One of the most frustrating experiences in business these days is scheduling meetings with people over email. The more people you have; the harder it gets. Add in external people; even harder. Throw in multiple time zones; now you’re up for a challenge!
There are now multiple tools available for simplifying meeting scheduling. Some of these have been around for a while and are simply unknown, whereas others are more recent and change the way we book meetings.
The whole issue of booking meetings is such an issue I wrote several topics about it over at The Office 365 Good Etiquette Guide. (Look for topics starting with “Organising meetings”.)
The premise of this post is to focus on meetings with people outside of your organisation, and the tools available to make that easier.
What’s in the box
Before we look at third-party tools, let’s look at those already at our disposal within Office 365.
For those inside your organisation there is a feature known as the Scheduling Assistant, and it’s been there for a while. A long while; since Outlook 2007 in fact. If this is news to you stop right now and read the previous link about how it works – your colleagues will thank you.
Exchange Server as the back-end for Outlook has had the ability to share calendars with external organisations since the 2010 version – which meant it was also available in Office 365. In fact, I wrote a blog for the Microsoft site in mid-2011 (two months after Office 365 was released) explaining how to set it up. Effectively this meant an organisation could establish a relationship with another organisation (“federation”) that would allow users in each organisation to use the Scheduling Assistant and see each other’s availability. This is beneficial in a variety of scenarios, such as: a merger/acquisition, close partnership or joint venture, outsourcing, or any other close relationship where there might be a lot of meetings with people from both organisations.
I’ll show you mine if you show me yours
Outlook has the ability for individuals to share their calendar with other individuals, and to request the same access in return.
This is beneficial in short-term scenarios where you want to meet with someone as it gives you the ability to share for a date range, or just keep the sharing open.
In my case I have used this in scenarios where some of the partners I work with want to book me for workshops with their customers. By sharing my calendar with them, they are able to see when I am available as well as others in their organisation at the same time – while on the phone with the customer. To the partner, I appear as one of their own people.
Unlike Exchange calendar federation, sharing calendars is performed on an individual level which means that only the sharer’s calendar is accessible – not anyone else in the organisation.
Share your calendar with the world
Well, not entirely – but you can publish your calendar so anyone with the link can access it at any time. This is useful for users who are often dealing with people outside of their organisation on a regular basis. As an independent consultant this is important for me as 100% of the people I deal with are external. When you publish your calendar, Exchange generates a HTML page that you can link to directly. In my case I put this link in my signature and invited people to click it if they wanted to book a meeting with me. This cut down the amount of calls and emails I received with people asking when I was available, as I’d simply direct them to that link which allowed them to see a live version of my calendar at any time.
Just book it!
Recently made available in Office 365 is the Bookings service which publishes your calendar but offers significantly more features and controls. Having switched to this method myself recently, I wrote a piece recently explaining why you would use it and how it works.
This is generally aimed at cutting to the chase and booking people who are effectively resources or part of a team. This works well for me individually, as it also means my meetings have a purpose. Instead of people simply booking a meeting with me they can choose what type of meeting it is, and I can build some business rules around that. This cuts down the back and forth over meetings a bit further.
Let’s take a vote
FindTime originally began as a Microsoft Garage project (ie. where people hack together cool ideas that may or may not come to life). Effectively this allows you to create a meeting poll with any number of people, both internal and external. For internal folks, FindTime shows you their availability so you can find slots where you know that they are available. The meeting initiator nominates a bunch of days and times and sends out a meeting poll to all the recipients. When everyone completes voting, a meeting invite is automatically sent based on the first available nominated meeting slot that everyone agreed on. If for some reason you as a voter don’t see a suitable slot, you can nominate additional days/times and the voting begins again. This makes the whole process incredibly quick.
While it was still a Microsoft Garage project and not an official project, over time bits of FindTime found their way into Outlook on the web under the functionality of “find a time” which wasn’t as good. Microsoft then announced that FindTime would be shut down. We the users spoke, the product was saved, and is now full feature component of Office 365.
Rise of the machines
Also, inside of Office 365 is a preview service known as Calendar.help – also branded as Cortana for your calendar. This is not the first AI bot for scheduling, and won’t be the last, but it is included with of Office 365 at no extra cost.
I’ve used Cortana a few times for scheduling and while it’s “ok”, from a usability perspective I found it a bit slow to begin the scheduling conversation. The main issue I have with Cortana is the name – people know it. So, when I CC Cortana and ask it to schedule a meeting, what I’m saying to the other person is that my time is more important than theirs. This made me feel uncomfortable as I try to treat everyone around me equally, and as such I’ve stopped using it.
All that is in Office 365!?
Yep, absolutely. There are a lot of features in Office 365 for scheduling meetings, many of which remain unused as people simply don’t know what they don’t know.
How they stack up against each other
|Product||Scheduling Assistant||Calendar sharing||Calendar publishing||Bookings||FindTime||Cortana|
|Scenario||You want to send a meeting invite to one or more people||You want specific external people to be able to send you a meeting invite||You want any external person to be able to send you a meeting invite||You want clients to book meetings with you, but want to specify meeting types, conditions and rules||You want to schedule a meeting with multiple external (and maybe internal) people, often across multiple timezones||You don’t want to talk to the person you are organising a meeting with, until the meeting is booked|
|Audience||Anyone inside the organisation, or externals who have shared their calendar with you||External people who also use Outlook and need to see your availability||External/anonymous people who need to see your availability and don’t necessarily use Outlook||Clients who need to book specific meeting types||Internal and external people who can’t necessarily see each others calendars||External people|
|Where to you find it||Inside Outlook||Inside Outlook||Inside Outlook||Separate app||Outlook add-in|
|Pros||Visibility of people’s calendars||People outside your organisation can see your calendar||Not dependant on targeted sharing||Separate web interface, set business rules, create groups of people, define meeting types and durations||Vote on multiple meeting options||Defer meeting scheduling to an “assistant”|
|Cons||None||None||Anyone with the link can see your availability||Calendar appointments go through the Bookings service, so any changes in your calendar are not reflected in Bookings or the person who booked the meeting||People’s availability can change while voting is occurring||Impersonal, no visibility of the process|
For the sake of those who like visual representations, here’s a pinwheel for you:
What’s else is out there?
Outside of Office 365 we have similar solutions that in some instances go a step further.
Competing against Bookings we have services like Calendly.com and others which cost extra and have their own benefits.
Competing against Cortana/calendar.help we have services like x.ai and other AI-based scheduling services which also cost extra and have their own benefits.
Looking further at x.ai
One thing x.ai does well is makes the bot appear more human with the names of Amy Ingram and Andrew Ingram. It can also be set up to use your corporate domain (ie. email@example.com) unlike Cortana which only uses firstname.lastname@example.org and gives away the fact that it’s a bot.
If you have regular meeting places for coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner or the office – these can be defined as locations so when you say “Amy book a breakfast meeting with John at 8am” it will send a meeting invite with the address details.
One annoyance of x.ai is that at this point it doesn’t integrate with Skype for Business but does with Skype and other service that support static meeting URLs (ie. Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc.). This is where Cortana has an advantage in that you can request the meeting to be via Skype for Business and it will send a meeting invite with the relevant conference details.
A very small benefit of x.ai is that it recognises when you are scheduling a meeting with another x.ai user who is in a different time zone, so if your preference is only to meet between 8:30am to 5:30pm but the other person is in a different time zone where the business hours don’t cross over with yours – it will tell you straight away. That being said you can respond back and ask x.ai to stretch to meet the time specified.
A challenge of using x.ai is that as much as it uses natural language to communicate as best as possible (ie. you can talk to it like you would a real human assistant), it is still a bot that requires parameters to do its job. So, if you already deal with bots in your personal life such as Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, or even Cortana (on Windows 10 and as a mobile app on Android and iOS, or the Invoke speaker) – this is another one to learn how to communicate with.
Which calendar helper to use when?
At the end of the day it comes down to personal choice and requirements, as well as knowing your audience.
If you were dealing with a prospective client, you would not be doing yourself any favours by deferring them to a bot, polling tool, or web page where they can find a free slot themselves. In that instance you’d get them on the phone and treat them with the attention and importance they deserve.
How I use them
I use the Scheduling Assistant when bookings meetings with anyone who has shared their calendar with me (ie. partners or clients I work with regularly).
Similarly, I share my calendar with partners and clients who regularly engage me and need to book me for meetings or workshops – so they don’t have to ask me when I’m free, they can just send meeting invites to me directly.
In my email signature I have a link to my Microsoft Bookings page to make it easier for anyone I email to schedule me in for a meetings, chats, or workshops. Previously I had a link to my web-based published calendar however have switched recently to Bookings, and I may end up switching back.
I generally only use FindTime when scheduling meetings with people from multiple organisations and/or in different time zones.
I personally found the bot approach unprofessional and am starting to think similar of Bookings – but this is subjective as others would be fine with them.
My recommendation would be to try each one for a bit and see what works for you and in what scenario.