How long should you wait for a business appointment?

(This column was originally published in SNEWS, the most trusted outdoor and fitness industry news source since 1984. www.snewsnet.com)


King Louis XVII of France once said, "Punctuality is the courtesy of kings." Nearly 200 years later, some businesspeople still haven't perfected this courtesy. If you have an appointment to meet someone, and that person is late, how long should you wait?

No matter where you are on the food chain, there is a basic level of interpersonal courtesy, which is reciprocal. It applies to all people all the time regardless of anyone's given role, i.e., potential employer or employee, and regardless of the economic climate.

We've put together a few scenarios to instruct and inform when enough is enough when waiting for a meeting to start.

Scenario No. 1: First job interview - Candidate and company are in same town
Just like a scout, a person interviewing for a job should be prepared. If the interview is local, drive to the destination in the days before you meet to determine travel time. On the day of the interview, allow enough time for heavy traffic and other snafus. If early, stop a couple of blocks away, check your appearance and go over your notes.

Be in the reception area five minutes before the appointed time. That allows enough "cushion" time to check in with the receptionist and use the restroom. Also, stand up in the reception area -- don't sit down. Standing up sends a subtle message that you are busy and have things to do.

If the interviewer doesn't show up within 20 minutes of the appointed time, step up to the receptionist, politely apologize and explain that you need to move on to another appointment and will call to reschedule.

The absolute maximum wait time should be 20 minutes for a candidate meeting someone from an interviewing company for the first time. Why? Punctuality is an important sign of respect. It's almost like honesty -- an intrinsic value that expresses one's sense of another's worth. Sure, stuff happens and urgent tasks sometimes take precedence.

That's why the candidate should get up and exit after 20 minutes. It actually can take the pressure off.

Scenario No. 2: First job interview - Company paid candidate's travel
OK, the scenario has shifted. The company paid for you to travel out for the interview, but you've been waiting in the lobby for 20 minutes. One hopes the company would not leave a job candidate in the reception area for too long, feeling lonely and unloved. Go to the receptionist and ask if someone else on the interview team is available. It's a touchy situation, so be careful with your language.

In a polite fashion, say something to the receptionist to the effect of, "You know, I'm so excited to be here and I'm really looking forward to getting my day started. Is there someone who can give a little tour until (the interviewer) is able to break free? I appreciate your help."

If you've been escorted to a conference room or an office, but no one has come to start the interview, wait as long as it takes. Use the time to stand up, step out into the hall and get the feel and flavor of the place. Smile and say "hello" to people in the hall. After all, the company paid for the travel. Relax and enjoy.

Being interviewed is a sample of the candidate's work style such as preparation and interest. Conversely, interviewing is a sample of the corporate culture.

If representatives of the company make you wait before the interview begins or if there are long interstitial periods of boredom, that can indicate you how much your time is valued.

Scenario No. 3: Running late for a trade show meeting
Time is compressed during a trade show and the maximum wait time is 10 minutes. Most meetings or appointments aren't more than 20 minutes long, so devoting about half that amount to waiting is more than sufficient.

Once again, stuff happens. Perhaps a major customer showed up unannounced. Maybe the person got called into one of the group huddles that occur quite often at trade shows.

If you have a cell phone number and want to try reaching your appointment -- or you can have somebody at the booth try -- that's fine. They might be right around the corner, saying hello to someone, grabbing a snack or sneaking in a needed dash to the restroom. It's your decision how long you can wait or if you try to call. You can also shift the responsibility back to the person by leaving a business card with your cell phone so they can reach out to you.

Scenario No. 4: Getting a call that an appointment is running late
An unanticipated consequence of cell phone ubiquity is meetings and plans have sometimes become conditional. They float in time based on other priorities.

A cell phone can extend your level of courtesy to other people: "Sorry, there was a major accident on the freeway, and I'm running late. I should be there in about 10 minutes." But because almost everyone has a cell phone, one doesn't have permission to change schedules at will, however, and be insensitive to other people's lives.

If you are called on the cell phone by someone running late, you can restart the clock at the time of the call, or you can take the opportunity to gently disentangle yourself from this obligation or reschedule it -- depending on your schedule, other commitments or the importance of the meeting.

Keep in mind, a challenging economic climate doesn't extend a window of time indefinitely. Twenty minutes max waiting is sufficient. If punctuality is of value in good times, it's also the case in bad times. Ultimately, a bad economy is going to get better, but a bad attitude lasts forever.

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