"The Navigator" News Blog

When the Gatekeeper Lives

I’ve said for years that the ancient sales art of ‘schmoozing the gatekeeper’ is dead.  D-E-A-D, as in doornail.  And yet, I had a conversation the other day that reminded me that it is not, and that sometimes, salespeople do have to know about gatekeepers.

Before I dive into that conversation, I want to remind you that, for the most part, today’s gatekeeper is technological, not personal.  The “gatekeeper” is the dial-by-name directory, it’s voice mail, it’s a million other ways that people have invented in order to keep from reaching over, picking up a telephone, and answering it.  With that in mind, every now and then, there is a gatekeeper, and what follows is one such tale.

She recounted the conversation thusly:

Salesperson:  Hello, may I speak to Jim?

Gatekeeper:  Is Jim expecting your call?

SP:  No, but it’s an important matter that Jim will want to talk about.

GK (she noted that it’s a small office, and Jim was standing right there, shaking his head): Jim’s not available at the moment, can I take a message?

Let me interject something here.  It rarely happens these days that the person who answers the phone (usually a receptionist but not in the case of my story) offers to personally take a message for you, instead of send it to voice mail.  When someone offers to take a message, you leave a message.  Human involvement in this process is always better than anonymous technology.  That said, the conversation went on:

SP:  I’d really rather leave a voice mail.  Could you put me through, please?

GK:  I’d be happy to personally take a message and get it to Jim.  Can you tell me what this is regarding?

Interjecting again.  At this point, the jig is up.  If the gatekeeper didn’t already know that this was a cold call from a salesperson (unlikely), she knows it now.  The only real solution is honesty.  The worst thing you can do is become rude or demanding – but yet, that’s what the salesperson did.

SP:  Look, I’d just like to leave a voice mail.  Can you please put me through?

GK:  I’ll take a message.

(CLICK) the call ends here.

Here’s the funny part.  The salesperson blew an opportunity.  The gatekeeper is a friend of mine and doesn’t hate salespeople at all; in fact, she always gets messages to the decision makers, and if they’re nice to her, she says so – and those people usually at least get a phone audience with their target contact, if not an appointment.  This guy will not.

So what happened?  I think several things made this call go badly.

First, the salesperson obviously wasn’t mentally equipped to deal with a live message taker.  Voice mail, hard as it is to believe, has conditioned some people to think that dealing with a live human is somehow wrong.

Second, he believed too much in the power of whatever he’d say on a voice mail.  Here’s a hint:  The best voice mail messages get a response about 10% of the time.  Best case scenario.  Your voice mail message isn’t magic.

Third, he never learned that anyone in the building can block him from a sale; hence, we treat everyone with the courtesy that we do the decision maker.

How could this call have gone differently?  Had he handled it differently, I think it would have gone something like this:

Salesperson:  Hi, could I speak to Jim, please?

Gatekeeper:  Is Jim expecting your call?  (This, by the way, is the moment where the jig is really up.  How you react to this question will determine your chances of getting to your prospect.)

SP:  I didn’t catch your name?

GK:  It’s Mary.

SP:  To be honest, Mary, no, he’s not expecting my call. My name is Troy, and I’m with (Company X).  You’ve probably guessed that I’m a salesman doing a cold call, and you’re right.  But, I really do have something that will help Jim (insert strong benefit/win statement here), and I think he’d at least like to know about it.  It’s helped other companies like yours. So, I’m calling to see if I can get just a little bit of his time.

Mary:  Well, if you leave a message with me, I’ll make sure that he gets it.

Troy:  No problem.  Could I give you one sentence to write down verbatim, and then I’ll give you my contact information?

Mary:  Sure, that would be fine.

Troy:  (Gives strong benefit statement, then contact info).

Mary:  I’ll be sure that he gets it.

Troy:  Thanks, Mary.  If I don’t hear back, can I call you again in a few days?

Mary:  That would be fine.


You may be sitting there thinking this is a fantasy-world call, and maybe you’re right.  But, in this case, had the salesperson been polite and respectful, this is EXACTLY how that call would have gone!  Further, the gatekeeper would have suggested that Jim return the call.  Granted, this doesn’t happen all the time, but when there is a live gatekeeper, it’s not difficult.

  1. Know when the jig is up; i.e. when you’ve been spotted as a salesperson. It’s almost always quicker than you think.
  2. Get the gatekeeper’s name.
  3. Treat the gatekeeper with respect and as a person who can make decision, because he/she can. Maybe not FOR you, but definitely AGAINST you. Make sure that the gatekeeper at least stays neutral.
  4. Don’t be fake. They can spot phoniness a mile away and will block you.
  5. Just sincerely articulate your pitch and why you will help. Then make sure you follow up.