Getting past the gatekeeper

by Dave Gallagher
In the business world, the gatekeeper is usually looked upon with disdain by salespeople.
The gatekeeper’s job is to make sure only certain calls go through to the boss. For those who are making a cold sales call to that company, they are definitely not on the list of people who can get an audience with the decision-maker, no matter how great their pitch or idea.
“Yes, it can be a frustrating experience to not be able to get in touch with someone, but it is the gatekeeper’s job to protect their boss from being hassled,” said Benita Bowen, marketing director at Parker Corporate Services.

According to Graham Twist, the best way to get around the gatekeeper when on a sales call is to develop a reputation of openness and honesty — and not to try and circumvent the gatekeeper’s role.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to figure out a way to get around the gatekeeper. The caller might pretend to be an old friend of the boss, asking for them by their first name. Or the caller might lie and say they are returning a phone call from the boss. These kinds of tactics might work against the less-experienced gatekeepers, but in the long run they don’t result in more sales,
said Graham Twist, a customer service representative at Action Cleaning Services, a division of Parker Corporate Services.
“In today’s business climate, the best way to go is to be honest and upfront about who you are and why you are calling,” Twist said. “Asking for the boss by their first name to try and get past the gatekeeper used to work, but most people are wise to that. Also, if you do get past the gatekeeper, you are now talking to the boss who is upset a sales call got to him or her. It’s not a good tactic.”
The upfront, honest approach has worked well for Twist. When he joined the company about a year ago, Action Cleaning Services was a small division of Parker Corporate. Recently the janitorial service company was awarded a contract with Ferndale’s Alcoa Intalco Works, has 25 employees and is now approaching $1 million in annual sales.
“I’ve learned that especially in the janitorial-services business, high-pressure tactics don’t work well,” Twist said. “We offer a service that every business needs, and the question is whether they prefer to do the work themselves or are willing to hire someone to do it. My job is to let them know what services we offer and let them decide.”
To gain an audience with the company boss about a sales pitch, Bowen and Twist agree that playing by the rules and staying persistent is the best strategy.
“It starts with respecting the role of the gatekeeper, and working with them. By being rude, you will immediately have a strike against you if you actually get a chance to meet the boss,” Bowen said.
Twist agreed, saying he’s surprised at how often sales people mistreat the gatekeeper.
“There is really no reason to be rude to someone doing their job, and for me, the gatekeeper has proven to be valuable in helping land a sale,” Twist said. “You really don’t know what kind of relationship the gatekeeper has with the boss, whether it’s a relative or a close friend. Either way, if you are rude to that person, there’s a good chance they will tell their boss about it.”

Give them what they need
Before joining Parker Corporate Services, Bowen was a franchisee for several Port of Subs shops in Bellingham, and would make cold sales calls by phone to create relationships with other businesses.
One day she noticed Hesselgrave International Charters was offering bus trips to Seattle Mariner baseball games, and called their office to see if she could set up a contract where her sandwiches would be
offered on those trips.
“I presented it as something that I was offering that their business could greatly benefit from,” Bowen said. “What was important to me was establishing the relationship with the company, to show that I could be of use to them.”
Plus, it didn’t hurt that she sweetened the deal by telling the gatekeeper that she always brings chocolate to these meetings.
“Bringing chocolate for the staff is always a big hit,” Bowen said.
Bowen said what helped her with cold calls was being armed with information about the company ahead of time. She’d do some research and read business stories to see if there were changes happening to the company that might present an opportunity for her.
“The more I knew about a company, the better chance I had at finding a way to offer something that would benefit them,” Bowen said.
If blocked by a gatekeeper, Bowen said she would find out when it would be a good time to call back or offer to send them information.
“I’m amazed at how few salespeople actually followup on a call or send a packet of information,” Bowen said. “People were actually impressed that I did followup.”
Voice mail can be an even more difficult gatekeeper than an actual employee. A common problem for a salesperson is when they have to leave messages on voice mail which often go unreturned.
For Twist, he tries not to spend much time filling up voice mail boxes.
“I may try to call at different times of the day to see if the person is taking calls or just letting everything go to voice mail,” Twist said. “After two or three calls over a period of a few days, I’ll
mail them information about why I’m calling. If I still don’t hear from them, I’ll put that file on the shelf for a few months before I even decide whether to try them again.
“It’s the kind of balance that salespeople need. What I don’t want is them getting upset when they hear my name because I’ve been bothering them with all these messages.”
Other tips for getting around the gatekeeper without burning your bridges:
* If a sales person is trying to reach a business owner directly, what sometimes works is calling the company early in the morning or at the end of the day. Business owners tend to be the first person at the office and the last to leave.
* Plan ahead of time what you’re going to say. A sales person will have a limited amount of time, so make sure the most important part of your call is communicated early.
* Give the companies you’ll be calling some advanced notice by mailing some information. Call a couple of days after they have received it, so they can recall seeing it.
* Practice by doing. “Books and videos won’t help as much as actually making the cold calls and gaining that experience about what works and what doesn’t,” Twist said.
* Don’t waste time calling everyone in the phone book. Figure out who might be most ready to buy what you are selling and target them.

The bottom line
Twist said the most important lesson when it comes to cold-calling and getting to the right person is to treat whoever answers the phone as if they were a client.
“Being polite and showing empathy is what will make you stand out among all the phone calls that company is getting,” Twist said. “At the end of the day, we’re all people who just want to be treated well.”


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