» XGetting past the gatekeeper: 2 strategies that work

XGetting past the gatekeeper: 2 strategies that work

February 5, 2010 by Ken Dooley
Posted in: communication, In this week's e-newsletter - Sales & Marketing, Latest News & Views - Sales & Marketing, sales management, Sales meeting ideas, training

The best sales techniques are useless if your people can’t get through to the decision maker. Today’s buyers are busier than ever, raising the importance of the gatekeepers who stand in the way of the prospect and the sale.

Here are two key strategies to getting past the gatekeeper and creating more opportunities to close sales:

1. Get the gatekeeper to work for you

When picking up the phone or heading to a prospect’s facility, try to keep these four things in mind:

  • The gatekeeper has an important job and wants to be treated with respect. Taking a moment to warm up to gatekeepers can avoid dead end screening questions, such as “What is this in reference to?”
  • The best salespeople understand the value of taking time to get to know gatekeepers — and their investment often pays off. The goal should be to stand out from the crowd and have the gatekeeper remember you in the end. Then, when you call again, the gatekeeper will begin to work for you, not against you.
  • Salespeople need to inspire the gatekeeper to “recommend” them to the decision maker.
  • In the event the gatekeeper will not “recommend” you, it may be time to consider calling back at a time you suspect the gatekeeper isn’t on duty. Doing this may potentially damage your ability to work with this gatekeeper in the future. But if the sale isn’t moving along, it’s a risk worth taking. These attempts are best made early in the day, at lunchtime or late in the afternoon.

Training tip: Ask team members to give examples of how they’ve broken through to the gatekeeper. What steps did they take when they couldn’t get past the gatekeeper?

2. Prepare responses to tough screening questions

Even the most effective salespeople encounter tough screening questions. The key is to have a stash of confident responses that’ll differentiate you from all the other companies that come calling.

Here are three examples of typical questions and the best ways to respond to them:

  • Question: “What is this in reference to?” Answer: “Our service has been driving productivity gains for companies around the country. In fact, ___ has been using it for the last six months.  I thought Mr. Smith would be interested in hearing about this exiting new breakthrough!”
  • Question: “What is this in regards to?” Answer: “Donna, I was speaking to Mr. Phillips in your distribution center about a problem he was experiencing. We were able to improve the same type of situation at ___, and Mr. Phillips told me that Mr. Smith would want to know about this important advancement.”
  • Question: “Is Mr. Smith expecting your call?” Answer: “It sounds like you work closely with Mr. Smith.  We have recently discovered a method that is helping companies like yours recoup thousands of dollars in lost revenue.  I can outline it for you, if you’d like. I’m going to send over the specs for Mr. Smith. Is his email address still ___?”

Your tone of voice when responding to questions will make or break your ability to get through to the true decision maker.

The key: treating the gatekeeper like a true professional in the field.

A common mistake: attempting to bully past the gatekeeper. Using a condescending or hesitant tone with the gatekeeper invites more screening questions, a hang up or a refusal to allow a meeting with the decision maker.

Training tip: Ask your team members how they control their tone. What responses do they have prepared to deal with tough screening questions?

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  • Heather

    I am a gatekeeper and I find your article offensive. Do you really think we are all that stupid? That flattery will “butter us up” so you can slide by? Not at my company darling! If you call and ask for an individual, we will generally annouce the call, but if they don’e want to talk to you it’s the voice mail box. If you show up at our door without an appointment, forget it. I’ll take your card and that’s it. Oh and don’t go back out into the parking lot and try to call in to speak with whomever to make an appointment, You won’t even get voicemail.

  • Ken

    Although I’m on the opposite end of the gatekeeper in sales at a service provider, I find the advice of calling when the gatekeeper isn’t in careless and wreckless from a business standpoint. If the gatekeeper is a “true” gatekeeper in that they control the contracting and outsourcing, that would be plain stupid.

    I have to agree with Heather above……if you offend the gatekeeper and overstep, it’s likely that gatekeeper will never send you opportunities in the future if you make their job more difficult.

    I have found the most success in simply discussing openly with gatekeepers what liberties that I may and they prefer that I take or not take. Open, honest, communication should be the best policy and is most effective for me.

  • Giuseppe

    Interesting. I went to the Corporate headquarters of an extremely large National Corporation. I politely approached the receptionist in the lobby and after telling her that I realized I would not be advancing up from the lobby without an appointment she did provide me with the name and contact info for the decision maker in the department I hoped to approach. I went outside – placed a call and after making a few compelling selling points I was given an appointment for the following week which resulted in a successful first meeting.

  • Kathy

    I am not a gatekeeper. In fact, as a salesperson, I am among the target group for this article-and believe me, we are always looking for effective ways to gain access to the decision makers for the products we sell. That said – I, too, was offended by the strategies recommended in this article. While it is never pleasant to get shut out by an efficient ‘gatekeeper’, I feel that offering sincere and honest responses to whatever qualifying questions they may ask is always the most effective way to ultimately get the opportunity to speak with my prospect. Failing that, rather than attempting to schmooze my way through – I have had a fair amount of success in gaining access by simply asking him/her the best way to get my information into the correct hands. I second Heather’s comments … from the other end of the phone.

  • David M. Delgado

    Hi Heather

    I agree that “buttering up” and false flattery is counter productive. The bigger picture that I derived from the article is to treat everyone with courtesy and respect. I am a firm believer that people won’t necessarily remember what you said or what you may have done. What they will remember, however, is how you made them feel. That, in and of itself, may be worth its weight in gold, or, conversely, in copper.

  • Bob Pope

    Heather, 1) you apparently don’t understand the real purpose of your job, 2) you could be costing your company a lot of money. My company is a leader in the field of compressed air systems, and our energy auditing capability has save hundreds of companys millions of dollars in electricity costs. Reduced utility costs translate directly to the bottom line with no increase in sales required. Do you feel you are the one to make decisions about whether your company should enjoy an increase in the bottom line? I hope someone in your company realizes what you are doing.

  • Ron La Vine

    Politeness and respect have always worked well for me and my students.

    I personally also stand out by asking the gatekeeper a genuine “How are you today?” This sets apart from the rest of the reps who treat gatekeepers as machines and not human beings.

    It also helps to have a referral from the office above to the office below. This warms up the call.

    Hope this helps,


  • Heather

    Giuseppe, I think the key her is that you went to a lerge company. In some of those cases, the person answering the phone is not necessarily the person who turned you away at the door. Our company is a small one, we have one purcahsing agent and the “no one gets ins without and appointment” routine is company policy. AND the person answerniog the phone is usually the same person who is at the door so we know if youre trying to pull a fast one and circumvent the job we were hired to do. We are also in a business park in a small city in a small state and we get every traveling salesperson trying to spins a yarn come through our door.

  • Heather

    To Bob Pope, I know my job quite well thank you. My company has policies in place and I assure that they are followed. If you are genuine and polite often a good remark will accompany your materials when
    I hand them to the purchasing agent. Gatekeepers are real people with brains and a job to be done just like salespeople and in my company those two goals often clash. If you don’t respect the job I have to do it indicates that you don’t respect my companies policies or that you think you a re above them. That is never a good image to present.

  • Gregg

    Another approach I have thought about is the fact that every business gets solicited even sales companies… So interview your own “gatekeeper” and see what they have to say…

  • Ken Dooley

    I’m sorry that Heather and Kathy found the article on gatekeepers offensive. The major thrust of the article was to treat all gatekeepers with respect and courtesy. Most of them have the respect of the executives they are guarding, and they can be helpful in getting appointments and closing sales. There are gatekeepers who carry the job to extremes. I dealt with some of them during my sales career. If a salesperson is being prevented from even talking to a decision-maker, I think other strategies must be employed. Again, I did not intend to demean or insult gatekeepers who play such a critical role in the sales process.
    Ken Dooley

  • Ember

    I am a seasoned salesperson but I am just now ina position where I have to speak with “gatekeepers”. I approach it as though they are the person I need to speak to. I introduce myself and give them a breif introduction to our company. At that point, I ask them…”What is the best way to handle this in your office?” They at that point either give me the proper contact name or ask if that person if they have a minute to talk to me. I think we need to build relationships over time. Treat them as we would like to be treated. I statred as a receptionist when I was younger and I never had “good opinions” of the people that treated me harshly. If they were polite, I made sure the decision maker was aware! I also don’t believe that Ken’s intention for this article was meant to be offensive. i think her was simply stating that “gatekeepers” are just as important as the decision maker as is the sales person.

  • Blanca

    Heather if you know your job so well, then why is it you don’t know how to use spell check? In two of your entries you clearly mistaken a few words with typing errors. I think you have issues, perhaps its because of your title? If you want to have power perhaps a trip back to school may help you.

  • Heather

    Blanca, that was just plain mean.

  • Rachel

    Wow Blanca! God forbid someone hit the wrong key? And you might want to try some grammar check on that second sentence as it makes no sense. Just because they are a gatekeeper by no means does that mean they’re stupid or lack an education, especially in the economy as it is now, where you take what you can get!

    Having been on both ends of the spectrum (and still to this day occasionally playing gatekeeper if ours is out for the day), I can tell you the 2nd part of this article is just atrocious. If you use those lines on me, you’ll get halfway through before I put you in voicemail.

    And Bob way to throw out your sales pitch. I recommend revising it. Gatekeepers a lot of times DO know what’s best for the business and also knows the way it operates. Maybe they can only take bids, or have certain government contracts that you don’t fit into. Maybe It’s a small business who already gets a hookup from trading services with another company. Don’t assume that every business works the way you do or the way that you want them to. Easy as that.

  • Lydia

    I have been the gatekeeper, and am now the purchasing agent for the same company. We also currently share phone (and thus, gatekeeping) duties, so I’m also the purchasing agent who plays gatekeeper. Thus, I DO have the power to make decisions about the people who call or come in. It’s interesting to see the difference in how these sales people treat me when they think I’m “just the receptionist” versus being someone with decision making power. It’s also sad.

    The number one reason you will NOT get through is speaking with a negative tone. Negative tones entail being condescending, lying (i.e. saying you’re returning so-and-so’s call), or refusing to do as you’re instructed. If I tell you to send someone an email, fax or information by mail, AGREE TO IT. Show appreciation for my time. Remember, the gatekeeper does indeed often have an influence on the decision makers, and sometimes IS the decision maker.

    Bob…you’re exactly the kind of person our company does not want to do business with. You’re condescending, rude, and have the air of entitlement. Good luck with that.


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