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://www.scottshapiro.com scottshapiro

    Great post, Mark! Working-world minutiae like this make me appreciate being back in school even more! (though only for 1 more year).

  • http://www.scottshapiro.com scottshapiro

    Great post, Mark! Working-world minutiae like this make me appreciate being back in school even more! (though only for 1 more year).

  • Jesus

    okay capt common sense crunch with a bitter after taste…. maybe you wanna do the next post about how no one should take your hot pockets out the office freezer? :-P

  • Jesus

    okay capt common sense crunch with a bitter after taste…. maybe you wanna do the next post about how no one should take your hot pockets out the office freezer? :-P

  • http://techneur.com/ JP

    Awesome post. I think this advice goes to any time commitment that you have with another person. Regardless of whether it's business or not. It's just part of being a good human being, it all comes down to respecting others' time.

  • http://techneur.com/ JP

    Awesome post. I think this advice goes to any time commitment that you have with another person. Regardless of whether it's business or not. It's just part of being a good human being, it all comes down to respecting others' time.

  • http://pupeno.com J. Pablo Fernández

    I wonder if there's a way to communicate the likelihood of a meeting being canceled. Two days before the meeting: “It seems I'm getting sick, it's likely that in two days I won't be able to hold this meeting, please, don't plan your life around it, feel free to cancel it.”

  • http://pupeno.com J. Pablo Fernández

    I wonder if there's a way to communicate the likelihood of a meeting being canceled. Two days before the meeting: “It seems I'm getting sick, it's likely that in two days I won't be able to hold this meeting, please, don't plan your life around it, feel free to cancel it.”

  • http://josephsunga.com joesunga

    Great post. Time is such a valuable thing. This should be thought of for life in general, not just business. Folks need to learn how to respect people's time and take the common sense approach of doing things, especially when canceling/rescheduling meetings. Thanks for sharing.

    While we're on the thought of meetings, I saw this awesome Ignite talk about 22-minute meetings and I thought you might get a kick out of it. http://igniteshow.com/videos/22-minute-meeting

    Let me know what you think. :)

  • http://startupdojo.org joesunga

    Great post. Time is such a valuable thing. This should be thought of for life in general, not just business. Folks need to learn how to respect people's time and take the common sense approach of doing things, especially when canceling/rescheduling meetings. Thanks for sharing.

    While we're on the thought of meetings, I saw this awesome Ignite talk about 22-minute meetings and I thought you might get a kick out of it. http://igniteshow.com/videos/22-minute-meeting

    Let me know what you think. :)

  • Joe

    An extremely well written and pertinent post. But it's not going to make any difference. Most people try and behave with consideration, grace and good manners, no matter if they are the top dog or the grateful junior at a meeting. Then there are the douches, and they will never stop.

  • Joe

    An extremely well written and pertinent post. But it's not going to make any difference. Most people try and behave with consideration, grace and good manners, no matter if they are the top dog or the grateful junior at a meeting. Then there are the douches, and they will never stop.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You might think this is obvious but you'd be surprised how oblivious some people can be

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You might think this is obvious but you'd be surprised how oblivious some people can be

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For sure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For sure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Funny you say that. Sometimes when I schedule a meeting and I know in advance that there is a risk of cancelation I will tell the person in advance. Just did it last week. I normally say, “Let's pencil it in for that date but there is an xx% chance I will be traveling on that date. I'll let you know as early as I can.”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Funny you say that. Sometimes when I schedule a meeting and I know in advance that there is a risk of cancelation I will tell the person in advance. Just did it last week. I normally say, “Let's pencil it in for that date but there is an xx% chance I will be traveling on that date. I'll let you know as early as I can.”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You may be right, but I always find it's helpful to remind people to make issues like these top of mind.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You may be right, but I always find it's helpful to remind people to make issues like these top of mind.

  • http://twitter.com/L1AD LIAD

    how can you not like a post with the words “cheeky bugger” in it.

    You can take the man out the UK but you cant take……..

    ——-
    In my experience dealing with certain VC's and other people with illusions of grandeur – cancelling meetings seem to be done on occasion for no other reason than a pure power play, where the closer to the meeting the better.

    I once had a meeting cancelled by someone whilst sitting in the reception area of their office -30 minutes AFTER the meeting was meant to begin. – Bastard!

  • http://twitter.com/L1AD LIAD

    how can you not like a post with the words “cheeky bugger” in it.

    You can take the man out the UK but you cant take……..

    ——-
    In my experience dealing with certain VC's and other people with illusions of grandeur – cancelling meetings seem to be done on occasion for no other reason than a pure power play, where the closer to the meeting the better.

    I once had a meeting cancelled by someone whilst sitting in the reception area of their office -30 minutes AFTER the meeting was meant to begin. – Bastard!

  • derekhuether

    Mark, thank you for writing this post. It needed to be said (written). Whatever happened to common courtesy or putting yourself in the other person's shoes? Many in-person meetings I attend, though in a different vertical market, are a complete time suck. Still, it doesn't negate the value of the face-to-face meeting. If I ever need to have a face-to-face meeting, I start it with “I recognize how valuable your time is…”. It doesn't matter which side of the table I'm sitting.

    Best Regards,
    Derek Huether
    http://HueCubed.com

  • derekhuether

    Mark, thank you for writing this post. It needed to be said (written). Whatever happened to common courtesy or putting yourself in the other person's shoes? Many in-person meetings I attend, though in a different vertical market, are a complete time suck. Still, it doesn't negate the value of the face-to-face meeting. If I ever need to have a face-to-face meeting, I start it with “I recognize how valuable your time is…”. It doesn't matter which side of the table I'm sitting.

    Best Regards,
    Derek Huether
    http://HueCubed.com

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I once showed up at a VC meeting that my assistant had confirmed a week earlier to be told that the person was out of town … in China! And I had flown to the meeting. You can imagine how fun that was.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I once showed up at a VC meeting that my assistant had confirmed a week earlier to be told that the person was out of town … in China! And I had flown to the meeting. You can imagine how fun that was.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I hate meetings.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I hate meetings.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Seriously awesome video! Thanks. Was well worth the 6 minutes to watch it. I appreciate your pointing it out.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Seriously awesome video! Thanks. Was well worth the 6 minutes to watch it. I appreciate your pointing it out.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    Love the post – it's even more frustrating for those of us without executive assistants, especially while traveling. The nuances of respecting meetings are important.

    One last point – reminding people that it isn't required that the requestee for meetings say 'yes' — often they're in that role for a reason, and are often overwhelmed for that reason. It doesn't make them stuck up – just too busy (very similar to email overload)

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    Love the post – it's even more frustrating for those of us without executive assistants, especially while traveling. The nuances of respecting meetings are important.

    One last point – reminding people that it isn't required that the requestee for meetings say 'yes' — often they're in that role for a reason, and are often overwhelmed for that reason. It doesn't make them stuck up – just too busy (very similar to email overload)

  • anonymous entrepreneur

    Great post that everyone should read.

    Great timing too: I read this and a VC just rescheduled our meeting a second time through his assistant. We don't need the money, since in the time of the two reschedules we've filled up our round through other means.

    So how would you respond to the assistant's request to move the time again?

  • anonymous entrepreneur

    Great post that everyone should read.

    Great timing too: I read this and a VC just rescheduled our meeting a second time through his assistant. We don't need the money, since in the time of the two reschedules we've filled up our round through other means.

    So how would you respond to the assistant's request to move the time again?

  • http://www.adamenbar.com/ adamenbar

    Interesting post, Mark.

    Any thoughts on etiquette regarding canceling a meeting all together, as opposed to rescheduling (especially if you may want to take that meeting at a later date)?

  • http://www.adamenbar.com/ adamenbar

    Interesting post, Mark.

    Any thoughts on etiquette regarding canceling a meeting all together, as opposed to rescheduling (especially if you may want to take that meeting at a later date)?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I've got a slot for a separate post on “saying no to meetings.” I wish I were better at this! Thanks for feedback.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I've got a slot for a separate post on “saying no to meetings.” I wish I were better at this! Thanks for feedback.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I would email the VC directly and politely explain the circumstances. Honestly, it is possible the assistant is doing the rescheduling and the VC is unaware of the details (e.g. that it's the second time and that a meeting might be time sensitive). Worth reaching out directly and seeing the VC's reaction. Make it clear that you've already lined up much of the funding.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I would email the VC directly and politely explain the circumstances. Honestly, it is possible the assistant is doing the rescheduling and the VC is unaware of the details (e.g. that it's the second time and that a meeting might be time sensitive). Worth reaching out directly and seeing the VC's reaction. Make it clear that you've already lined up much of the funding.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes! But I have that queued as a separate post. Stay tuned.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes! But I have that queued as a separate post. Stay tuned.

  • Jfinkle

    You left out the worst offense – not notifying the person you are scheduled to meet, that the scheduled date no longer works! I was recently invited to attend a strategy session for a company I advise, and really like to help. The night before, I emailed to confirm and was told “no we can't do it, its now a week from Tuesday” (tomorrow). I said “thanks for the notice” – no response.

    Sometimes it seems like common courtesy has just disappeared in our texting/tweeting/facebooking/emailing -continuous-partial-attention world. We are so busy we forget the basics

    I'm wondering, should email again today to confirm? Perhaps I'll just send this post and my comment….or go shoot 18 holes tomorrow!

  • # Jfinkle

    You left out the worst offense – not notifying the person you are scheduled to meet. that the scheduled date no longer works! I was recently invited to attend a strategy sesssion for a company I advise, and really like to help. The night before, I emailed to confirm and was told “no we can't do it, its now a week from Tuesday (tomorrow). I said “thanks for the notice” – no respose.

    Sometimes it seems like common courtesy has just disappeared in our testing/tweeting/facebooking/emialing -continous-partial-attention world. We are so busy we forget the basics

    I'm wondering, should email again today to confirm? Perhaps I'll just sent this post and my comment….or go shoot 18 holes tomorrow!

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    I shall take this advice to heart, I've never had to reschedule a meeting thus far and if I ever do I'll keep these points in mind. Thanks Mark.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    I shall take this advice to heart, I've never had to reschedule a meeting thus far and if I ever do I'll keep these points in mind. Thanks Mark.

  • http://pensiveharsh.wordpress.com/ pensiveHarsh

    Thank you Mark. Your experiences are very valuable. Learned a lot from your blog.
    Thanks again.

  • http://pensiveharsh.wordpress.com/ pensiveHarsh

    Thank you Mark. Your experiences are very valuable. Learned a lot from your blog.
    Thanks again.

  • http://twitter.com/jcflash80 Jonathan Chin

    Great post Mark. So the empathy you showed the team from New York, does that stem from being on “both sides of the table” or is that a common gesture for VCs on Mt. Olympus?

  • http://twitter.com/jcflash80 Jonathan Chin

    Great post Mark. So the empathy you showed the team from New York, does that stem from being on “both sides of the table” or is that a common gesture for VCs on Mt. Olympus?