Getting Past the Gatekeeper

Gatekeepers can block you from speaking to prospects. Learn how to improve your sales prospects in Jim Hingst’s article…

Demon DogSome time ago, a sign maker wrote me that she was having problems getting past the receptionists and secretaries, who prevented her from speaking with her prospects.  Regardless of who you are, your level of industry experience or what you sell, getting past the gatekeeper is one of the most difficult hurdles that any sales person must overcome.

Receptionists and secretaries are often instructed to screen the boss’s calls. Many of these veteran gatekeepers have heard all of the sales approaches. Rarely does a sales person outfox an experienced executive secretary. And if you do outwit one or go around one, she will undoubtedly remember you for a long time. Sales people are even more unsuccessful, when they try to use intimidation to bully their way past a receptionist. In my opinion, being pushing doesn’t work.  Be prepared for the people that you push to push back.

Rather than treating these people as adversaries, try treating them with respect. One technique for dealing with these gatekeepers is to make friends with her (or him). Often these people do not get the respect and credit that they deserve in their place of employment.  Try to make them feel important.  Start by asking for their help: With whom do you need to speak? What is the best way to gain an appointment with this person? When is the most convenient time to call? An open-ended question is often an easy way to get this person talking, and to make her (or him) feel comfortable with you.

Advertising, direct mail, newsletters or a short letter of introduction can help open many doors to key decision makers, who would otherwise be inaccessible. Your marketing efforts should be designed to create a favorable climate in which the prospect is receptive to hearing your sales message. Regularly sending newsletters or direct mail, for example, can help build your name recognition and credibility of your company. It also acquaints the prospect with your product offering and services. By preparing the way with some direct marketing materials, the prospect recognizes your name, and your company, when you call for an appointment.

Your direct mail marketing materials should emphasize the primary benefits, which the prospect will derive from doing business with your company. Your message needs to give the decision maker a reason to give you some of his valuable time to listen to your sales presentation. What do you have of value to offer the prospect? What makes your sales proposal unique and different? What sets you apart from your competition? What are your strengths as a company and how can you leverage them to your advantage?

Before writing your letter of introduction and calling a prospect, you should go through some type of preapproach process in which you collect information about the prospect.  In this intelligence gathering process, you should try to discover the possible reason that the prospect would want to change from whom they are currently doing business. Remember, that if the prospect is content with their current program, you really don’t have an opportunity.

One very successful salesman, always sent a letter to the prospect, prior to calling. If he had noticed a graphics problem, such as edge-lifting of the vinyl, cracking, fading, he would photograph the failure and send the picture along with his letter.  He would merely state that he wanted to call this problem to the prospect’s attention, and would be happy to discuss potential solutions, at the prospect’s convenience.  A few days after sending the letter, he would follow up with his call. Using a letter with photographs was this sales person’s technique for gaining the prospect’s attention and disrupting his homeostasis.

Of course, not everyone, who we target as a prospect for our products, has a life-threatening problem; so, we can’t always save the day with our innovative graphics solutions.  Many of our prospects are perfectly satisfied with their existing graphics programs. In cases such as these, you might consider sending the prospect a photograph of a competitor’s new graphics program.  Nobody likes to be outdone by a rival company, so the picture might generate the prospect’s interest, and give them a reason to want to talk to you.

In many instances, regardless of how hard you try, you must accept the reality that many key decision makers, as a matter of personal practice, just don’t see sales people.  The bigger the company and the more dollars involved in the sale, the more likely it is that a top executive makes the final decision. In cases such as these, you will unlikely have the opportunity to be belly to belly with these top executives. But remember, big sales involve many within an organization, who influence the outcome of a purchasing decision.

In a corporate graphics sale,  the president, advertising manager, marketing manager, architect, fleet manager and purchasing manager could all be involved in the decision making process. A fleet manager is often involved, because it’s his fleet of trucks; he has to schedule the trucks for installation; he’s responsible for the implementation of the program and for maintenance.  A company owner or president is often involved if the dollar amount is significant, because it’s either his money or he’s responsible for the money. The advertising manager or marketing manager is often involved either because the money could come out of their budgets, and/or they are responsible for maintaining corporate image.  Purchasing managers are often involved with established programs.  Frequently, purchasing managers act as gatekeepers to screen out unqualified vendors.

In large companies, many people influence the buying process.  Often decisions in today’s business environment involve a committee of influencers. That’s why it’s important for you to contact as many of the influencers as possible, even if you get through to the person empowered with the final approval. Although the president of a company may like your proposal, others within the organization are capable of killing the deal.  These others are often the ones, who will be responsible for implementing a major graphics program. Often these others prefer to maintain the status quo, because it means less work for them, and less risk if the program turns sour.

The purchasing processes at companies, where I had previously worked, were perfect examples of complex sales in which many influencers determined the outcome of a sale. At one employer, I was involved in the purchasing decisions for printed marketing materials. Typically, I would contact the prospective vendors and evaluate their sales proposals. Any vendor who didn’t pass my evaluation process, usually had his proposal discarded.

Although I qualified the prospective vendors, I consulted many within the company, before I placed an order. Any significant purchase had to pass the approval of my boss. Rarely, did any sales person ever have the opportunity to talk to my boss. Most sales people didn’t even know that my boss was involved in the process.  Usually, the sales person only got to speak to me. That way I was able to shield my boss from any interruption in his busy day. You see I was one of those nasty gatekeepers. In fact, I outright lied to sales people and told them that I made all of the decisions. Most of them were none the wiser. My point in telling you this is that you should be wary of what gatekeepers will tell you.

In those cases, in which you encounter a gatekeeper, who blocks your access to his superiors and is likely to be presenting your ideas, your design and your proposal to others, your best course of action is to provide this person with  a thorough written proposal covering all aspects of your program.  By doing this, you make his presentation much easier. Often it is much safer to use a gatekeeper as an ally to present your case, than to go around the person who is blocking you.  Often the person you go around will find some way, out of pure vindictiveness, to sabotage your sales efforts.

To understand the complexities of the organization that you are approaching, you should find someone who can act as your guide, sponsor or coach.  You can get invaluable advice on the key buying influences within an organization from friends you have made in that company or from other sales people who are currently doing business with your prospect.

If you are selling fleet graphics, you can get valuable information from leasing company sales people.  The leasing people know the right people to contact, as well as who is buying what and when.  I had a sales manager, who encouraged me to start each morning off by taking a leasing sales person out for breakfast or coffee. In many cases, the friends you develop within the industry will gladly recommend you to those who are looking for a dependable, professional graphics company. Your associates can also introduce you to the key people. A  network of contacts can also inform you when changes occur with an account, such as when employees change positions, or when a company buys a new fleet of trucks, or builds new stores.

Years ago I worked with a  sales person, who used the help of an initial contact find his way through the bureaucratic maze of a very large organization. In the past year, only a small amount had been sold to this large account.  During this time, this account was solely serviced by a telemarketer.  The previous field sales rep had never visited the account.

The telemarketer did a good job of making initial contact and taking the orders.  But without visiting the account, there was no way to for this telemarketer to accurately assess the dynamics within the organization.  As far as the telemarketer knew, he was dealing with the primary buyer at one of the  branches. It wasn’t until the field salesman met this primary buyer, that he discovered that he was merely a company representative, who was only buying materials for one of his customers. Furthermore, the company representative informed the salesman that, other than that, he had no authority to buy for his organization.

The company representative was good enough to introduce the salesman to the assistant manager, who introduced him to the branch manager.  After discussing our program with the branch manager, he advised him, who to see at corporate headquarters.  Before seeing the key decision maker, the branch manager first advised the salesman to meet with the equipment sales manager. The sales person was smart enough to ask the branch manager to call the equipment sales manager as an introduction. Using referrals is a great way to bypass gatekeepers. The sales person later called to set the appointment. Within a couple of hours, he had discovered who the major players were in that account.

In this case and in many other business-to-business sales, the key to dealing with the gatekeepers and  the obstacles  requires time and  effort  to understand the intricacies of the prospect’s internal structure and buying process.  Some of  investigation can be done by telemarketing, but you can’t  build relationships or understand the complexities within a prospect’s organization with a  phone call. And nothing replaces the hard work of  face-to-face professional selling