How many emails to set up a meeting?

You want to meet. The other party wants to meet. You have a common interest in meeting. You’ve agreed to meet, but now you have to work out the logistics. How many emails and/or phone calls will it take to set it up?

A recent 90-minute meeting with someone from another company took a total of fifteen (15) emails back-and-forth and two phone calls to set up, over the space of a few days.

I won’t bore you with details, which included working with both of my counterpart’s personal assistants, each based in a different country, and reacting to changing travel plans. This was an extreme case, but not by much.

The negotiations in this case were so mechanical, that they could almost have been conducted automatically by computer. It was therefore a relative waste of my time to have to deal with the numerous volleys of messages. My counterpart was insulated from this time- and attention-consuming process by his assistants, who conducted the logistical negotiations on his behalf. However, it’s a great pity if this is what PA’s are really for, especially because having a go-between also adds its own overhead to the process. Now imagine how many more messages would have been required if I had a PA too! It almost defeats the whole purpose.

Microsoft Exchange and similar systems provide a rather rudimentary method of time-slot negotiation; one side may see when the other party is free, and then send them an invitation, which is then accepted, rejected or returned with a suggested alternative time. Even these systems don’t work unless all parties are from the same company.

At first glance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to rig together a system that would allow our computers to negotiate this sort of meeting. An idealized meeting negotiation agent would have to know, or be able to ask you if necessary:

  • when you prefer to have your meetings
  • where you plan to be on each day (time-zone / country / city)
  • where you prefer to have your meetings on each day — are you tied to your office? Can you get away for lunch? Are you able to travel to the other party’s office?

Unfortunately, the above information is rather hard to pin down accurately, and it’s quite volatile. The problem here is not so much a software problem, rather it is how to get software to learn what our preferences are and to use this knowledge to arrive at the same decisions as we humans would make.

I suspect that it will be quite some time before computers can save us time in this way, although this negotiation process can definitely be streamlined significantly with a few rather simple improvements, which would hopefully eliminate a whole class of messages from our inboxes.

Advertisements

16 responses to “How many emails to set up a meeting?

  1. Hi Itzy

    http://www.doodle.ch/ is a service where people can actually quite easily set-up the kind of meeting proposals, inviting other people to tick the dates/times where they are able to join a meeting.

    You can actually use the interface to ask/coordinate exactly that kind of information/tasks you describe in your mail. We use it regularly to schedule meetings w/ clients.

    Best regards
    jr

  2. That’s a good summary of the problem of meeting scheduling and the challenges to solving it. We’ve been offering a professional meeting scheduling solution since 2001 at http://www.meetingwizard.com

    We’re working our next generation version which will employ even more automation and features. Many MeetingWizard users tell us they’ll never go back to the old way of doing things!

    Regards,
    Peter Moroney
    Director
    TeamWorx Innovations

  3. Thanks Peter and jr, this is encouraging. I can see how these systems reduce complexity of a one person inviting many people to a meeting.

    However, one of the difficult problems that often crops up is the following:
    A offers B a number of available time-slots via email.
    B picks a time-slot, but by the time B’s reply reaches A, the time-slot is taken, so the process must start all over again. The online systems you mention could mitigate this somewhat.

    This problem gets worse, however, if the nature of A’s job is to meet with people all the time. A starts off with a clean slate, and invites a whole bunch of people to separate meetings. It’s more or less first-come, first-served with regard to the available time-slots, but it looks as if the systems you’ve mentioned are meeting-centric and not calendar-centric. If I have a specific meeting, they can help me, but if I have some time-slots to allocate to numerous meetings, my guess is that they are probably not able to help. Am I wrong?

  4. Hi Itzy,
    You’re right, one of the real challenges is the lag time between meeting requests, responses and confirmations. In MeetingWizard, we’ve implemented some processes to help minimize that, but it can’t be prevented.
    As in your initial post, we do foresee the possibility of using machine-to-machine interaction to further streamline and speed up the process. Getting the right blend of human interaction and automation is the trick, and we’ve learned that a one-size-fits-all solution is less than optimal. Also, as you suggest, there are features of calendaring systems that can be useful in certain scheduling situations. Actually, the problem you describe in your last post should be able to be addressed through an appointment booking concept provided there is only one person B per meeting. We are considering adding that as an option to our system. The trick is when you add a person C into the mix. Then you need the capability to propose multiple times to get B and C together, and then the appointment booking process to find an open timeslot with person A.
    There are some very interesting technical and usability challenges involved in the whole person-to-person scheduling process – what appears to be a simple process at one level is actually full of complex social and cultural nuances. Anyone using shared calendar systems probably has some sense of that.

  5. Good day Itzy!

    I read your article and wanted to provide information regarding a great meeting scheduling tool I recently found. It is free and it schedules meetings for multiple persons. It sends an email to all parties and then finds the earliest date and time when everyone can meet and emails the parties with the information. The website address is http://www.setameeting.com. Check it out!

  6. Hi Itzy, I came across your blog for Email Overload and I know that your tips would be a Godsend to many.

    My blog is concentrating on Small Biz Blogs and Websites…and i’m compiling the list now.

    If you have any other small biz suggestions, feel free to email me.

    thanks again

  7. Another variable that makes scheduling with programs difficult is the travel time factor. Finding a common empty slot in the calendar doesn’t mean that it can be filled if the meeting location will mean a long drive for one or more of the participants. If anyone works out how to add GPS info into these meeting programs, I think they’d be on to a winner!

  8. Another variable that makes scheduling with programs difficult is the travel time factor. Finding a common empty slot in the calendar doesn’t mean that it can be filled if the meeting location will mean a long drive for one or more of the participants. If anyone works out how to add GPS info into these meeting programs, I think they’d be on to a winner!

  9. Good read, Thanks!

    Steven Burda, MBA
    http://www.linkedin.com/in/burda

    e-mail me to connect:
    steven.burda.mba @gmail.com

  10. The Goovite Meeting Maker – http://www.goovite.com/mm – will do it.

  11. Mark: Goovite seems optimized for one person inviting many. What does Goovite offer regarding the problem of scheduling a meeting for 2 busy people, which obviously cannot be decided by voting? See my earlier comment for a more detailed discussion.

    BTW, I really enjoyed reading your paper on handling email a few years back.

  12. I have been intrigued by http://www.timebridge.com – I am not in the beta program, but interested to hear from those who are.
    They seem to take a pragmatic view to the problem by integrating with Outlook first and adding the server functionality as well.

  13. Pingback: links for 2007-05-01 « Sandy’s blog

  14. Занимаюсь дизайном и хочу попросить автора email-overloaded.com отправить шаьлончик на мой мыил) Готов заплатить…

  15. As a Personal Assistant, I highly recommend that when you offer times to someone for a meeting, you block those times off in your calendar as “on hold.” Nicely letting someone know that you are doing this also often encourages a faster response. Then pretty quickly you get used to clearing those times once the meeting is booked. Not fully mechanized, but workable.

    • Good call, Amy. I recently ended up with two important meeting clashing… and I was the one setting up both :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s