TAMPA – More and more dealerships offer online booking of service appointments, but some scheduling systems are superior to others.

So says Dinos Constantine in reviewing various dealer websites and showing examples of how easy and hard it can be for Internet users to slate service times and order parts.

More than half the dealerships in the U.S. offer online scheduling of repair work – and that number is expected to increase fast, says Constantine, director-marketing for DealerTrack’s Accessories Solution Group.

“In 1994, 10% of airline tickets were booked online, and now 10% aren’t,” he says, predicting a similar shift toward using the Internet to book car-repair time at dealerships.

“It is not for all your customers, but if 15% to 25% move to it, it takes the scheduling burden off the dealership,” Constantine tells dealers at Ward’s Automotive Spring Training Conference presented by Autobytel here.

To make it work, “you’ve got to get buy-in from the service manager,” he says. “Regardless of what you do on the Web, make sure you have the process in place to handle it on the other side.

“You can’t have customers randomly throwing out appointments if you can’t accommodate them,” he says. “Last thing you need is 11 appointments for the same time. That’s a train wreck.”

As Michael Maroone, president of dealership chain AutoNation Inc., notes at an earlier trade conference: “One of the pathetic things in this industry is when a customer makes an appointment, and it doesn’t mean anything.”

Constantine cites what various dealer websites do right and wrong, as he shows examples of online scheduling features.

He pans a Honda store in Florida for not including a calendar with dates and days and for putting users through needless bother.

“You have to pay attention to details with this site,” he says. “If you click on March 23 as an appointment date, the result is the date is closed. So why is it there to be clicked on?”

Conversely, Constantine praises the site for sending an automatic appointment confirmation and telling customers to call if there is a problem.

An online scheduling system at a Buick store in Wisconsin has pros and cons, too.

“You click for service appointments, and then you are asked to do another click,” Constantine says. “But it does let you see what hours are and aren’t available.”

The site’s major drawback is it asks customers to enter three potential service times. Users are told the dealership will phone later to confirm one of them.

Constantine’s reaction: “If I’m doing it online, why do I want them to call me?”

He is impressed with how a Chevrolet store in Wisconsin books appointments it in real time.

“The site is ahead of the pack,” he says. “It allows you to log in, so the information doesn’t need to be reentered. It has a drop menu, asking for type of service. Based on what service is requested, the software searches for the number of hours it will take.

“Then it gives you available times, with unavailable times blocked out.”

Meanwhile, the Buick store in Wisconsin also is not customer friendly in selling parts online.

“For parts, it asks people to enter the trim coat, paint code, production date and engineering code,” says Constantine. “What consumer knows those?

But with accessories, the site is much easier to use, offering drop boxes for makes, models and prices.”

He praises a Rhode Island Honda store’s online auto-parts sales operation.

“It is one of the best sites,” Constantine says. “It asks for model, parts number –

if you have it – or the VIN (vehicle identification number). They have duplicated what every successful site does: provide a user-control experience.”

Some dealers fail to grasp the importance of the Internet to help the back shop, even though some domestic-brand dealerships rely on fixed operations “to stay afloat these days,” says Todd Swickard, CEO of Auto Dealer Traffic Inc.

He says: “If you say to some dealers, ‘We had 1,000 service appointments and 50 sales requests for parts online,’ they’ll say, ‘I don’t care; how many cars did you sell?’”