3 strategies for getting past gatekeepers
How often do you reach a decision-maker on the first call? It’s rare, I know. Most of the time, you connect with an executive assistant, office administrator, or intern. They’re the gatekeepers, the first obstacle between you and the close.
They ultimately decide whether you’ll pitch your product or service to anyone else in the company. It's no surprise that the relationship between these people and sales reps has always been difficult: they don't have the authority to make a buying decision, but they do have the authority to stop you from making a sale.
So how can you incentivize gatekeepers to connect you with decision-makers?
Stop calling them gatekeepers
Seriously. Let’s all agree to kill this term.
We’re talking about human beings. They’re operations professionals and they deserve our respect, especially if we want them to champion our products and services.
When we think of them as roadblocks, we miss the point entirely.
Yes, one of their main responsibilities is to keep distance between salespeople and decision-makers, but they’re also valuable sources of information.
Don’t worry about getting past the gatekeeper
Instead, ask yourself: How can I get this person to buy into my vision?
These 3 strategies should help you answer that question.
1. Provide value
Plenty of sales trainers warn that you shouldn’t sell to gatekeepers, that you should instead build rapport with them through small talk and charming conversations—but that’s bullshit.
These people may not make the decisions, but they’re absolutely stakeholders in this process. If you think you just gotta sweet-talk them out of the way so they pass you on, you'll more often than not achieve the exact opposite: be perceived as another sales rep whom they're supposed to shield the decision maker from.
Empathy is such an important skill in sales. You need a hard-nosed attitude that produces results, but you also need a fine-tuned emotional antenna.
When you cold call them and start your pitch or ask to speak to their boss, they’re already weighing the pros and cons. What’s the upside to linking you with a decision-maker? Is this worth interrupting someone else’s busy schedule? Will this get me a raise? Will it get me fired?
Your first objective is to minimize the perceived risk.
All you need is fifteen minutes. You want to talk about a product that could help their business. You’re calling to solve a problem.
If the situation calls for it, turn things around: let them know that it’s risky NOT to let you speak with a decision-maker. They need to buy your product because the competition already recognizes its value. They can’t afford to pass on this opportunity.
As you craft your pitch, consider these questions:
- What’s the risk?
- What’s the reward?
- Which problems can you solve?
- What are their individual goals?
- How can you support them in achieving these goals?
Like any multi-stakeholder sales process, you need to figure out how to satisfy the wants and needs of each person involved in this purchase.
2. Build trust
To build trust, just be honest and straightforward.
Consider the 3 levels of customer needs: company, department, and individual.
You can build trust by addressing any or all of these needs. The company can save money. A department can streamline workflows. An office administrator can get promoted after recommending you to a decision-maker.
Do everything you can to bridge the gap between doubt and trust.
Use testimonials to demonstrate that you deliver on your promises. Discuss the other businesses you’ve helped and why you helped them. Share a story about your days as an intern. Let them know you’ve been where they are, and you understand the responsibility that comes with such a position.
If you can’t establish trust, if they don’t believe you’re acting with their best interests in mind, if you don’t form a connection, there’s little chance that they’ll ever champion your product or service.
3. Manage objections
Identify common sales objections you encounter at this stage. What are they concerned about? What scares them? What gets in the way of a close?
Your concise and thoughtful responses to these questions will help to provide additional value and build trust.
Here are a few objections you’ll likely hear:
- We don’t have time for this.
- My boss doesn’t want to talk with sales reps.
- We’ve tried something like this before, but it didn’t work.
- Just send us some information.
- It’s not a priority right now.
When your list is complete, create an objection management document so that you can deal with pushback more effectively.
Building your cold call script for getting past gatekeepers
You should develop your own script for getting past gatekeepers, but here's some elements that can help you accomplish this:
Effective phrases in all kinds of conversations with gatekeepers:
- "Maybe you can help me..."
- "I'm wondering who can help me with..."
- "I'm not really sure who the right person..."
- "Could I ask you real quick..."
Asking for help in sales conversations is one of my favorite sales techniques, and it works with gatekeepers too.
Leverage other people in the company that you've spoken to or know of:
- "I spoke with Michael James in legal, and am now trying to reach someone in operations."
- "I plan to meet with Michael James in legal, and before that I'd like to talk with someone in operations."
This immediately will lower resistance to passing you on to the decision maker. Note the phrasing in the second sentence: "I plan to meet with...". You could use this even if you've never even interacted with the person you reference. Now you should obviously only use this if you actually do have plans to speak with them, and you should not misuse this technique. Remember that if everything goes well at some point you'll be talking with a decision maker, and if they then get the impression that you've been deceptive with the gatekeeper, it'll quickly erode any trust.
Reference a project:
- "I'm calling to talk with her about the rebranding project."
- "I'm calling to discuss the improvement of analytics and attribution data."
- "I am calling to talk with her about the current project to improve team productivity."
If you know about a specific project that's going on in the company and it relates to what you offer, that's a great opening you should leverage. If you're targeted in your outreach, you might already have this information.
If not, you can resort to more general language like "improve team productivity", "increase customer retention", "boost referrals", "reduce turnover", etc, as long as it relates to your offering and you have reason to believe it's relevant to their company.
If the gatekeeper rejects you and says: "We're not interested" here are a few options to handle this:
- "I'm actually not calling to sell anything. I just have a few questions that I hope Michael James could help with, does he have a few minutes?"
- "I understand this doesn't sound interesting to you, and quite frankly, at this point, I'd be surprised if it would. I just called because we helped [mention a similar business to theirs] with [mention what you helped them with, and that you believe to be relevant to them]. Can I send you some information about this, and we take it from there?"
- “How about this: I’ll send you my contact information in case you ever do need anything, and then I’ll get out of your hair. By the way, would you be the best person to email this to or someone else?"
Successful salespeople ♥ gatekeepers operations professionals
My advice is pretty simple: don’t treat executive assistants, office administrators, and interns like nuisances. Don’t call them gatekeepers.
Once they buy into your vision—after you’ve provided value, built trust, and managed their objections—they’re much more likely to pass you along to the people with purchasing power, the decision-makers.
Never let an objection stall a deal again. Learn how to handle any objection with the objection management template.
Prefer to listen? Check out this video where I explain how to build value with operations professionals in order to reach the decision maker.
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