Earlier this year, AT&T sold a majority stake in its Yellow Pages unit to a private-equity firm called Cerberus Capital for about $750 million in cash, plus another $200 million in IOUs. In big-business dollars, that amounts to just about giving it away. The sale price, compared to its profits, was about 20 percent of what Verizon got six years ago when it sold its Yellow Pages business. That unit, by the way, has since filed for bankruptcy.

The point is that the traditional, print-based Yellow Pages are clearly on their last legs, which makes perfect sense. Customers are far more likely to turn to the Web – whether it’s Google, Angie’s List, Yelp, or some other search engine – to look up a plumber or HVAC repairman or shoe cobbler. Most field service providers by now have recognized the value of having a strong online presence, but one new company is going full-bore with its online experience, and service departments would do well to take some notes.

Repair.com, which on Monday formally expanded to 50 cities nationwide, is a free service that customers can use to look up and compare local repairmen. Chris Spanos, Repair.com’s general manager, previously headed AOL’s Yellow Pages, so he clearly has some perspective on how people search for services.

The real coup here, however, is that freelance contractors or plumbers or repairmen (companies can enroll, as well) who sign up to be part of the site (there’s a fee, natch) can also post their schedules online, so customers can see when they’re free, and book an appointment online, all in the space of about five minutes.

We’ve written before about the benefits of online scheduling, yet few field service organizations have embraced it whole-heartedly. Should Repair.com prove to be a success, service departments should really start thinking long and hard about ways to improve and simplify their online offerings.

In a press release announcing Repair.com’s launch, Matt Both, a chief strategy officer for BIA/Kelsey, a media analyst consultancy, explained why online advertising and scheduling is so important.

“Whether it’s in search of a doctor or a repairman, more than 95 percent of consumers now use online media when researching products and services in their local area,” he said. “But finding a service provider is just one piece of the puzzle. With their busy schedules and expectations around instant gratification, consumers need an easy way to connect directly with service providers, which makes online scheduling capabilities increasingly important for companies in the local services space to provide.”

As customers drift further and further away from old mediums of communication, it’s important that businesses move with them. It may not seem like a big deal to pick up the phone and call a plumber, but in 2012, customers prefer to just take care of everything online.

Does your organization offer online scheduling? What barriers does it see to doing so? Let us know in the comments section; we’d love to hear.

More: Calling Support Is Customers’ Last Resort, So Why’s It Your Only Option?

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ABOUT Ian Stewart

Avatar photoIan is a veteran journalist who has covered sports for various news outlets. Previously, he was managing editor for an electronic-book publishing company and a public relations writer.