your business services. On top of recording bookings, these systems can accept customer payments online.
Why do I need an online booking system?
As it often makes the process simpler, having an online system will likely boost your bookings as it’s quicker than picking up the phone. Plus, you can take bookings around the clock which is more convenient for customers and for you.
Most systems send out automated texts and emails, so you don’t need to follow-up with customers, saving you time.
Having an online booking system will tell you more about your business. The reporting features give you advanced insights into your business and your customers: think popular products/services, customer demographics and real-time cash flow information.
What features should I be looking for?
A lot of providers have similar features and components, so it’s up to you to pin down what service works best.
Here are the factors you should be taking into consideration.
Customise forms with your own branding
Some systems allow you to put on your own branding like your company name and logo. At times having two different company names involved can be jarring so keeping your own brand will create a smoother booking experience for the customer.
‘Book now’ buttons and widgets for your website
On the topic of smooth booking experience, having a ‘book now’ button on your website can make the process even faster, especially if that’s what the customer has logged on for. They won’t have to waste time trying to find the appropriate page.
As mentioned before, this is viewed as a staple on most platforms. Once a booking is secured, a text or email will be sent to the customer to confirm details. You can use them for appointment reminders too.
Ability to chat to client
If the customer/client has a specific request that can’t be catered to on an automated system, it helps to have a chat function. That way, you can discuss the specifics of their request and sort out the booking from there.
Reporting features allow you to see stats and analytics around what’s going on in your business in real time and can save on piles of paperwork.
Easy to access customer support is vital for any platform. However, a 24-hour service would be even better if you frequently have customers who book outside business hours – especially if the system goes down at 4am.
Of course, find a package which fits your budget. Bear in mind that online booking systems also have different payment structures. Payment might be made monthly by you – or it could be paid by commission or made up of user fees.
Booking through social media
Being able to book through social media gives you more payment avenues, upping your revenue. Customers can book with you without even having to visit your site.
External calendar sync
This one is more for convenience. It syncs with the customers’ calendars (mostly Google Calendar or iCal) so they’ve got a note of the appointment. It also links with your company calendars so everyone can be in the know.
What if I use a web builder for my site?
To have a real pick of the features above, it helps if your website and its components were built from scratch. More freedom in the creation gives you more flexibility.
If you built your website on a website builder like Wix or Squarespace, you’re more likely to be restricted. Your main options would be an iFrame embed or a plugin.
An iFrame is like embedding a YouTube video. It’s easy, low budget and keeps people on your site. One of the bigger problems is that you may have little power over how it’s displayed.
A plugin is also easy to set up and doesn’t need much resource – it’s the solution you’d be looking at if you use WordPress. Plugins work well on different devices, though you should be careful and avoid going gung-ho with the. Outdated plugins can cause security issues and if you have multiple plugins from different developers they could clash.
Again, what’s available could differ substantially. For example, Wix has its own booking system, allowing you to customise booking rules and cancellation policies. You can also set time limits for how far in advance a client can book a session, how close to a session they can cancel or reschedule.
Add a waiting list and choose between different time zones to list the appointment in – cater to your business’ time zone and send it to an international client in theirs.
Third party online booking systems
For those who want to go with a third party, you will have more features to play with, but be aware that it will cost more.
Freemium booking systems give you a general basic package for free, but if you want to grow your business they have increasingly sophisticated packages at higher price points.
- Online booking system for service-based companies
- Offers a scheduled shopping solution for social distancing
- Video appointment booking system
- Secure communication
- Can sell coupons for classes
- Accepts bookings from multiple channels
Free; Basic: €8 (£7) a month; Standard: €25 (£21.50) a month; Premium: €50 (£43) a month.
- Live two-way calendar sync
- SMS and email reminders
- Over 1,500 app integrations
- Live reporting
- Customisable questions at booking
- Take bookings from Facebook
- Offer home visits
- Use your own branding
Free; Basic: $9.60 (£7.50) a month; Grow: $20 (£16) a month; Bigger Business: $40 (£32) a month; Enterprise: Bespoke.
These packages are more advanced but that means that they’re more expensive.
- Automates booking process for clients and admins
- Admins can override any features that would be used for regular members
- Can also create internal appointments
- Regular users can create conditions per space – e.g. minimum or maximum amount of time and time windows where bookings are denied
- Accepts online payments
- Syncs with other calendar apps
- Integration with Zapier for easier invoicing and accounting
Pro: $39 (£31) a month; Integrations: $19 (£15) a month; Online Payments: $19 (£15) a month.
- Customise with your own logo
- Able to work with your own domain
- Mobile friendly
- ‘Book now’ button
- Facebook widget
Starter: £7 a month; Standard: £14 a month; Pro: £29 a month.
- Has many integrations
- Available in 30 languages
- Create and deliver invoices
- Automate all reservation tasks
- Personalised texts and emails sent to customers
- Flexible pricing
- Can sell vouchers and gift certificates
Cost starts at £19 per month.
Cost per transaction
As mentioned above, rather than paying a monthly fee, some packages charge fees per transaction.
- Has a package for SMEs
- Mobile first user experience
- Takes automated payments
- Manages availability
- Automates admin tasks
- Stripe account ready
- Embed directly into your website
SME System: 2.4 per cent + 40p per transaction, 4.3 per cent + 40p if non-EU card is used.
- 3-step setup process
- Can handle multi-locations and franchise businesses
- Allows customers to see real-time availability of your services
- Syncs with online calendars such as Google, Outlook and others
- Appointment alerts via SMS, email or app (Android or iOS)
- Virtual appointment scheduling
- Reporting and Analytics are built-in with customer database management
- Can handle discounts, gift certificates and similar
There is a free option (1 staff with 5 services, 100 appointments per month) with website integration including Square and Zapier.
The paid for options are split into three options: Growth / Professional / Enterprise which range from US$19.99 to US$79.99 per month. N.B. This is a US company but they claim over 12,000 UK customers.
What about online booking systems in my sector?
Some packages have specific features which you won’t find on other systems. We’ve listed a few of the top specialist platforms based on sector.
Best for salons and beauty therapists
- Unlimited appointment booking
- Unlimited team members
- Track client history, keep notes and stay in contact via integrated email
- List your business on the Fresha marketplace
- Book on marketplace, Instagram, Facebook, Google or your own website
- Remote processing of penalty fees for no-show protection
- SMS text reminders
1.29 per cent + 20p transaction fee; 20 per cent new client fee
Best for car hire
- Find a vehicle, generate a quote, assign a client and process a booking in less than 20 seconds
- View and manage bookings and vehicles across multiple sites
- Obtain manufacturer and DVLA information when adding vehicles to the system
- Automatically check the current balance and credit limit of an account when a booking is placed or checked out
- Make informed business decisions with over 80 powerful reports at your disposal
- Protect your business from high-risk customers with free access to our shared database of problem hirers
Pricing is bespoke – contact Prohire for more info or for a free demo.
Best for restaurant booking
- Remind diners about upcoming reservations
- Free online training
- Around the clock technical support
- Guests can see real-time availability and reserve a table directly on your website
- 600+ integrations – customers can book through a number of different platforms including Google, Apple, Instagram, and TripAdvisor.
- Guest history: know who’s new, who’s returning and who eats out frequently
- Communicate with guests after their dining experience by responding to their feedback
- Keep your waitlist flowing, and text guests when their table is ready
- Quickly see where you can fill gaps in availability
Basic (includes reservation management and a few other tools): £29 a month + £2 network cover.
Best for fitness classes
- Grow your fitness business and let new customers find you through the BookFit app class directory/marketplace
- Quickly and easily create a timetable of all of your upcoming sessions
- Real time class availability and booking
- If a customer tries to book a class which is full they will be asked if they wish to be added to a reserve list
Basic: £10 a month; Plus: £20 a month; Pro: £30 a month.
Best for online courses
- External calendar sync
- Eliminate costly no shows with automatic notifications and reminders
- Easily track who – and when – cancelled a course enrolment or class registration
- Take bookings on Facebook
- Let your customers see what your classes are like using pictures, photo galleries and video – along with class descriptions and teacher bios
- Simple one-click recurring bookings
- Integrate with Google Analytics
Solo: $14.95 (£12) a month; Small: $29.95 (£24) a month; Standard: $39.95 (£32) a month; Large: $79.95 (£64) a month.
Finding the best online booking system for your small business
Of course, research is key when finding the best online booking system for your business. Each provider will offer a different set of features. Even if you have the same type of business as a competitor, your needs will be completely different to them. It can be a costly investment upfront, so ensure you get it right before you dive in.