The Right Way to Cancel a Meeting

Posted on May 16, 2010 | 98 comments


Canceling meetings is part of modern day life.  I seem to get so over programmed that if I ever want to have a “break-out” unplanned trip somewhere I seem to have to reschedule meetings. Not fun, but a reality.

And people reschedule meetings with me on a regular basis, too.  If done correctly I never have any problem with it at all.  Done poorly and it really puts a bad taste in my mouth.

When you do need to reschedule a meeting make sure to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.  Give reflection to what inconvenience you may be causing.  Make sure you’re mentally aware of whether they might have made special plans around your meeting.  Basically, don’t be cavalier about rescheduling meetings.

Let me give you an example.  A couple of years ago an entrepreneur had requested a meeting with me to present his business.  A friend that I respect had introduced me and asked me to meet with the guy.  I always try my best to take meetings like this since my friend had clearly committed some political capital to his friend in saying he could help him get a meeting.

The meeting was set for Wednesday, May 8th 2008 at 11am.  A few days before the meeting the CEO asked me to change the meeting to 11:45 because “he was going to be wrapping up a meeting in Pasadena at 11am” and it would take 45 minutes to get to Century City where my offices are.  ”No problem,” I replied.

As the day approached I noticed that there was a conference in LA that I wanted to attend.  The day before the conference I thought about rescheduling this meeting but then thought, “oh, well.  It’s too close to the meeting date.  I’ll honor the commitment I made.”  So I didn’t go to the conference.  At 11:15am (e.g 30 minutes before our meeting) my assistant got a call from his assistant requesting that we reschedule the meeting.  I was furious.  Less than f’ing minutes before the meeting!  Really?

I wrote directly to his assistant asking why he had cancelled and made it clear that I had not attended a conference in town due to my having accepted this meeting.  She responded back that (paraphrasing), “he had gotten stuck at a conference with a very important potential advisor to his company.  It was a big industry luminary and he needed to see whether he could meet with this advisor.”  I can’t name who this advisor was or it would give the company away.  But it is a very big bigwig indeed.

But they were stuck at the SAME freakin’ conference that I had wanted to attend.  And that’s why he stood me up!  HE was asking ME for a meeting to raise money and then canceled me to be at the conference that I wasn’t able to attend because he had asked me to a meeting I didn’t even really want to take in the first place.  Aaaargh.

Being the cheeky bugger that I am, this is the exact email I sent him (courtesy of X1 – I never struggle to find old emails):

“As an entrepreneur myself I COMPLETELY understand that you wouldn’t pass up on the impromptu and opportunistic chance to meet somebody so important to your business.  I would have done the same.  But as a gentleman I would have picked up the phone in advance and personally called the appointment to apologize for cancelling at the last minute – no matter whom I was meeting.  It’s just professional courtesy.  Imagine being in my shoes where somebody cancels 30 minutes before your meeting by having his assistant call your assistant to say he needs to reschedule.   I’m sure you would feel equally aggrieved.”

And I meant it.  I would have totally understood.  Customers do come first.  And this person was so important to his business that he should have stayed.  But to have his assistant call my assistant was chicken shit.

The problem with rescheduling meetings at the last minute is that people plan their calendars around your meeting.  They might schedule what part of town they’ll be in or whether or not they’ll even be in town at all!  Last minute changes inconvenience the person with whom you’re scheduled to meet.  It still happens but always weigh up whom you’re meeting with and understand whether that person is likely to be largely impacted by your changes.

Here is how you cancel a meeting:

1. If you need to reschedule a few days in advance - Whether you do your own scheduling or whether you have an assistant, a polite email to reschedule a meeting with a few days notice is usually acceptable.  I always ask my assistant to be vigilant about knowing whether anybody has planned travel to attend a meeting with me or our firm.  We write that into the calendar entry so that I (and any my partners) know this and would only reschedule if extremely urgent.

2. The day before - This starts to get problematic.  You really need to know with whom you’re meeting and how big a problem it is to reschedule the day before.  There are some people who live locally to you and you know don’t have calendars full of meetings every day (I actually wish I didn’t.  I want to be on Paul Graham’s “Maker’s Schedule” but as a VC this is quite hard.)  If I KNOW it is somebody with whom I can more easily reschedule then we’ll reach out to them and see whether it’s OK.  We usually try to re-slot them in quickly.  We try to be very accommodating on timing.  Often if they were going to come to my office I’ll offer to go to theirs to make it up for rescheduling so late.  I assume that I owe them one.

And if we need to reschedule the day before it’s usually for a very compelling reason.  It’s often because I have some last minute unplanned travel.  If it really is a problem we’ll often stick by our initial commitment.

3. The day of the meeting- It better be a great freakin’ reason like travel problems, you’re sick or there’s some burning issue you can’t avoid.  And obviously it is far worse if you were the person who had scheduled the meeting.  In this case it warrants a personal email (or better yet a phone call) from you and a Herculean effort to reschedule the meeting.

Recently a team flew to meet me.  They came from New York.  I assume that they also had other meetings in LA but they really wanted to meet me.  I had been introduced by a friend.  Their plane had to land in Las Vegas unexpectedly to refuel.  I had no other open slots to meet them that day and they missed their window.  So I ended up doing a dinner meeting because I know what it’s like when you travel to meet somebody about fund raising and might not get to have the meeting after all.

4. Within an hour of the meeting – The sky better be falling.  You better be eating humble pie.  You better not be the person who was asking for the meeting.  You should grovel.  You should call personally to state your sincerest apologies.  If the meeting is first thing in the morning (e.g. hard to get ahold of the person) don’t even think of it.  They’ve clearly planned their morning around your meeting.

5. If it’s the third reschedule - If you’ve rescheduled once obviously it’s best to try and not reschedule a second time.  If done in advance it’s manageable.  But the third time it starts to get pretty annoying for the recipient.  At a minimum you owe them lunch or do something surprising like sending cupcakes to their offices with an apology note.

6. If multiple people are in the meeting – Do your best not to reschedule when meetings involve multiple people.  I’m not talking about two people from the same company (like co-founders) or two partners at a VC firm.  But when you have a board meeting that has 5 people there or when you’ve scheduled a meeting with 3 or 4 companies.  Board meetings do get rescheduled but when they do it’s best to do it as far in advance as possible.  Last minute changes with multiple people involved just exacerbates the inconveniences to others.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Yes, that sucks. Sometimes we double confirm the day before but it's hard to always do that. We especially do it for morning meetings.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Yes, that sucks. Sometimes we double confirm the day before but it's hard to always do that. We especially do it for morning meetings.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    From both sides. I know it sucks trying to get VC meetings so I'm extra sensitive to it. When somebody travels across the country the least I can do is try to accommodate. Luckily I have a very understanding wife!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    From both sides. I know it sucks trying to get VC meetings so I'm extra sensitive to it. When somebody travels across the country the least I can do is try to accommodate. Luckily I have a very understanding wife!

  • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    Thanks for reminding people of this stuff — I'm kind of shocked that people have to be reminded of it.

  • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    Thanks for reminding people of this stuff — I'm kind of shocked that people have to be reminded of it.

  • http://www.rnassoc.com Romasha Nath

    Type your comment here. Mark you continue to impress with your brilliance, while an everyday topic, you have given it thoughtful consideration and enabled better behavior in those that may be remiss about this small but far reaching aspect of their demeanor! Thanks so much. Romasha!

  • http://www.rnassoc.com Romasha Nath

    Type your comment here. Mark you continue to impress with your brilliance, while an everyday topic, you have given it thoughtful consideration and enabled better behavior in those that may be remiss about this small but far reaching aspect of their demeanor! Thanks so much. Romasha!

  • http://brmore.posterous.com/ brmore

    Seems to me on #5 … there might be reasons why someone would have to reschedule 3 times, but I can't think of any really good ones (ok, death in family or contracting a highly infectious disease might count, but really).

    By the third time I think I'd stop asking or stop answering, depending on which side of the request I was on …

  • http://brmore.posterous.com/ brmore

    Seems to me on #5 … there might be reasons why someone would have to reschedule 3 times, but I can't think of any really good ones (ok, death in family or contracting a highly infectious disease might count, but really).

    By the third time I think I'd stop asking or stop answering, depending on which side of the request I was on …

  • http://cloudcomputing.blogspot.com/ Chirag Mehta

    Great post Mark!

    Considering that the people do not honor their meeting commitments and still end up canceling and rescheduling at the last minute, what is your defensive strategy to prevent such things from happening? I follow a “dentist reminder” approach with a twist. I send polite emails to people whom I am going to meet a day before. The email would read: “I am very excited to meet you <> for <> at <> …..”. This puts some pressure on the opposite person to honor the commitment and it also acts as a wake-up call in case the person does not know how to manage his/her time well. As you already mentioned the person who cancels does not quite understand the impact of the cancellation to the opposite person (in many cases). One of my friends asks his admin to call all the people he is going to meet a day before and sometimes on the same day. It's a 30 second phone call that goes something like: “You have a meeting with Mr. XYZ. I want to make sure that you don't have any other conflict and you have directions and the conference room/venue details”. After he started practicing this his “getting stood-up rate” has significantly reduced. Wondering how you manage some of these things?

  • http://cloudcomputing.blogspot.com/ Chirag Mehta

    Great post Mark!

    Considering that the people do not honor their meeting commitments and still end up canceling and rescheduling at the last minute, what is your defensive strategy to prevent such things from happening? I follow a “dentist reminder” approach with a twist. I send polite emails to people whom I am going to meet a day before. The email would read: “I am very excited to meet you <> for <> at <> …..”. This puts some pressure on the opposite person to honor the commitment and it also acts as a wake-up call in case the person does not know how to manage his/her time well. As you already mentioned the person who cancels does not quite understand the impact of the cancellation to the opposite person (in many cases). One of my friends asks his admin to call all the people he is going to meet a day before and sometimes on the same day. It's a 30 second phone call that goes something like: “You have a meeting with Mr. XYZ. I want to make sure that you don't have any other conflict and you have directions and the conference room/venue details”. After he started practicing this his “getting stood-up rate” has significantly reduced. Wondering how you manage some of these things?

  • http://josephsunga.com joesunga

    That's the beauty of Ignite talks, if it's bad — it was only 5 minutes. If it's good though, it'll be well worth it. :)

  • http://startupdojo.org joesunga

    That's the beauty of Ignite talks, if it's bad — it was only 5 minutes. If it's good though, it'll be well worth it. :)

  • benkuo

    Nice one. You should compile your posts and make it required reading for an MBA ;-)

  • benkuo

    Nice one. You should compile your posts and make it required reading for an MBA ;-)

  • melissahooven

    Imagine being a recruiter– that is the story of my life…
    Great post, more people should hold standards such as these to business meetings.

  • melissahooven

    Imagine being a recruiter– that is the story of my life…
    Great post, more people should hold standards such as these to business meetings.

  • MITDGreenb

    The good news is that what you posted is common sense and simple courtesy. The bad news is that somehow such common sense and simple courtesy is rare enough today that this article was needed.
    To your thoughts, I'd add that one needs to keep a realistic calendar. For instance, having lived in Pasadena, I would never leave myself just 45 minutes to get to your office. Just a little bad luck with traffic, and I'd arrive hot, flustered, and unprepared. Nah — that *never* happens in LA. (The same rule goes for getting cross town in Manhattan or from Waltham to Boston.) It's very tempting to schedule meetings tightly — your time as an entrepreneur is quite valuable after all — but you should always assume the time of the people you're meeting with is more valuable. If it weren't, why would you be meeting with them?

  • MITDGreenb

    The good news is that what you posted is common sense and simple courtesy. The bad news is that somehow such common sense and simple courtesy is rare enough today that this article was needed.
    To your thoughts, I'd add that one needs to keep a realistic calendar. For instance, having lived in Pasadena, I would never leave myself just 45 minutes to get to your office. Just a little bad luck with traffic, and I'd arrive hot, flustered, and unprepared. Nah — that *never* happens in LA. (The same rule goes for getting cross town in Manhattan or from Waltham to Boston.) It's very tempting to schedule meetings tightly — your time as an entrepreneur is quite valuable after all — but you should always assume the time of the people you're meeting with is more valuable. If it weren't, why would you be meeting with them?

  • http://www.bogdanbocse.com BogdanBocse

    Isn't all this common sense ?

  • http://www.bogdanbocse.com BogdanBocse

    Isn't all this common sense ?

  • Entertainment Guy

    Great post Mark. I agree, but with the caveat that as a smaller fish at a big company, my schedule frequently gets over-run by my EVP and the demands of his bosses (CEO/CFO/etc.). Often I'll have a meeting schedule for more than a few weeks on my calendar, only to be told to dump it a day before (or even day of) because some project comes up that I am told to handle *immediately*. One of the issues working for a large company is that I don't control my calendar to the same degree as an entrepreneur or a VC — it bugs me, but it's the downside of being lower on the corporate totem.

  • Entertainment Guy

    Great post Mark. I agree, but with the caveat that as a smaller fish at a big company, my schedule frequently gets over-run by my EVP and the demands of his bosses (CEO/CFO/etc.). Often I'll have a meeting schedule for more than a few weeks on my calendar, only to be told to dump it a day before (or even day of) because some project comes up that I am told to handle *immediately*. One of the issues working for a large company is that I don't control my calendar to the same degree as an entrepreneur or a VC — it bugs me, but it's the downside of being lower on the corporate totem.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Romasha. I hope you're well!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Romasha. I hope you're well!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You'd be surprised. I was asked to take a meeting with a fellow VC. He asked for the meeting. He then rescheduled twice. On the third request I asked my assistant to put it out 60 days. I told her it's clearly not that important to him and it's not like I'm dying to meet him! Happens more than you may think.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You'd be surprised. I was asked to take a meeting with a fellow VC. He asked for the meeting. He then rescheduled twice. On the third request I asked my assistant to put it out 60 days. I told her it's clearly not that important to him and it's not like I'm dying to meet him! Happens more than you may think.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I know several people who do this. It's just that my assistant is already overloaded with requests from me so I hate to pile on with extra work! No easy answers.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I know several people who do this. It's just that my assistant is already overloaded with requests from me so I hate to pile on with extra work! No easy answers.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Thanks, Ben. I do try to get out to b-schools often and speak. I enjoy it. I would compile but I don't have any spare time!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Thanks, Ben. I do try to get out to b-schools often and speak. I enjoy it. I would compile but I don't have any spare time!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I can only imagine.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I can only imagine.

  • http://twitter.com/ALilling Adam Lilling

    I once flew to Utah for a meeting. It snowed that day but i confirmed that my meeting was on. I drove in the snow to their office and the CEO didn't show up for the meeting. His assistant came out and said that he stayed home sick YESTERDAY and hadn't called in yet today. Even though i confirmed it YESTERDAY.

    I do believe in Meeting Karma….The CEO was ousted from the company and few months later.

    Great post Mark!

  • http://twitter.com/ALilling Adam Lilling

    I once flew to Utah for a meeting. It snowed that day but i confirmed that my meeting was on. I drove in the snow to their office and the CEO didn't show up for the meeting. His assistant came out and said that he stayed home sick YESTERDAY and hadn't called in yet today. Even though i confirmed it YESTERDAY.

    I do believe in Meeting Karma….The CEO was ousted from the company and few months later.

    Great post Mark!

  • vinhkhoa

    Excellent post. I find cancelling meetings too often will damage your reputation. If you are a manager to have meeting with your peers, even if just within your company, you could lose their “respect” too. They might not pay that much attention to the meetings you call as they think you might just cancel it anyway. (at least that's what I feel)

    btw, a bit of a sidetrack topic here. I see a whole bunch of links at the footer of your site, is it part of the site design or the site actually gets “hacked”? See the image here:

    http://img341.imageshack.us/img341/5884/marksit

    Sorry if it is the design :-)

  • vinhkhoa

    Excellent post. I find cancelling meetings too often will damage your reputation. If you are a manager to have meeting with your peers, even if just within your company, you could lose their “respect” too. They might not pay that much attention to the meetings you call as they think you might just cancel it anyway. (at least that's what I feel)

    btw, a bit of a sidetrack topic here. I see a whole bunch of links at the footer of your site, is it part of the site design or the site actually gets “hacked”? See the image here:

    http://img341.imageshack.us/img341/5884/marksit

    Sorry if it is the design :-)

  • Kay Ballard

    Mark, this is a fabulous post. I wish everyone played by your rules!

  • Kay Ballard

    Mark, this is a fabulous post. I wish everyone played by your rules!

  • http://twitter.com/nemra nemra

    What a kind VC you are :) If I would need to shift the meeting, I would feel that at least I need to apologize and try to compensate with something. If meeting was cancelled, the dinner is the least “return”. Its a matter of respect and doesn't depend on how close you were to the meeting day when you need to write a direct email or give a call…

  • http://twitter.com/nemra nemra

    What a kind VC you are :) If I would need to shift the meeting, I would feel that at least I need to apologize and try to compensate with something. If meeting was cancelled, the dinner is the least “return”. Its a matter of respect and doesn't depend on how close you were to the meeting day when you need to write a direct email or give a call…

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    Wow, I can totally relate to this!

    I recently had someone very well known in your industry agree to present at my startup group's monthly meeting but he wanted it to be during the day so I rescheduled the venue and started promoting the attendance of a “very special” guest. Two weeks before the meeting which would have probably had 100 people attend he cancelled and asked to reschedule. Fortunately I never named him but our normal venue was booked for our normal evening event and so not only did I loose credibility among our local startup community I also lost the ability to run our normal monthly meeting since it didn't make sense to come up with a different “day” meeting on short notice.

    I guess deep down I feared this because I didn't name him, but still. His assistant was very anxious to reschedule but once bitten, twice shy.

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    Wow, I can totally relate to this!

    I recently had someone very well known in your industry agree to present at my startup group's monthly meeting but he wanted it to be during the day so I rescheduled the venue and started promoting the attendance of a “very special” guest. Two weeks before the meeting which would have probably had 100 people attend he cancelled and asked to reschedule. Fortunately I never named him but our normal venue was booked for our normal evening event and so not only did I loose credibility among our local startup community I also lost the ability to run our normal monthly meeting since it didn't make sense to come up with a different “day” meeting on short notice.

    I guess deep down I feared this because I didn't name him, but still. His assistant was very anxious to reschedule but once bitten, twice shy.

  • lisahjorten

    Great post and it actually made me feel pretty good about the way I have dealt with meeting changes so far. Another good topic would be how to conduct yourself in a meeting from a time-perspective. I frequently meet with VC's on a number of topics and have found that you can count on exactly a one-hour time slot unless otherwise agreed in advance. The most effective and thoughtful plan is to start wrapping up at the 40 minute mark, leaving 10-15 minutes for general discussion and a nice break for your meeting host before they rush off to their next one.

  • lisahjorten

    Great post and it actually made me feel pretty good about the way I have dealt with meeting changes so far. Another good topic would be how to conduct yourself in a meeting from a time-perspective. I frequently meet with VC's on a number of topics and have found that you can count on exactly a one-hour time slot unless otherwise agreed in advance. The most effective and thoughtful plan is to start wrapping up at the 40 minute mark, leaving 10-15 minutes for general discussion and a nice break for your meeting host before they rush off to their next one.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    As I am working with more and more people long distance (my fault: I am based in Tel Aviv), I become more and more convinced that face to face meetings are not essential (99% of the time). But it requires a mindset change (that is easier to make when you are separated by the Atlantic Ocean).

    Professionally, this is great: increased productivity and increased reach.
    Socially, it is not all good news. Humans are designed to socialize, rather than sitting behind your desk on your own and be really productive.

  • http://stickyslides.blogspot.com Jan Schultink

    As I am working with more and more people long distance (my fault: I am based in Tel Aviv), I become more and more convinced that face to face meetings are not essential (99% of the time). But it requires a mindset change (that is easier to make when you are separated by the Atlantic Ocean).

    Professionally, this is great: increased productivity and increased reach.
    Socially, it is not all good news. Humans are designed to socialize, rather than sitting behind your desk on your own and be really productive.