Crashing through Walls and Gatekeepers

Connecting with the right person is the tough but necessary first step in a successful sales job. Here are some practical pointers

By Michelle Nichols

Prospecting for new business can seem like Mission: Impossible. You screw up your courage, "dial and smile," and wham -- you hit a wall designed to keep you out. You dial again -- and again you hit a wall. It's as if you keep saying "knock, knock" and nobody responds "who's there?".

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on crashing through the walls and getting past the gatekeepers that keep you from the folks who can say yea or nay. In this column, I'll outline the overall problem and some basic strategies on how to break through. In Part 2, I'll share the best of the suggestions you send in.


  When you're trying crack a new account, you may hit your first wall because you don't know whom to ask for. Even if you have a list of titles, you may not have the names -- and good luck getting to a person who may or may not give them to you.

More often, when you call the general number of a company, you reach a computerized phone system that says something like, "Welcome to XYZ company. Your call is very important to us. Please enter the extension of the party you wish to speak with or 666 for a corporate directory." When you try that extension, the computer asks you to enter the first four digits of the name of the person you're calling –- which you don't have.

My suggestion: Do some asking around -- at your own office, networking group, clubs, in the neighborhood. Someone has to know someone who works at that company. Even if your contact doesn't work in an area that's related to the one you're trying to get to, he or she can probably point you to the right person.


  So, you've scaled your first wall and gotten the name and extension of the person you need to speak to. And then you get their voice mail. Don't despair. You can do several things. Make your message short, clear, and snappy. Say your name and company, then something that will matter to the other party. No one cares that you want to do an audit of their procedures, but most people will want to save money. The customer is listening to your message, thinking, "What's in it for me?" Don't make them guess.

Call early in the day. If someone doesn't know you, they're more likely to return your call in the morning, when they've got their whole day ahead of them, rather than later, when they're walking out the door to go home.

The most important thing to remember is that you aren't trying to sell them anything with your message. You're just trying to get them to call you back. Don't be too oblique, though. If you sell copiers, don't say you sell productivity tools. Also, don't misrepresent the nature of your call, saying it's personal when it's not. That may get their attention, but it won't get you the account.


  The next wall you may encounter is becoming extinct -- a real, live, human secretary -- a "gatekeeper." Unfortunately, those still in their jobs are tougher than ever at screening you out. If I get a friendly one, I'll leave a message like, "Please call me about reducing your property insurance bill," and then nicely ask her to read my entire message back to me.

If I get a real guard-dog type, I might try calling at lunch time, or very early or late, and try to get around that person or to another secretary who can advise me. This kind of gatekeeper can make you grateful for voice mail.

Customers themselves can be their own gatekeepers. You may spend many days and dollars on a direct-mail piece, but if it doesn't get opened, the gatekeeper won. Sometimes, a customer's mental gate is closed, and he or she won't let in new ideas. The best chance of getting through these barriers is to have a succinct, punchy message that will press the customer's buttons, just like a good voice-mail message.


  The best way through walls and gatekeepers is a referral, which can be like a crow bar, just helping you slip in, or a bulldozer, giving you a great opening. Referrals can come from many places -- other employees in the company, noncompeting reps, and outside associations too. The trick is to keep asking for them everywhere you go.

I once met a pharmaceutical salesperson who had been chatting with an older neighbor. When the salesperson was asked how her day was, she sighed and admitted she had been banging her head all day trying to get in to make a sales call on the very influential but busy Dr. Z. The older lady's eyes lit up -- Dr. Z was her son. Mom made a call, and the saleslady got her meeting. That referral was certainly a bulldozer.

Do you have a great way to get through a gatekeeper or wall? E-mail me, and I'll print the best submissions in Part 2. You can remain anonymous if you choose. Happy selling.

Michelle Nichols is a sales consultant, trainer, and speaker based in Houston, Texas. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at

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