What’s a “Gatekeeper” and Why Do I Need to “Get Past” Them?

John Tabita

In my previous article, What Every Freelancer Should Know about Prospecting for New Business, I said that selling is easy but prospecting is hard. And by far, the most intimidating aspect of prospecting is when you have to interrupt a complete stranger and attempt to get him or her to agree to meet with you. But to get to that decision-maker, there’s another, all-powerful entity you must first confront …

The Gatekeeper.

Gatekeepers can’t make marketing decisions, but they can say “no” to those selling it, because it’s their job to protect their boss. That’s why opening with “Hi, I’m from [INSERT COMPANY NAME HERE]. I’m looking for the person who handles your marketing,” is generally a bad idea. If the gatekeeper is empowered to say “no” to sales people, why would you utter a phrase that immediately labels yourself as one?

Encountering resistance is natural part of prospecting, and you won’t get far selling your services if you’re not prepared to respond to it. But you can circumvent it entirely by treating the gatekeeper like he or she is the decision-maker.

Yes, you heard right. You see, in a typical prospecting call, three things must happen. You must:

  1. Get to the decision-maker
  2. Say something interesting
  3. Ask for the appointment

But that three-step process doesn’t have to occur in that order. Suppose you “broke” the pattern like so:

  1. Say something interesting
  2. Get to the decision-maker
  3. Ask for the appointment

But wait a minute, John. Treating the gatekeeper like the decision-maker makes no sense. Didn’t you say the gatekeeper has no authority to say “yes” to marketing or advertising? That’s right, I did.

But they don’t have the authority to say “no” either.

Let me be more specific. They don’t have the authority to say “no” to the end result of what you’re selling. Such as more customers, increased revenue, more effective online presence.

Treating the gatekeeper as the decision-maker disturbs their complacency. You need to put this thought into his or her head: “Perhaps my boss would want to know about this …” or “We laid off five people last month. Maybe we do need to improve sales …”

Working at AT&T, before I stumbled upon this, secretaries and receptionists would tell me, “We don’t advertise in the Yellow Pages.” (I often found out later that they did.) Even if I did manage to get to a decision-maker, the most common response I’d hear was “I’m not interested” or “We’re all set.”

Sales trainers refer to these as “objections” and teach you to “overcome” them. But, in reality, these rebuttals are resistance—you know, that knee-jerk reaction most of us have when we realize we’re being solicited. By acting like the gatekeeper is the decision maker, you can get past that by leveraging the fact that they have no power to say “no” to executive-level decisions that may affect the well-being of the company. Ironically, assuming the gatekeeper has the power to say “yes” actually takes away his or her power to tell you “no.”

This is known as a pattern interrupt. That’s when you interrupt that “knee-jerk” reaction (or pattern) with which gatekeepers are accustomed to responding to sales people. If you keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll keep getting what you’re getting—a “knee-jerk” response:

Hi, I’m from XYZ Web Design. I’m looking for the person who handles your marketing.

Umm, yeah. We’re all set, thanks.

But interrupting the pattern yields radically different results:

I noticed something about your website and I have a concern that you might be losing business to one of your closest competitors, without even knowing it.

Umm, let me get my boss …

Now you try.

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