What is a Gatekeeper?

Get past the gatekeeper to make your sale

On The Phone
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A gatekeeper in business is much the same as the image the term brings to mind: someone standing at an entry to prevent unwanted traffic from coming through. It's the person responsible for keeping a decision-maker from being bothered by what she considers to be irrelevant and bothersome visitors and callers. Gatekeepers and salespeople are often at odds, with two quite different goals in mind. 

The Role of a Gatekeeper

A company's gatekeeper is typically the receptionist or maybe a secretary in many businesses, but in a restaurant, it may be the maître d' and some types of businesses, such as auto dealerships, have a whole squad of gatekeepers – countless salespeople on the floor at any given time.

In all cases, the decision-maker, manager or head chef is busy with the challenge of keeping the business up and running and profitable. He can't take every call and he can't see every visitor because this would take him away from his primary focus and job responsibility. 

Enter the gatekeeper. She shields the guy in charge. She screens calls and visitors, typically deflecting ones that she believes are unimportant – and a good gatekeeper can detect an unimportant interruption in a heartbeat. It usually comes from someone who does not have a complaint, is not calling to purchase goods or services, but who wants something for himself, like to make a sale.  

You need a way to finesse your way past the gatekeeper to get through to the decision-maker, and you more or less have just one option: You must convince the gatekeeper that it will benefit the decision-maker if he speaks with you.

Gatekeepers and Outside Salespeople 

Many gatekeepers develop a level of hostility toward outside salespeople.

This is understandable when you consider that salespeople frequently resort to trickery or outright lying to get past gatekeepers and to reach the decision-maker. Many probably think you're interfering with their timely performance of their own jobs as well.

Put yourself in that auto salesman's shoes: If he's busy telling you no, you can't speak with the dealership's manager right now, that's time spent on you that he could have been using to make cold calls or approach that prospective customer out in the parking lot and he'll naturally resent you.

It's vital to treat the gatekeeper with respect and integrity when you find yourself speaking with him. Hopefully, you'll gain his cooperation, and this can make your sale far easier to close. The alternative is to antagonize him to the point that you'll have no chance of ever speaking to the decision-maker or, at least, you won't until someone else mans the gate. 

Breaching the Gatekeeper 

B2B gatekeepers like receptionists and secretaries are typically responsible for taking all general phone calls for the office and setting appointments. They're rarely involved in the decision-making process, so your best tactic may be to use the system to your advantage. Don't try to get past her. Let her do her job. Set an appointment to see the decision-maker. Tell her you're more than glad to wait until a time when he's not so busy. 

Executive assistants often become involved in the buying process, at least on an advisory level, so you might want to take a different approach with this gatekeeper. Sell her, then give her some time to sell her boss. Explain what you're offering then tell her that you'll touch base again with her in a week or so. It's best to treat these gatekeepers as extensions of the decision-maker himself.

B2C salespeople also have to deal with gatekeepers, although the gatekeeper function is less formal. For example, a parent might act as a gatekeeper for his child, or a wife might do it for her husband. B2C gatekeepers generally turn out to have a say in the purchase, so it's extremely important to be respectful toward them. As with the executive assistant, you might want to devote some time to selling them as well