By John Tabita

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

By 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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  • Good tip!

  • NomDeGuerre

    Wouldn’t work on me (a “gatekeeper”). In the example given, I would ask you what it was you found, and at least pretend to take your information. If you refused to tell me what you found, I would respond that we’re all set and politely tell you to take a hike.

    • It doesn’t work like that. I’m not going to “refuse to tell you,”—I’ll gladly explain. In fact, I’m going to point out yet one more concern I’ve discovered to reinforce the need for you to refer me up the chain of command.

      It’s not about selling you something you don’t need; it’s about making you aware of a problem you didn’t know existed—and having it concern you enough to want to bring to the decision-maker’s attention. It’s like telling you that your company truck has two flat tires, and you deciding that’s important enough for your boss to know about. Except in my case, it’s your marketing that has two flats tires, which is not so easily fixed. (Hence, your potential need for my services.)

      And actually, if I had walked into your business yesterday, before you read this, there’s a 60 percent chance it would “work on you.” That approach has been tried, tested, and measured by experienced sales reps and found to successfully land an appointment with a decision-maker exactly six out of 10 times. But I’m sure you’re one of the four it wouldn’t work on. ;)

      • Bambi

        You nailed it! Haha Great response!

  • cmb

    I was asked to take over a website – and the first thing I noticed was a bloody great gatekeeper on the website itself. A Flash intro preventing iPads, smartphones and Google et all indexing the site (no sitemap either). Perfect candidate!

    • I suppose a digital gatekeeper is easier to get past than a human one—as long as you have access to the source code.

  • The technique you’ve outlined works great for my business. I am a comedy magician and I do a lot of cold-calling to see if a company or organization would like to book a show for a holiday party, staff meeting, etc. But the gatekeeper often doesn’t think that the boss or HR would be interested in a “magic show”. So I’ve developed a box of tricks (excuse the pun) to get past this person to the decision maker.

    In-person cold-calling is usually easy… I do a simple trick for the gatekeeper, she wants me to show it to the other employees “in back” and suddenly I’m in. The fact that the employees gather around to watch is proof that my service might be of interest to the HR manager.

    But on-the-phone it’s a lot harder. One little bit of phone business I do is to sneeze or yawn just as the gatekeeper finishes saying “XYZ Company, how may I help you?” It catches him or her off guard and they’ll often laugh. I make my apologies, saying something like “Wow only 11am and I’m already yawning,” and suddenly I seem a little more human… not a salesman on autopilot. From there I can try to get to the decision maker and it’s usually much easier.

    One final point: It’s important to get the name of the individual BEFORE anything. Don’t ask “May I speak to the person who does marketing…”, but rather say ” Who does your marketing…” This way, if the person isn’t available or the gatekeeper won’t put your call through, you can call back a few days later and just directly ask for that person, side-stepping the gatekeeper altogether.

    • Clinton,

      Everything you’ve said is spot on. I have a magician friend who taught me a lot about marketing, and he also excels at cold-calling. I suppose it’s because magicians are performers and communicators at heart that makes you more of a natural at selling and marketing yourselves than us web geeks. Thanks for your comments.

  • Great article John.
    I am the “gatekeeper” at my day job, and if more of the unsolicited interruptions used your approach, they would certainly have a much better chance.
    Several of our current vendors were first unsolicited walk-ins. What the successful ones had in common where that they were in person (not over the phone), they were dressed professionally, they where knowledgeable about their product/service, they acted as though they respected my time (or actually did), and they understood that they had to pitch me first as the gatekeeper instead of insisting on “needing” to speak to the owner.

    • Alex,

      Thanks for your reply. I’ll be training two of our sales teams later this month and I’m definitely going to share your insights with them. Much appreciated!

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