Long waits are one of the easiest ways to turn off customers in our on-demand culture of the 21st century. When reactions are measured in nanoseconds and everything is available at the tap of a thumb, effectively managing customer flow is more crucial than ever.

This is becoming even more true for businesses in the physical world too, like salons, clinics, barber shops, and veterinary centers; It's crucial that all businesses find a way to manage the queue.

Appointments vs. Walk-ins

Everyone is familiar with how appointments work, and in theory, appointments make a lot of sense.

People reserve a time, show up, spend exactly the right amount of time there, and everything runs smoothly. As anyone who has spent hours waiting for an appointment will attest, that system rarely works the way it should. There are simply too many factors that can cause the system to stop functioning, resulting in long wait times and unhappy clients.

What goes wrong with appointments

The appointment scheduling system is so easily jarred into inefficiency because of three primary factors. First, appointments take longer than expected. Dr. Anthony Youn explains that in his experience "a patient can single-handedly cause a physician to run 30 minutes behind" by asking questions about other issues or by holding back pertinent information until the end of the appointment. The second reason is that people show up late to their appointments. Dr. Youn reports that one-third of his patients shows up at least 10 minutes late. A few of those overrunning appointments coupled with a large portion of appointments arriving late leads to the third problem with scheduling: problems compound throughout the day. One late appointment could make everyone else late. Many late appointments will make everyone else late.

Moreover, in many instances, a problem arises which should be taken care of quickly. A dog gets sick, or a person comes down with the flu. It's a pain to have to make an appointment while suffering from an awful toothache for the same day, let alone having to wait for an appointment a few days later. Therefore, walk-ins are an inevitable part of business for salons, clinics, barber shops, and veterinary clinic managers. Creating better solutions for managing walk-ins can significantly help to improve the bottom line and customer satisfaction at the same time.

Looking at the restaurant world as an example, the trend veers towards no-reservation policies. When they are popular, buzz-worthy restaurants often refuse reservations in order to build up hype around their establishment. Plus, what dish wouldn't taste better if you wait an extra hour and a half to eat it? Economically, they want every table full and are not willing to risk a no-show.

Most clinics, veterinary centers, salons, and barber shops don't benefit from this luxury of famous chef star power. But there are a few key takeaways here. Empty tables are lost revenue. People tend to be late or not show up. Doctors, dentists, barbers, and hairstylists are subject to similar economic forces. Doing a better job of managing walk-ins is the way to capture this revenue and create a more positive customer experience.

Making walk-ins better

One doctor reportedly pays his patients $5 if he is running late. Other clinics have implemented 30-minute policies where no one who comes to the clinic waits more than 30 minutes to see a doctor. Aside from incentives and processes, technological innovation can help too. Appointment apps make scheduling automatic, where appointments can be made and adjusted in real time, marking a large improvement over the old sign-in sheet.

What's more, if the appointment and walk-in booking system can be improved by making walk-ins more accessible, then people will be more likely to stop by because they know they will get the service they need without wasting their day away. It's a virtuous cycle that will work in favor of the businesses that best manage their walk-ins.

Many people who show up on time to appointments and who don’t take longer than planned benefit from the traditional appointment booking system. But businesses need to do a better job of preparing and adapting when things start to get off schedule, as they inevitably do. When patients show up late, or take longer than usual, everyone suffers. That’s why finding ways to improve the management of walk-ins, such as technology solutions or incentives discussed above, can help every single customer have a better experience, walk-in or not.