4 ways to cancel a business meeting without harming relationships

Double booked? Just heard about an important conference you need to be at? Your ten-year-old just came down with chicken pox? Or just having second thoughts?

The purpose of any business meeting is to interact with other people, whether with clients, representatives of another company or internally with your own department. Meetings can help your business relationships thrive.

When you cancel a meeting, that’s another interaction. A cancellation says “I have something more important to do than to meet with you.” If that sounds harsh, it’s also often true. How can you soften the blow, and keep the relationships intact?

Backing out of an agreement doesn’t have to mean the end of your business reputation, although it may do some damage. You can minimise the harm with courtesy, empathy, and respect – the same things you appreciate in other business contacts.

1. Cancel early

As soon as you realise you can’t make the meeting, cancel. This is just common sense. The longer you leave it, the more other plans are being made in other people’s calendars, around this doomed meeting.

Writer and editor Monty Majeed says that cancelling with short notice will reveal unprofessional habits. Time management and organising skills are as important as any other must-have entrepreneurial skills.

Many will treat a meeting appointment as an inviolable part of their calendar. Once they have committed time to that meeting, nothing else is allowed to interfere. This untouchability is what an appointment calendar is all about. Respect for that space on your calendar equates to respect for the other people who have reserved the same time slot.

If you cancel a meeting a week or more in advance, it’s unlikely to do any great damage. There’s still time for everyone else to fill that slot with meaningful work, or with other meetings if necessary.

That becomes much more difficult as the gap closes. The day before, the morning of, or half an hour before, … and now the inconvenience to others could be enormous. As the time frame narrows, the more compelling your reason for cancelling should be. Of course, you don’t know what others may have planned, or not planned, around that day. Better to treat every cancellation as treading on the goodwill of others. Tread lightly; cancel early.

2. Cancel personally and offer an apology

An apology recognises that the other person has been inconvenienced, and that his or her time is also valuable. It helps to preserve their dignity, and it will do a lot to enhance yours.

No matter what the reason for cancelling, it could be seen as your personal failing. When your assistant makes the phone call or sends the email, it could be perceived as avoiding direct accountability. That would be bad manners, which is almost unforgivable in business.

Cancellations will affect business relationships, so it’s important enough for you to handle yourself. You will be able to pick up any negative vibes from the other party or parties, and then you’ll know whether any further damage control is needed.

Ashley Brazzel writes for Plan Your Meetings: “While email is often the easiest and least painful method of delivering bad news — unless, of course, you’re on the receiving end — it’s also the quickest way to wreck alliances. So, if it’s in your interest to preserve ties, it’s best to pick up the phone, especially when there’s going to be a loss of revenue. It’s also suggested you follow-up your phone call with a written letter, preferably certified, and apologize sincerely.”

3. Propose a new time

Rescheduling is much more palatable than cancelling, especially if both parties are still keen on pursuing your original reason for meeting. This will tell the other attendees that you still value their commitment, and it will give you a chance to make up for any problems the cancellation caused.  

Quick and Dirty Tips recommends: “Make up for your cancellation by making your next meeting as pleasant as possible for the other person. If you are going to lunch, pick up the bill. If you are supposed to meet at your office, have something like a fresh bottle of water, coffee, or snacks ready. These are little things that will go a long way to make amends.”

4. Meet another way

Instead of cancelling the meeting outright, switch to another format. Of course, this will depend on your reasons for cancelling in the first place.

Fast Company has these four suggestions that may get you out of trouble.

a) Turn the meeting into a phone call

This will save you (or them) a trip, and it shows you’re still willing to connect.

b) Turn the meeting into a shorter meeting

You may not have to cancel a 90-minute meeting at all if you honestly believe you can accomplish your purpose in 30 minutes. Arrange a shorter meeting, making it clear that’s the amount of time you have available. If that means shelving some items, give them a later time slot.

c) Turn the meeting into an email

If it’s possible to convey everything in writing, you could make a one-hour meeting a ten-minute email. It may still be necessary to discuss things further later, but you will have saved some time in the interim.

d) Bow out of a meeting that your co-worker dragged you to

Some meetings won’t need your physical presence, but you may be happy to have others, perhaps better qualified on the topic at hand, to speak for you. This will require advance preparation, but may save you time on the day.

Conclusion

No matter how you handle the mechanics, Jasmin Kabigting lists these three qualities that will help you cancel a meeting and preserve relationships:

Empathy: When you cancel, you’re likely disrupting the other party’s schedule. Put yourself in their shoes and visualise the situation from their perspective. How would you react to the same situation? A little empathy goes a long way.

Courtesy: It’s courteous to apologise for the turn of events but don’t linger on the subject. Focus on rescheduling so both you and your client can get back to business.

Honesty: Don’t lie. If your client suspects dishonesty, that hurts the business relationship you’ve built.

If you frequently have to cancel meetings, improve how you schedule your time, you risk being branded unreliable. You’ve worked hard to build a good reputation in business; the way you handle relationships when things are rough will strengthen it further.