One of the great challenges many sales people face when working to generate new leads for their business is getting to the main decision maker.  For decades we have been taught that a sales person must eventually speak with the persons who can sign the check in order for a sale to happen.  Decision makers are obviously a critical part of the selling process.  Decision makers are also very aware of this same fact.  Because of their important position within the organization they are highly motivated to protect themselves from time wasting sales people who try to sell them things they don’t need.  To assist them in this protection effort, decision makers hire a full time gatekeepers.  They call them an “Administrative Assistants” but really they are security guards, bouncers, patrol officers, sentinels and watchdogs.  Their job is to keep all the time wasting sales people from getting to the decision maker.  With such stiff opposition how are professional sales people expected to ever get an audience with the main decision maker?

SecretaryWe will explore a few steps that professional sales people can use to help either leverage these determined gatekeepers or to circumvent and bypass them all together.

Do Your Homework

Professional sales people are good about doing their research upfront before they make a call, a visit, or send an email.  We suggest, first, going to the company’s website. The majority of websites have all the information that you’re going to need. Start by going to the company’s “About Us” page.  Learn a little bit about what they do and who their clients are.  As best as you can, try to make some assumptions about some of the most likely problems or challenges their company might be facing.  Determine how your company might help them solve those issues.  Look at their locations and contact information and try to determine where your main decision maker might be located.  Some websites also have a list of the management teams.  Sometimes you can find their titles, biographical information and even direct contact information.  With any luck the website will tell you exactly who you need to talk to, where they are located and how to get a hold of them.  If not, no worries, just move onto Plan B; which is you will need to have someone help you learn those things.

If the website was helpful, then you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • Who are you going to talk to?
  • What key problems will you focus on during your conversation with them?
  • What additional questions will you ask to motivate them to set up an appointment?

What is Plan B if I can’t find the information online?

If the company’s website was little help to you then you will need to call the company directly to find who the main decision maker is.  This sort of information is usually not too difficult to learn when you call in.  Most company employees are happy and willing to help outsiders who truly need help.  Human nature causes us to naturally wan to “rescue and save” others who are struggling and need help.  So, professional sales people tap into that natural human response by “acting” like they are a bit confused, unsure and/or need some help.  To do this, we recommend two different approaches.

The “I Am Lost” Call

PhoneWhen you call into a company, many will have automated menu options. “Press 1 for Sales, Press 2 for Service” and so on.  Choose the option for the employee directory or some other random department that is way off the beaten path. It could be the Human Resources, Accounting or IT department.  Just make sure not to call the department where your main decision maker might work.  Call any extension or person in those random departments.  Here’s how the call might sound:

Employee:       “Hello, this is Mike in IT.”

Sales person:   “Oh…Mike?  Hi, uh, I think I dialed the wrong extension and ended up in the wrong place.  Ooops…I’m a little embarrassed, maybe you can help me get to where I need to go?

Employee:       “No problem.  Who are you looking for?”

Sales person:   “Thanks.  I appreciate it.  Quick question, does your company ever get involved with community events or tradeshows of any kind?

Employee:       “Yeah, sometimes I guess.”

Sales person:   “Oh, okay.  Who typically oversees all of the marketing logistics for those events?”

Employee:       “Well, that would probably be our Director or Marketing, John Smith.”

Sales person:   “Alright.  You probably don’t have his extension handy do you?”

Employee:       “Sure, it is 1234.  Do you want me to transfer you?”

Sales person:   “Sure.  That is very kind of you.  I appreciate the extra help!”

Employee:       “No problem.  Good luck”

When you call make sure your tonality and voice sound like you humbled and a bit embarrassed.  It is important to call a department or someone “off the beaten path” because they do not have the same mandate and responsibility to being a gatekeeper or watchdog as the Administrative Assistant does.  They will know the answer to your basic questions and can usually direct you where you need to go. Make sure to jot down the information they are telling you.  You are looking for who to contact, how to get directly to them and what their sphere of responsibility might include.  Armed with this information you are ready to call the decision maker directly and start a conversation.

The “Can You Help Me” Approach

Another approach you might take if you do not know who you need to speak with is to use the “Can You Help Me” approach.  Once again, this will require a little bit of acting.  You can call in and talk to the front desk or operator who directs calls around the organization.  Similar to the last example, you will act a bit embarrassed and unsure of yourself and ask for their help in directing you to where you need to go.  It might sound something like this:

Front Desk:      “Thank you for call XYZ Company, this is Susan, how may I direct your call?”

Sales person:   “Hi Susan… I am in kind of a pickle and kind of embarrassed and I am hoping you can help me.”

Front Desk:      “Sure, what can I do for you?”

Sales person:   “Not long ago I was referred to XYZ Company and was given the name of the person I should contact.  But, my problem is I am not sure where I put the paper and I have no idea who I need to talk to.  Boy, this is awkward for me…  I wonder if you can help me?  I typically work with individuals who oversee the marketing efforts for the company.  Gosh, their name was like…Jamie or Alan… maybe Matt…….

Front Desk:      “Do you mean John Smith?”

Sales person:   “Hmmm.  What does he do?”

Front Desk:      “He is our Director of Marketing”

Sales person:   “I think that might be him.  He is not in the office today is he?”

Front Desk:      “Yes, let me transfer you.”

Sales person:   “Thank you very much.”

You do not have to use the story about being referred to the company and losing the name. That is just an example.  The important thing is that you are struggling, confused, unsure and are asking them for help.  The front desk lady does not sense that you are a time wasting sales person but someone who needs help instead.  They are more included to help you when you adopt this sort of tonality and position than if you come off polished and professional.

At this point you have identified who the main decision maker is. You know their contact information and are ready to make the direct call to them to chat with them.  But what if you call and another gatekeeper answers the phone?  What then?  Try these advanced gatekeeper tips:

Advanced gatekeeper tips

Tip One:        Sound like an old friend when asking for the decision maker.  Be familiar and friendly, but to the point and direct.  Only use your first name and do not mention your company.  It might sound something like this:

Gatekeeper:    “John Smith’s office this is Sarah.”

Sales person:   “Hi Sarah, this is Bob. Is John in the office today or is he out?

Gatekeeper:    “He is in a meeting right now, can I take a message?”

Tip Two:        Do not focus on who you are or why you are calling.  Instead focus on the decision makers schedule and when they will be free.  Again, sound familiar, friendly and like you have been doing business with John for years.

Sales person:   “I am just returning calls.  I think he had a few questions.  What is John’s schedule like after his meeting is over?  Will he have a few minutes to chat?”

Gatekeeper:    “His next meeting starts at 2:00pm so he would probably have a few minute just before that.”

Tip Three:    Get the gatekeeper to help you get audience with the decision maker.  You want the gatekeeper to feel, think and assume that the decision maker already knows you and is familiar with you.  We are not advocating lying or being untruthful.  However, we are encouraging you to sound and talk like this is not the first time you have called or have talked to the decision maker.  If your “acting” is good than she will buy off on “your act” and will help you get to the decision maker.  It might sound like this:

Sales person:   “When would you suggest I call so we aren’t playing a lot of phone tag?”

Gatekeeper:    “Probably about 1:40pm. That will give him time to get back to his office.”

Sales person:   “Oh, okay. I will call back at 1:40pm and you can transfer me into John?”

Gatekeeper:    “I sure can.”

Sales person:   “Perfect. Thanks Sarah. Talk to you at 1:40pm.”

These advanced tips do not work 100% of the time, but then again, nothing works 100% of the time.  However, working with gatekeepers in this type of fashion has proven to be a very powerful tool to help professional sales people get in front of a decision maker.

Last Word…

Getting past the gatekeeper can often be a difficult process. Gatekeepers are trained to keep you and other unwanted salespeople out. However, by doing solid research up front and having a strategy to follow when working with gatekeepers, you will be better able to get a meeting or phone conversation with the decision maker.  Good luck with these strategies. Let us know how it goes for you.

Terry Hansen is the founder of Hansen Group Company, Inc and is regularly asked to train sales and management teams and consult with companies on their marketing strategies. You can learn more about Hansen Group Company by visiting or by calling 208-346-1005.