Like most people I've spoken with in the industry, I didn't set out to work in sales.
My five-year-old self was pretty keen to drive a tractor.
My 18-year-old self wanted to be a psychiatrist and my 23-year-old self had no idea what to do...
On the other side of the fence, I don't think anyone goes through life wanting to be a gatekeeper. They may have had aspirations to become a PA or office manager, or something else, but it's unlikely that interrupting salespeople was ever on their bucket list.
Salespeople and gatekeepers spend a great deal of time talking with each other, and we're both here to get a job done, yet it's rare that our interactions are anything other than frustrating for both parties.
Every time you've cursed that gatekeeper who 'won’t put me through', there's a person somewhere chiding 'that annoying salesperson' again.
As arch-nemeses go, the dynamic is strong. But like any great story in which bitter rivals become allies, you're going to have to put that rivalry aside if you want to get through to more prospects and improve your sales performance.
Leaning on my experience of having done exactly that over the years, here are my 13 top tips for embracing the gatekeeper and connecting to more potential customers.
13 tips to win over the gatekeeper and connect to more prospects
1. Understand their world
As a salesperson, you need to develop an understanding of the gatekeeper and, dare I say it, show a little empathy. How does that person feel? What's important to them?
You do this every single day when researching and trying to better understand your target prospects, so taking the same approach with the people standing between you and those prospects shouldn't be new to you. Walk a mile in their shoes.
Imagine you have a scary boss, the sort that stamps and shouts and throws their weight about, the sort of arrogant character that will jump down your throat if you put a ready-to-pitch junior salesperson through to waste their precious time.
Then imagine you spend a large quantity of your day having various people ringing up and speaking down to you, or lying to get past you. Answering the phone is part of your job but you probably do plenty of other things you take pride in.
It’s not their first rodeo — they’ve done it before. Every new, exciting and clever trick you use to get past the gatekeeper might be new to you, but they speak to hundreds of salespeople every single week. They’ve been fooled into putting the wrong person through before, been shouted at, and they aren’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Suddenly, the genuine approach is looking a lot more effective. (See the point two below.)
TASK: If you want to understand how it feels to be the gatekeeper, spend a day answering the main phone line in your office. Take every incoming sales call and see how you feel after six hours of Nervous Nick, Arrogant Anne, Pitching Paul, and Lying Leanne wasting your time trying to 'get past you'.
2. Be different by being better
Despite what some people will tell you, there's no magic formula. Being different from the 48 other salespeople trying to get through is the key.
The thought pattern of the gatekeeper is usually along the lines of: ask why they're calling — listen to the pitch — say Bob is busy — get rid of the salesperson.
You have to make it easy for them to put you through! Show them that what you want to talk about is likely to be of value to the person you want to speak with. You have to be different from the last 20 calls they've taken.
TRY: Showing some knowledge, evidence of research or a connection with Bob. Clearly state the value (to Bob) of having the conversation and make it obvious you aren’t calling to give him a sales pitch. That might sound like this:
'I know Bob has been actively researching solutions to XYZ problem — this is something we help him with. I actually don’t know if Bob is a fit for what we do so I’d like to ask a couple of questions and see if I can offer some specific advice?'
'Bob and I are connected on LinkedIn and he downloaded our ebook on XYZ, often that’s a sign that people are trying to find the best way to do X. I wanted to ask him some very specific questions to see whether or not I can point him in the right direction.'
If you’re obviously nervous, you're not going to be sending out a positive message. It's also a strong indicator of inexperience. Would you put that person through to your boss? I know I wouldn't.
What about the confident, patient, measured caller who sounds senior and might be a call your boss needs to take?
TRY: If you struggle with confidence, fake it! Stand up, shoulders back, head up, breathe deeply. It will come through in your voice.
Just like confidence, the tension comes through in your voice. Nine times out of ten, the tension in a sales call is your tension, not theirs. Why would the other person be tense about answering the phone for the 21st time that day?
5. Rein in the excitement
Someone told you to be excited and passionate when you're selling. But you aren’t selling to the gatekeeper. The moment you sound excited, they know that you're a salesperson. Be calm, measured and professional.
6. Less is more
The confident senior sounding person doesn't start pitching or rambling or coming out with overly flowery sentences:
'I'm sorry to trouble you, but would you mind awfully if you put me through to Bob Matthews, I'd really be awfully happy if you could, would that be ok?'
Lose the Hugh Grant impression and try confidently saying "Bob Matthews, please" and leave it at that.
7. On the subject of pitching...
Don’t! Don’t ever pitch to the gatekeeper (or anyone else, for that matter, before you've earned the right to). You may as well just ask them to hang up and block your number.
Unless you're really good at sounding like someone that needs to be put through, you're going to have to tell them why you're calling. They don’t care about the features of your product and have had 17 sales pitches already that day.
8. Focus on building a relationship
Statistically, you're going to need to call up to eight times to stand a realistic chance of talking to the prospect.
That means you're probably going to talk to the gatekeeper a few times. Build some rapport, treat them like a real person. Ask their name (and use it next time you call!) and ask about their role in the company.
REMEMBER... that the gatekeeper can be a valuable source of information and probably knows plenty about the company and their boss.
9. Make them laugh
This is going to depend on your personality and abilities. It works for me, but that doesn’t mean calling and telling them a joke! If it's right for you, making a gatekeeper laugh can make you more likeable and helps to build rapport. Just make sure to stay professional and keep it appropriate.
10. Be inclusive
No one likes to be treated as an obstacle. Respect the gatekeeper's knowledge and the role that they're fulfilling. Chat with them as though it's a valued part of your day.
If they ask you to email the prospect, tell them you're going to copy them in on the email.
If they ask you to call back later, say something like:
'I will, but you probably know more about XYZ company than anyone else, are there any tips you can give me about Bob? When does he usually take calls?'
'I imagine you know more about Bob’s diary than Bob does, can you give me a hint on a good time to call back?'
11. Don’t be a jerk!
Coming off the back of the 26th conversation with an immovable gatekeeper is tough and frustrating, but that doesn’t mean you should be a jerk about it! Remember they've probably spoken to 26 dreadful salespeople before you.
That thing where your voice trails off into anger and frustration before hanging up — that’s killing your chances of ever getting through again. That arrogant approach to the call, talking down to whoever answers the phone, is going to hurt you in the long run.
12. Ask to be put through to voicemail
Something else you can try is to ask for Bob’s voicemail straight away. It will usually make the gatekeeper pause and ask why…
Tell them you understand that both them and Bob are busy, but you’d rather talk when Bob has some time and headspace. Then ask if Bob listens to voicemails?
13. Practice, practice, practice
This means putting the hours in, but it also means taking an objective approach to your phone manner. In the same way that you should record and listen back to your sales calls, try listening to your conversations with gatekeepers.
What do you sound like - pitch? pace? pause? tone?
How do they react to you?
What did you do well?
What made you cringe?
What will you do more of?
What will you stop doing?
Getting past the gatekeeper: next steps
When it comes to getting past gatekeepers, there's no magic bullet. You could use all the tips and techniques in the world and still come up against a ferocious individual who'll never put you through. Just remember that gatekeepers like this are the exceptions. Most gatekeepers are people, just like you, whose job happens to involve fielding your calls. Just keep working on being different and you’ll see your success rates rocket.
I finally did get to drive a tractor a few years ago, but I broke the gearbox and someone shouted at me, so I’m sticking with sales.
I’d love to know how you get on! If you’d like to submit a recording of one of your gatekeeper interactions, email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give you feedback and tips specific to you. For more advice on improving sales, click the image below to for our free sales ebook.