When I ask sales people what their biggest challenge is in getting to speak directly with decision makers they are targeting, and voice mail or gatekeepers are at the top of the list, (while call reluctance should be right there with the other two, they don’t usually volunteer that fact). We have dealt with voice mail in the past, so today we’ll look at “gatekeepers”.
There are typically two people labeled as gatekeepers, for many sales people it is the receptionist who greets them while they are door knocking; for others like me for example, it is the executive assistant or admin working for the executive I am targeting. This will primarily look at the latter.
As with many things in sales success comes down to attitude and the luggage you carry. So let’s start with the label, gatekeeper: very negative; almost creates an ‘us and them’ atmosphere right from the start. Why not call them what they are, the admin or assistant, which opens the situation rather than limiting them. The good news is that as someone who works directly with the decision maker, they are privy to a lot of information, most importantly the priorities, objectives and current focus of the executive in question.
If you can align your message with those, there is a greater likelihood that the assistant will engage with you, as they recognize the issue as one on the executive “must do” list. Notice I said engage, too much time effort, money and energy has been spent of schemes to “go around”, “evade” or “neutralize”, the “gatekeeper”, as though they were an infectious disease or member of a lower cast. I have seen advice that is not only demeaning to the role, but risky to the success of those who choose to ignore, or blow past the assistant.
This advice takes into account only half the role of the assistant, they are there to help the decision maker do their job easier and better. Yes that includes keeping unimportant callers away from the DM, but it equally includes introducing things they come across that help the DM move forward on an issue. They do both well, it is up to you to engage the right side. Let’s face it they do a good job of keeping interruptions away, better than my son, when I told him to tell a telemarketer that I wasn’t at home, he told the caller “dad says to tell you he is not home”.
If you’ve done your research, engage the admin the same way you would if you had the DM on the line. Speak with authority, speak with respect, and speak about specific impacts you have delivered vis-à-vis objectives they have, similar to those your research indicated this DM has. There is no point in playing cat and mouse, because the odds are you’ll end up playing the role of the mouse. Speak to the admin the way you would to anyone in the DM’s inner circle.
At the same time keep the focus on speaking with the DM, if the admin feels you “may” add value they will help you, rather than block you. A couple of things to help, always ask for their name, not in an “I’m going to tell your dad on you” tone, but in a way that humanizes the conversation, begins rapport. The reality is that if you have to call back, they will be the one you will speak to; it will make subsequent calls that much easier, you’ll be able to start warm: “Hi Jean, this is Tibor…..” (I guess if you called, you wouldn’t say Tibor).
But because your goal is to speak to the DM, keep focused on that, when answering the admin’s questions always end with your objective, end whatever response by saying “is he/she available”. Even if they ask what’s the call about, answer in a direct way, again the way you would the DM, but end by adding “is he/she in?” As well, if there is no progress, go for voice mail, but again not in a negative “you’re useless way”, but in creating efficiency way.
By speaking to them in an inclusive way you open a number of possibilities. Depending on your style and the person at the other end of the call, you may do this on the first call or a second call if your message does not get a call back. On the second call you can try one of these two approaches. The more effective of the two is to reintroduce yourself using their name reminding them of you call a few days back. Then ask, “Based on what we talked about, who do you think Mr. Smith would involve or delegate this to?” Remember the admin is in the know, and if what you said is on their priority list, this is not a hard question to answer. If the admin responds “he would have Barbara, the VP of Marketing deal with it.” At that point don’t just get Barbara’s extension, ask to be transferred in, the caller id will show the DM, and they will answer if they are in, and it will the DM’s mail box number if you end up in voice mail. When you connect with Barbara, you know where to take things.
The other way you can take that second call is a bit more adventurous, works less often, but still works. Assuming you have maintained rapport with the admin, just say “Jean, it is Tibor again, we spoke Tuesday, how are you? … I am great thank you; you know the only reason I am calling Mr. Brown is to schedule an appointment, do you have access to his calendar?” (Now you know they do) “Great, how is Wednesday at 8:30 am for him?” About 20% of the time I get a tentative appointment, they usually stick, and when they don’t, the admin works with me to find an alternative. Add to that the fact that the admin has the trust of the DM, so if the admin set the appointment, there must be a good reason. These days you have to leverage every available asset and ally, don’t waste an obvious one.
One final consideration, if everything goes the way you plan and you get a sale, how valuable is having that admin on your side helping navigate the landmines and unknowns in the company. That’s why you always want to thank the admin.