Confessions of a Gatekeeper:

Written by Sean McPheat | Linkedin thumb

Businessman holding up hand showing noConfessions of a Gatekeeper:

Understanding the Guardians of the Gold

The Gatekeeper: A secretary, receptionist or any frontline person whose job it is to screen your call and prevent you from getting to the decision maker. Sales people have more problems with the gatekeeper screens sadly they don’t even know it.

While at one time, these gatekeepers (GK’s) were considered nothing more than pesky, low-level people with nothing to do but waste your time, the truth is that the GK today is a well-trained, educated, sophisticated and sales savvy professional who understands more about cold calling than most sales people.

Think about it; take an average GK who works for a small firm. That company could have three, four, five or even ten people who are decision maker (DM’s) for some area or department of the company. This one GK however, may answer the incoming calls for all of them. Over the course of a few years, this person will have been involved in ten, twenty or maybe even a hundred times more cold-calls than the average sales person. Who do you think has more experience?

In addition, understand that the GK of today may also have had specific training in sales or communication skills, has important responsibilities in the firm other than answering the telephone and usually serves as firstline public relations person for the company as well.

In the past, GK’s would often come right out and tell the sales person that they were not allowing the call through; they were not welcome and the DM would not want to take their call. Today however, since every company sells something, and the GK knows this, the GK will not alienate any caller, understanding that even the aggressive, obnoxious sales person may someday be a prospective customer for their firm.

Many GK screens today are so sophisticated that sales people don’t even know they are being screened; continuing to attempt to make contact with the DM, thinking the GK is actually trying to help them.

Underestimating and not understanding today’s GK has killed the careers of thousands, perhaps millions of sales people and cost sales companies billions in lost revenue every year.

At MTD Sales Training, I have devoted a lot of material to successfully learning how to identify and negotiate the sophisticated GK screen. However, I wanted to take a moment and take a different approach. Normally we look at the GK from only one point of view; the sales professional. Well, today I want to share with you the view from a professional GK!

Over the years, I’ve got to know hundreds of GKs. What follows is an excerpt of an interview I did recently with a high-level GK, who is an Executive Secretary I’ll call her Lisa (Not her real name.) Lisa currently works for a large project management company and talks to me about her career.

Sean: So Lisa, first let me ask you, how did you get into this profession in the first place? I mean was this your goal?

Lisa: Well, I started out studying business administration. I was in college and began working part time for a small medical office. I actually started working in file management. Everything was on paper and in folders back then and I’d had some training in administration and was a good typist.

Sean: How did you end up on the telephone?

Lisa: Ironically, I started out making calls to companies that supplied our parts. My Boss at the time asked if I would help out by contacting potential suppliers and see if I could negotiate a better price on some of the parts we were buying. So, I would call and see what kind of prices they were offering if they were competitive I would arrange for a Sales Person to meet with my boss.

Sean: So, you started out actually making outgoing calls—cold calling?

Lisa: Yes. Well, someone had to do the ground work and they chose me.

Sean: Did you get many incoming sales calls from some of those suppliers?

Lisa: Yes, but we would concentrate on one area at a time, so I didn’t have time to talk to all of them. But for the ones that fitted the criteria we were working on at the time, I would set up an appointments.

Sean: So would you sit through the sales Persons 1st presentation then?

Lisa: Yes, I would be the one to decide whether their prices and parts were worth taking to the next level.

Sean: How often did you do that? I mean, were you involved in a sales presentation?

Lisa: Oh, I don’t know. It was a lot, though. I would say, maybe two or three a week. I was in the department for a couple of years and even invited companies to come back a second time, too.

Sean: So, what happened next?

Lisa: I left that company after I got my degree…

Sean: In business administration?

Lisa: Yes, I have a BA in Business. Anyway, I went to work for a law firm and I still wanted to do research and begin my masters, but there was a job opening for a personal assistant for one of the executives. It paid so well, it was hard to pass up and I was qualified because of the telemarketing experience I’d gained with my previous company.

Sean: So as a Personal Assistant what did you do exactly and did you like it?

Lisa: I loved it. I ended up handling the calendars and schedules of several of the top executives and coordinated the workings of several departments. I helped in the design of the first email and scheduling software and systems the company invested in and I was basically in charge of all such things. Someone once called me the “glue” that held the whole company together. Which, I guess made sense, since many things revolved around me.

Sean: So did you get lots of telemarketing calls from sales people?

Lisa: Oh yes. They never stopped, sometimes 5 or 10 an hour.

Sean: And how did you handle them?

Lisa: Well, remember, I was in charge of schedules for most of the executives they were trying to reach and because of by position I had the authority and knowledge of all events and appointments which were important and off course what wasn’t. I knew exactly what they had time for and what they didn’t.

Sean: So, you could actually make an appointment for a decision maker with a sales person, without even speaking to the decision maker?

Lisa: Yes, but I didn’t do that very often. Only if I knew the executive was already looking for more information or to speak to someone in that field. Usually, if I really thought that the product or service was something the contact may want to see or hear about, I would put the call through.

Sean: What would you say was your biggest complaint about sales people? I mean, what is the one thing they do that aggravates you the most?

Lisa: I would say that most of them think I’m stupid. They treat me like a child or an automated switchboard or someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing or hasn’t any authority. That really irked me. I mean, I’ve been in this business for 19 years, and I get some kid on the phone who talks down to me like I’m an idiot. I really hate it when they think they can just start a casual conversation with me or butter me up and I’ll put them through.

Sean: How do you respond to that type of treatment? Do you hang up on them?

Lisa: Oh no, I’d never do that.

Sean: Why, because you want to maintain a certain image for the company?

Lisa: Yes. Well, that’s part of it. I hate to admit this, but one of the main reasons I don’t slam the phone down on those that really tee me off, is because if I did that, I know they wouldn’t call back any more.

Sean: Isn’t that what you wanted?

Lisa: No, not the ones who irritate me, I want them to call back and to keep calling back, over and over. I just play along with them and let them think that they are getting to me and let them think that there might be a big sale in it if they just keep trying. Some of them are pathetic and so desperate, I know they will keep calling and calling. Most of the time I put them on hold and do other things. Sometimes I’ll put them on hold just to see how long they will remain holding. (chuckle)

Sean: That’s a little harsh, maybe even cruel, don’t you think?

Lisa: Ha! I know it’s not very nice, but they have no business to treat me like they do either.

Sean: Do you ever worry doing something like that to an important person or a potential customer? I mean, what if you put a VIP on hold and left him or her there? Don’t you risk costing your boss and the company money and reputation?

Lisa: Oh, no. That doesn’t happen. I can tell the difference between those low type sales people and telemarketers; you know immediately the ones that don’t have any real say-so or position and the ones who might be important.

Sean: But how? How can you tell the difference from what you call a low-level telemarketer and a VIP?

Lisa: Um… I don’t know, really. I just can. I mean, they just sound like they are telemarketers who are at the low level, you know! I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I can tell almost as soon as they say Hi, there! Plus, I can tell when they’re reading from a script, even when they try really hard to make it sound like they’re just talking. I can tell.

Sean: So, as soon as you believe you hear someone who is the run-of-the-mill telemarketer, that’s it—they have no chance?

Lisa: No! I don’t do that to everyone…I mean, not without reason. When I get a call from someone for the first time, I always give them a chance. I know that they are trying to earn a living. I give them a chance. But then, when they start with the same old stuff, the same lines and little stupid jokes; that’s when I put them through the ‘you know what’ screen out.

Sean: So, you hear the same thing from lots of them?

Lisa: Yes! It’s exactly the same. Even some of the stupid little jokes…are the same. Calls will go like this, “Hi There! Lisa, is it? How are you today? So is there anybody else working over there today besides yourself, Lisa? Ha! ha!” Oh it’s sickening. Oh, you know what else I really can’t stand? When they try to act like they KNOW the contact, like they’re good friends with my boss. I can’t stand that. They don’t understand that I know these people and I’ve worked with them for years and I know the calls they get on a regular basis.

Sean: So, are there any actual sales people you actually put through to your boss?

Lisa: Like I said, yes. If I think it might be something relevant, someone or something important, not someone who will waste by boss’s time, I’ll let the call through.

Sean: Lisa, it sounds like you have a lot of time to talk to these sales people.

Lisa: It’s part of my job. I mean, I am charged with helping find new suppliers and companies that we may want to do business with. So, yeah, I’ll talk to them and ask some questions even if I think it’s a sales person or someone of interest to our company.

Sean: But how can you always know what may or may not be of interest to your company and what your company may need? Don’t you think you might screen out some sales people that are selling something that could be useful to your company? Or, something that maybe your boss might have wanted to know more about?

Lisa: I guess that could happen once in a while. But no matter what the company sells, if it is a product that we can use, they will usually start with me. And if the sales person is an _____hole, then we don’t want to do business with them even if they do have something we may need. Whatever it is, somebody else sells it, too. And like I said, I can tell the difference between one of those lower-level ones and a high-level professional person. I mean, I know the kind of business people my bosses like to work with.

Sean: Speaking about your bosses, do any of them tell you or give you instruction on how to handle calls or who to put through or something like that?

Lisa: Hey, I don’t tell them how to do their jobs, they better not even think about telling me how to do mine.

Sean: Do you ever put the sales person on hold and ask your boss if he or she wants to take a certain call?

Lisa: Yes, sometimes. If I know that it is something that may be useful or that won’t be a waste of time, then I will buzz through and ask my boss if he has a few minutes would he like to take the call. But, that only happens when I already feel that the sales person is at the level of professionalism that matches people we work with. Most of them, to tell you the truth, never get that far. For most people, not all, I’d say about 75% of people that call trying to get to one of my contacts; I know what I am going to do with that caller within the first few seconds after I hear their voice.

And here ends a GATEKEEPER’S story!

So, my Final Thoughts and Advice to SALES PEOPLE & TELEMARKETERS is THIS!

1. Qualify your leads – Know what products and services the company your calling use and need.

2. Don’t Script your spiel – be natural, polite and never patronise, an experienced gatekeeper will sniff out a patronising sales person within seconds.

3. And, if at first you don’t succeed – try and try again – don’t ruin your chances of ever doing business with a company in the future by being rude or slamming down the phone just because you can’t get past the gatekeeper – always leave the door open, the gatekeeper will!

Happy Gatekeeping (and Sales People keep trying… you’ll get past them if you learn how to play the game)


Sean McPheat

Sean McPheat
Managing Director

MTD Sales Training

450 sales questions free report

Originally published: 23 September, 2008

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