dealing with callers who want short-notice appointments with my boss

A reader writes:

I have a question about accommodating requests for appointments on short notice. I know every executive assistant says this, but my boss is very busy. I receive requests, sometimes only a day or two before, for her to attend a meeting or conference call that cannot be accommodated because her schedule is booked solid. The president’s assistant taught me to follow my apologetic response with, “The more notice that we have for future meetings, the better able we will be to accommodate your requests.” However, people sometimes seem to think that my boss can bow out of her prior obligations to meet with them “because I’m only in town one more day” or what have you. Sometimes they get mad that she is tied up.

Replying delicately to this sort of cluelessness is frustrating. I typically reiterate that I’m so sorry, but she is unavailable until x date, and repeat my request for advance notice as gently as I can, while avoiding the phrase “short notice.” What else can I say when the harsh truth is, “She’s an incredibly busy executive who is interviewing candidates/leading committees/teaching/in meetings/on calls/in planning sessions all day every day for the next 2-3 days, and you should have asked for an appointment when you knew you were coming to town a month ago!”? I’d love it if there were a diplomatic way to be more stern. What would you say?

This is one of those things that you pretty much just need to accept will always happen, and all you can do is explain as you’ve been doing.

When you see people constantly doing this, it’s natural to develop a desire for a way to set them all straight in some broader way. (In fact, the same thing happens when you screen job applications — if you’re a generally helpful person, you start musing over how you could set people straight about common problematic habits.) But giving in to that impulse is usually beyond the bounds of what the situation calls for.

There might be room for being a little more explicit with your callers, though. You could say, “I wish I could squeeze you in. Her schedule is usually very full and books up early. Most of the time, we need X amount of notice to get new appointments on her calendar.” Say it in a sympathetic tone, but spell out the situation.

But I wouldn’t worry about finding ways to be more stern. The substance of your answer is already stern enough to make the point (we can’t do the appointment because this isn’t enough notice), and I think it’s probably better for your office’s relations with people if your tone is warm, even while you hold firm on the ultimate answer.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. Kelly O

    My answer used to depend a lot on who the person was, and if my boss had any actual interest in meeting with him or her. If it’s someone we really wanted to make time for, I’d just remind them of the busy schedule and that if they could call me a couple of weeks ahead of time, I had a lot more leeway in letting them know about when there might be availability and work out a time that would be better.

    If it’s someone we don’t necessarily want to squeeze in, I’d ask for an email, or perhaps an information packet. Some people took the hint and some did not. It’s a weird balancing act to figure out how to discourage someone from calling, because it seems like the most persistent ones are also the ones who do not have a snowball’s chance of getting time.

    Sometimes you do just have to be blunt. Polite and professional, but blunt. Again, it all depends on the person, the situation, and how your boss feels about it.

  2. Jenny Next

    Kelly O is right. Your boss cannot possibly meet with all the people who want to, and so you should not feel apologetic or bad about having to say no. In fact, you and your boss should probably re-visit the idea that anyone who asks can get an appointment as long as they do so far enough in advance.

    The ones who get mad are using that as a ploy because they know that they are asking for something they aren’t remotely entitled to. Be nice to them, but recognize it for the game that it is.

    1. Kelly O

      What used to annoy me was salespeople at the end of the month. I’m not a salesperson but I’ve been around enough to know the game. At the end of the month, there is some scrambling to at least get the quota of initial contacts in so you can update your records and look better.

      I get that. The boss gets that. But we still can’t get you in. And if you’re in finance and have end of month financial cycles, it’s even harder to get someone in. We had a week that was basically off-limits for meetings, and it was always the last few days of one month and the first few days of the next. We had internal deadlines, meetings, and it was just crazy trying to close a month and roll the next one.

      We had people who consistently called in that time. Every time. No matter how many weeks you tried explaining the process and how they’d have a much better chance calling another time, they kept on and on… I mean, even now I try explaining our cycle to callers and how there are better times to call, and I still get calls on Monday mornings, or on the first of the month. I have zero time for calls and visits at that time, sorry (but not really.)

  3. Kate

    Hi and thanks for taking my question! I like that you said ‘sympathetic,’ because that’s are more along the lines of what I was going for than my term, ‘diplomatic.’ Typically, the callers are donors, alumni, community leaders, or members of the press that we want great working relationships with. We don’t dodge people here unless they’re unknown callers from sales and marketing departments. It’s just that sometimes (not often) the people we really do want to meet with act rudely, and when they pressure me, I feel like my stock response isn’t enough. I think “her schedule… books up early. Most of the time, we need X amount of notice to get new appointments on her calendar” does set them straight, and it’s not difficult at all for me at all to say such a thing warmly. That kind of line is just what I was looking for. Thanks again!

    1. Biff

      Is it possible to offer alternatives? Such as “Biff, I’m sorry, she can’t squeeze you in this week, but I’ve got an afternoon opening in three weeks if you are going to be in town again then.”

      1. A Different Kate

        I’d worry that any form of “I can’t squeeze you in this week” would imply that you do squeeze people in sometimes, encouraging future requests that you do so.

        1. Biff

          Good point. Some people really do hear what they want. Maybe more like “Biff, her schedule doesn’t have any openings this week, but….”

  4. Lily in NYC

    I am an EA for a very high-powered guy. He gets lots of last-minute requests from people who are also important and expect him to drop everything. And these people are usually already annoyed because they tried to meet with the Mayor but got turned down and sent to my boss as a consolation prize. “I always say: “I apologize but King Jerkward is generally booked for weeks in advance and there is nothing on his calendar that I am able to reschedule. Right now, our only option is for after (insert date); would you like me to send you some timing options for that week?”
    If the person gets annoyed, just say “I apologize; I really wish I could accomodate you but I’m afraid it’s just not possible for the dates you are requesting”. Or, “I understand your frustration and wish I could help, but I am just not able to make that date work”.
    Be nice but not too nice, “politely firm” is the way to go.

    1. tesyaa

      Here’s what I do with telemarketers, if I happen to pick up one of their calls: I thank them *profusely* for calling me and say how sorry I am that I can’t participate. It’s hard to argue with someone who’s thanking you *so much* for calling. I bet if you thank the callers profusely for wanting to meet with your boss, they’ll have a hard time being furious that (s)he’s not available.

      1. Lily in NYC

        Good point. Telemarketers don’t make it past our receptionist, so thankfully I never have to deal with them.

      2. the gold digger

        That is the Southern way of saying no and it took me a while to figure it out. I was trying to get people to work on this committee when I was in the Junior League. I would call and ask and hear, “Oh you are so sweet to ask me! I wish I could! I do! But I just can’t! Thank you so much for asking me! Bye!”

        It is a brilliant technique and although I will never master it, I have learned it well enough that I can get away with it here in the not-South.

        1. Ruffingit

          Totally random and off-topic, but can you explain to me what the Junior League is all about? I live in a southern state, but I’m a northerner originally and I’ve known some people in JL, but I’ve never quite understood what the draw of the organization is or what the purpose is. Would love the answers to those questions if you have a moment to do so.

  5. CollegeAdmin

    I don’t do this, but I know another assistant who works in my office schedules a few small (30-minute) blocks of time each week for just these situations. If someone contacts her for a last-minute appointment with her boss and it is truly urgent, she tells them, “Dean’s schedule is very busy. The only times I have available are X, Y, and Z. After that, his next opening on (date).” If she doesn’t end up needing the dates, it’s basically free time for Dean, which he appreciates.

    1. Cucumber

      That’s a really smart solution. It sounds like the OP works in a university or other college. Many people in this environment procrastinate, or find out information late in the game, so I think it’s inevitable you’ll have people banging at the door at the last minute. If you can schedule a few emergency blocks of space, I think that would be very valuable!!

    2. Kate

      Yes, that’s a great suggestion. We try to do that too, (we actually book 4.5 hours a week for that!) but with as busy as she is, usually that time ends up being used for the basics, like reading e-mails and higher education news, signing letters, and writing contact reports. Lord help me if I ever get that busy!

      1. Ruffingit

        Yeah, just reading through this thread, it sounds like your boss’s life is basically on fire every minute of the day. I would find it very difficult to live with a schedule like that, but I know some people thrive under it.

        1. Kate

          She’s a SUPERHERO. She has never once in the 10 months I’ve worked for her burned out, buckled under pressure, or been short with anyone. Sometimes I wonder if she’s human. I wish every boss were like her—she’s a joy to work for, and I truly mean that. :)

    3. MK

      The downside with this is that you are training people that they don’t necessarily have to make an appointment in advance. A person who was able to meet your boss at a couple of days notice may not see this as a one time thing and expect the same treatment next time and insist on it.

      This isn’t the case only when booking appointments. Every time one bends the rules to accommodate someone, they risk said someone to come back for more, or pester their colleagues. I cannot tell you how much I detest the argument ”’But last month your co-worker X did this thing that you are refusing to do for me!”.

      1. Not So NewReader

        Good point about training people that lack of planning on their part is okay by you. The emergency time that has been left open, could be used in other ways and not for the people with the lack of planning problem.

        I read that doctors should have an hour in the middle of the day unscheduled so that they can either catch up or handle an emergency. This just makes so much sense. I am sure very few people do this, though.

        I really hate that when someone points out coworker did X and I won’t and why is that?
        I usually say, “I don’t know the particulars of what happened there, so I don’t know what she was seeing or thinking and I really cannot answer that question. However, our policy is xyz and we have to strive to keep to that policy in order to be fair to everyone.”
        If they go back over the same question, I just repeat a shorter version “I can’t speak for my coworker, I have no idea why she made an exception in that instance.”

      2. Ruffingit

        Yeah, true. When someone comes to me like that, I always explain that there’s a difference between a one-time thing and a way of life. “I was able to accommodate co-worker X at the time, but that does not mean it’s the rule going forward. If and when I can accommodate you in the future, I may try to do so, although the way you’re approaching me about it is not going to be helpful to my wanting to help you when it’s very hard to do so to begin with.”

    4. Lily in NYC

      We do that to – we call it “office hours”. But of course our boss tends to disappear when he’s supposed to be having them.

      1. Lily in NYC

        Oh duh. We only do office hours for internal employees. I can’t imagine being able to do it with external visitors because we have to prep for our meetings.

  6. Kathryn T.

    Miss Manners to the rescue! “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” or, if you need a warmer and less formal tone to make them believe you’re on their side, “I know this is very frustrating, I’m so sorry, but it’s simply not possible.” Maybe with a followup of “If you know when you’ll be in town next, I would be happy to schedule you an appointment at this time — we do need a lot of notice because he has a lot of demands on his time, but right now, his schedule is reasonably open starting in $MONTH.”

  7. LV Ladybug

    I have a similar issue. I have vendors that show up all the time without a meeting and just expect me to be available. You can see my office from the lobby and can see when the front desk person comes to tell me that they are here. Sometimes they are able to say “she is on the phone, in a meeting, etc.” and that works, others they say “I’ll wait.” It’s so frustrating. Sometimes I have meetings that last all day long and they just expect me to squeeze them in. Sometimes I am polite and go out and give them a few minutes, but then they want to turn it into a meeting. The front desk are also not my assistants and are not expected to act like they are. Seriously, why couldn’t they just call and set up a time. I would be happy to meet with them when I am available.

    1. CTO

      Even if the front desk staff are not your personal assistants, could they be trained to firmly but politely turn away any vendor who doesn’t have an appointment? If you made it a policy that they could help enforce, it might help somewhat. That said, I know that many vendors can be very pushy and it takes a very special person to be able to keep 100% of them at bay.

      1. some1

        Absolutely. Dealing with unwanted visitors is just as important for a receptionist to master as screening cold calls.

    2. Anonymous

      You should tell the front desk person to say “She can’t meet with you on short notice. If you’d like to set up an appointment, email her/him/me/whoever at xxxx with information on what you’d like to talk about.

      And then when you get the email, skim it. And if you’re actually not interested, say that explicitly:

      “Thanks for your message

      We’re not interested in your services/product/whatever.

      Sincerely,

      LV Ladybug”

      If you are interested, write back with suggestions for times (including end time) for a call.

      1. LV Ladybug

        Well the front desk knows when its a sales or marketing vendor, someone who is trying to get my business. They are good at dodging those. It is with exisiting vendors, people they have seen around the office before. So sometime they already say “oh yeah, she is here, let me get her.” I have reminded them that I might not be available when these people come.

        1. LD

          It can be useful to teach them to ask, “Do you have an appointment? I’ll check to see if she’s expecting you.”
          I had a situation with one particular person who always showed up to request access to public records. He just demanded that because they were public he should be able to get to them anytime he just showed up. He almost always just showed up and became belligerent when the person responsible wasn’t available. (Uh, can you say lunchtime, bathroom break, meeting with the boss?) Anyone seeking access had to sign in, write down what they wanted to view, and not be left alone with the files. He just so misunderstood! All he had to do was call and make an appointment and the files would have been ready for him. But, no, he had to just show up and make a scene while we located someone who could babysit him and the files. Every. single. time.

          1. Not So NewReader

            I face a similar problem where I work. We put up a sign explaining the policy. That helps. Maybe you can give him a copy of the policy to “keep for his own reference” since the question seems to come up often.

            This is kind of snarky but I have found that if I give the long-winded explanation of the policy that sometimes helps the irratable folks to settle down. They really don’t want me to go through that whole explanation again, because clearly, if I am explaining I am not processing their request.

    3. Amethyst

      When vendors and salespeople come in wanting to meet with my boss, I know the answer is no. Unless it’s someone we contacted, it’s just no – we don’t buy a lot of outside services in our business period, and the ones we do, we’re set up already. Unfortunately her office has glass walls and it can be plain that she’s in there, not on the phone or what have you…

      Usually at that point if they’re refusing to leave, I say “someone is going to call in for a conference call at any minute, and right after that she has a meeting. Unfortunately, her time is scheduled far out – if you leave your information I’ll have her look at it.” If they say, “I’ll wait” to that, I try to say, “I’m really sorry, but there’s just not going to be time today. Let me take down your details to give her a briefing with.” And usually that works.

      1. Eden

        We actually created a policy for this (in our case the salespeople are drug reps) which we print out and place on a kind of podium stand in the hall where the elevators open on our floor. Basically, it says, if you don’t have an appointment, we won’t see you, and to make an appointment, send an email.

        Drug reps would come in (somehow, we’re in a badged building) and roam the halls looking for doctors, or would stand over admins and try to intimidate them into letting them see their doctors right away. It helps to be able to reference the policy and shrug, what can I do? There’s a policy! Then no one has to say, Begone.

    4. Anonymosity

      Pet. Peeve. People show up fairly frequently wanting to talk to one of our department directors about freelance positions we have available. But it’s so disrespectful of the other person’s time to show up and expect them to drop whatever they’re doing and talk to you at a moment’s notice. Send us an email with your info or drop off your resume, and we’ll have a much better and informed conversation once the director has had a chance to review your info. Ugh!

    5. Gene

      I PreviosJob I had purchasing authority for the equipment that only I used. I knew exactly the makes and models that I wanted, but still had to request bids from X vendors before I could buy the lower priced ones I like. One vendor made at least quarterly visits to try to sell me stuff I didn’t want, didn’t need, and frankly wouldn’t have bought that brand even if I needed them. He would pull the “I’ll wait” bit with the receptionist sometimes. She’d message me anytime somone unexpected would show up and I could decide if I wanted to see them. On more than one occasion, that vendor sat in reception for over an hour waiting for me. And he only met with me once.

  8. Anonsie

    So what do you do in this situation if the person will not stop asking for unworkable times and it’s starting to become an issue with how much time you’re spending on it? This happens to me all the time. I’ve gone back and forth with people for weeks, sometimes intermittently over months, where I’ll give all open times for someone in our department and they’ll ask for some time that’s not on the menu. I’ll say it’s not possible, they’ll ask for a different time that wasn’t what I offered. Repeat. No amount of “This is not going to ever be possible, you’ll have to choose a time we’ve offered” seems to end it until they just get bored of talking to me.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      How much does your office care about what this particular person thinks? If it’s important to keep them reasonably happy, you need to factor that in. But you could simply say: “To save us both some time, I want to be clear that what I’m offering you are the only possible times. If I haven’t listed a time here, it’s not available. Will one of these work? If not, is there some other solution for us to help you get what you need, if our schedules simply won’t mesh?”

      1. Anonsie

        I got to that last time, and they just curtly told me that their person was also very important and very busy and promised to follow up later when things cleared up. When they did follow up, this cycle just repeated. That tends to be how it goes. Usually my people will tell me that if the other party isn’t making room for a meeting they’ve requested, then they don’t get a meeting. But sometimes these are people that my colleagues are seeking out, and I’m just required to keep trying until there’s a mutual time.

        1. Brigitte

          Have you ever tried Doodle or another online scheduler? That way, you can indicate blocks of open times, which can be more effective than saying noon on Tuesday, if maybe 12:30 is an option, too, and it cuts way back on the email back-and-forth. It’s super fast to include a lot of options — way easier than it is to type them all up in an email.

          1. Cassie

            I liked using Doodle’s Meet Me function which linked with Google Calendar – I used to use it for scheduling student exams for my boss. The student could see in a monthly calendar view which times/dates were open so I wouldn’t have to list the open times for each day in the next three months. It’s a pain for the student to have to coordinate with 4 or 5 professors for a two-hour slot months down the road (especially when some professors end up changing their schedule).

            Unfortunately, Doodle’s Meet Me function is no longer free (plus Tungle doesn’t exist anymore either)… maybe when we switch to Google Apps for Education, I think appointment slots functionality will be a possibility. (I don’t want to publish my boss’s calendar for everyone to see, even if they only see “free” vs “busy”).

    2. Student

      Is there any chance you’re giving the other person an “information overload”, so they’re basically ignoring everything you say? Your comment that “it’s starting to become an issue with how much time you’re spending on it” tells me you might be going too far in being helpful.

      Instead of giving someone every available time, give them two choices. See if that gets better results.

      If that tactic still gets you in the same pickle, try taking more control of the situation, especially if you are reasonably certain that your boss considers himself more important than the person asking for a meeting. Offer up only one time. Offer it up as if it is already agreed-upon. If needed, act as if it is something you managed to move heaven and earth to accomplish. “Bossman is very busy, but he cares about Issue so he’s adjusted his schedule to fit you in. I’ve booked you for Thursday at 9:30 AM. Please contact me if you need to cancel or reschedule.”

      Some people are just too busy or disorganized or incompetent or wishy-washy to make a call when given too many choices. If you narrow it down for them, they feel more comfortable, or have an easier time processing the information.

      1. Anonsie

        I don’t think that’s it. “Every available time” is usually one or two openings, sometimes three. The time comes from the other person making repeat requests and different types of scheduling are marked in different places. I normally have to parse through several different calendars to find an opening. Then when I send it back, they’ll sometimes ask for not-listed times several times before asking me to check the next month or something. This is how all scheduling goes, and I’m find with it if they just say “none of those will work, let’s move ahead” but it’s frustrating when they instead keep trying to make me budge and act put-out or offended when I can’t.

        I do like your second idea, though. I’m definitely going to try that.

        1. Anonsie

          By one or two openings, too, I mean over the upcoming month or two. Most weeks we don’t have space for external meetings, period.

        2. Cassie

          Can you ask the person to send you 3 or 4 slots that would work for them, and then you compare that with your calendar? It sounds like that’s what ends up happening anyway, so at least you’d avoid one pass. And maybe give some kind of parameters, like “please send me 4 slots in the next two months that would work for you”.

      2. Zillah

        Offer up only one time. Offer it up as if it is already agreed-upon.

        I hate it when people do this, personally. I think that it’s incredibly presumptuous, rude, and disrespectful. I don’t have an issue with people only offering up one time, especially when it’s not someone you’re overly invested in seeing, but offering it like it’s already agreed upon? No. You can get the same thing across with, “9:30 on Thursday is the only time we have available. Does that work for you?”

        When people do that to me, it’s a huge black mark against them.

    3. Kelly O

      In that case you may actually have to just say “Bob has a recurring appointment at that time, and we cannot reschedule. He does have X, Y, and Z available – which would work better for Jill? Oh no, I’m really very sorry but those are the only times available.”

      And honestly you may have to talk to Bob about this and ask him to speak with Jill – two busy executives may have legitimate scheduling conflicts, but that might be a case for a web meeting, Skype session, or just a conference call. Face-to-face interactions are important and I understand that, but sometimes if things aren’t working, you have to either change priorities, or make alternate arrangements.

      And this is only if Bob and Jill are both in agreement that the meeting needs to happen, and you are just having trouble with the other assistant/gatekeeper.

      1. Anonsie

        Oh we normally have to move to conference calls or GoToMeeting or something like that, face to face meetings are rare. I used to try to have them talk to each other to find a wiggle time like that when it would look like an important meeting couldn’t happen for months, but after the second time I suggested it Bob told me not to pass it back to him again.

        I guess I’m doing what I can here, though, based on the suggestions I’m getting. I guess this just what scheduling is gonna have to be!

    4. Not So NewReader

      Is there a way you can consolidate the calendars? It can’t be easy searching and searching.

      I would also suggest a preemptive strike. “Boss has these openings this month x, y and z. If those don’t work we will have to bump to next month.” The forewarns people what the next suggestion will be.

      Or instead of loading them up with information, offer one “his first available time would be September 5 at 2pm”. I think that by saying his first available time indicates a willingness to consider other dates but also could shorten the conversation some what.

  9. HR Business Partner

    LV Ladybug–I would go crazy if drop-by visitors could see me in my office as they loitered!! I do get that they have a job to do (usually sales) and they are under the gun to meet their quotas…but I still won’t drop my pre-scheduled appointments and projects because of that. grrrrr. In fact, I won’t even take unsolicited sales calls: my take is that I’m fully aware of the vendors in the HR space and if I want information I always reach out and vet several of them. I don’t accept calls unless I’m already shopping, basically.

  10. Anonymous

    “When you see people constantly doing this, it’s natural to develop a desire for a way to set them all straight in some broader way. (In fact, the same thing happens when you screen job applications — if you’re a generally helpful person, you start musing over how you could set people straight about common problematic habits.) But giving in to that impulse is usually beyond the bounds of what the situation calls for.”

    This is great advice and I think sums up how many of us feel when we see the same behavior repeated over and over by different people.

    1. AdminAnon

      I think it’s also worth noting that, while you may notice and be frustrated by the broader pattern (which I certainly understand), each person is probably only doing it once. It’s like when I was an RA in a freshman hall and I got the same question a thousand times–it’s so easy to get frustrated when you’re repeating yourself for the 989th time that day, but the person who’s asking the question has likely never heard the information before, so you just have to remember that and be as pleasant as possible. That said, I completely understand where you’re coming from (my boss is also very busy and so are most of the people we work with).

  11. Rat Racer

    I’ve just come to accept the fact that sometimes it’s my job to be nice to people no matter how awful they are, and to be the official “apologist” for everything wrong in my department – including my boss’s lack of availability. For some reason – and maybe this is just me – the fact that it’s not my fault and not really my problem lets me detach, and makes it infinitely easier to be patient, even with the most persistent complainers.

    1. Jennifer

      I hear that. I have come to accept the fact that if you serve the public, you are there to be dumped on. Especially if you ever have to say no.

  12. ella

    if you’re a generally helpful person, you start musing over how you could set people straight about common problematic habits.

    Are you trying to tell the OP to start a blog? ;)

  13. Graciosa

    My favorite take on this is a quote from the series finale of the “The West Wing” when a new president is moving into the Oval Office. Lily Tomlin’s character – executive secretary to the outgoing president – is giving advice to her successor. The whole quote is a wonderful description of this role, but the last line is what separates the best from the rest.

    “Your desk sits right outside this door. You prepare his schedule. You decide who goes in and who doesn’t. Your most frequent response to any question will be ‘no’. Say it with empathy and you’ll be fine.”

  14. Laura

    Late to the party, but I very, very much sympathize. I used to work for a very busy lawyer at a mid-size firm. He had a lot of clients, and each thought he was on call just for them. I can’t tell you how many times this conversation took place:

    Client: I need to speak to him right now, its urgent.
    Me: I’m very sorry, but he’s in a meeting/at a hearing/on vacation. He should be back at [x] time. Would you like to leave him a message/speak to one of his colleagues?
    Client: But! I need to speak to him NOW!
    Me: [rinse and repeat]

    If they kept insisting, I would usually tell them I couldn’t pull him out of his hearing or tell him to answer his Blackberry while he’s on vacation. Oddly enough, at the large firm I now work at, the clients are more accepting of “sorry, but he’s busy”.

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