Techniques: Microcases


Problem: Unpredictable work flow and client turnaround time
Solution: A real-time online scheduler
Payoff: More satisfied clients and staff; lower costs

When you're in the business of designing smiles, unhappy clients can distort the picture. For 28 years Doug Kinnear, president and founder of the $1-million Kinnear Dental Laboratory, in Bellevue, Wash., has delivered consulting and manufacturing services to dentists. His expert technical staff specializes in "smile makeovers," custom-manufacturing prosthetic devices, such as bridges, crowns, and implants, from impressions taken by dentists.

And for 28 years Kinnear has struggled to create a work-flow scheduling system that suits both his clients and his employees -- an all-but-impossible task, given the roller-coaster nature of his business.

As is the case at many small companies, "it was feast or famine," says Kinnear. And that meant costly operational trouble. Employees were at the mercy of unpredictable workloads, putting in 12-hour days one week, then having no work the next. Employee turnover was running 20% a year. And clients found the fluctuating turnaround time confusing. "If a client called during the ebb, we'd have time to meet the need immediately and get them the product earlier than normal," Kinnear says. But during busier spells, the lab might take longer to finish the same type of job. In those cases, "clients believed we were having it our way," he says.

Over the years, Kinnear experimented with countless scheduling systems, from taking bookings by telephone to adopting standardized one- or two-week turnaround times to using pegboards and customized calendars. All had limited success. For one thing, in every case, Kinnear's office was still dictating to clients when their orders would be filled. "Just like with airlines, depending on their flow of business, you might not get the seating or the flight you wanted," he says. Besides, such systems were labor-intensive and tricky to use. And none solved the problem of fluctuating demand, which created unpredictable staff schedules.

Then, this past January, Kinnear discovered, a real-time online scheduling service in Issaquah, Wash. Through a link to Jacknabbit from a business's Web site, customers can see available appointment times on an easy-to-read, two-month calendar. They book or cancel by clicking on the desired date and immediately receive an E-mail message confirming the booking. Kinnear pays 50¢ for each transaction that Jacknabbit handles.

"With this system we've allowed our clients to have it their way," says Kinnear. "They pick the return date. There is no negotiation. There is something psychological about revealing your schedule to clients. Although we have some blackout dates, it seems more acceptable and friendly to them." Some 70% of Kinnear's customers now use Jacknabbit successfully.

Jacknabbit has also pleased Kinnear's staff. Work flow is steadier, because clients who view the schedule tend to book their appointments more evenly throughout the month. When changes occur, employees can learn of them immediately by clicking on the Web-based calendar, even from home. And Kinnear says that he is already saving 12% on payroll costs by cutting jobs that involved answering phones and monitoring work schedules.

According to research conducted by Jacknabbit's founders, CEO and chairman Richard Schulenberg and chief operating officer and president Warren Aut, 2 million businesses are expected to use some form of online scheduling by 2003. For now Jacknabbit has at least three direct-scheduling competitors. and are industry specific, respectively targeting golfers and diners; primarily serves the mobile-services industry.

Though some companies might balk at handing over those all-important appointment calendars to an outside company, Schulenberg emphasizes his system's capacity and security. Jacknabbit, he says, has spent more than $1 million on its data center and maintains a top-of-the-line backup system. "We can handle 100 transactions per second," he says. That way, "companies don't have to make this kind of investment themselves."

Kinnear, for one, is smiling broadly these days. "The only thing I have to say is, 'Where has this system been all my life?' " he says.

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