Crashing Past the Gatekeepers -- Part Two

I've been flooded with tips for shmoozing secretaries, circumventing switchboards, and making appointments. Here are some of them

By Michelle Nichols

It seems that prospective customers are more closely guarded than the gold in Fort Knox! In Part One of this series, I discussed the barriers and gatekeepers that keep you from reaching potential clients. Then I asked for your most successful ideas about getting through them. Well, you inundated me with suggestions! A collective "thank you" to everyone who shared their experiences.

Your submissions set off a lot of bells in my head, from "Why didn't I think of that!" to "Have you checked this tactic with your lawyer?" Bear in mind that, while no single approach is going to work all the time, sales ideas are like arrows in your quiver: You can never have too many. Here is a sample of your best ideas, both strategic and tactical.


  Often, the first wall a salesperson must scale is to figure out just who to call. Asking former or retired employees is a good source of information, advises "Savvy Selling" reader Barbara Walls. These folks can also give you the lay of the land, which will put you miles ahead of your competition. From India, Mohammad Ali writes that the building administrator can often provide names to get your search started.

Jonathan Khorsandi asks for a sales rep in the prospective company then solicits the salesperson's help to get to the right person. Ken McClenithan also asks for a sales rep, but he tries another tack. Ken says, "I'm sorry, the front desk must have sent me to the wrong extension. I was trying to reach the person who's in charge of..." The most outrageous story I received was from Mr. V, who actually posed as a new employee at a well-known company in order to get his hands on the company's employee phone book!


  When you do get through to the right person, Rex Tallent recommends trying to schedule the appointment for the same day. That way, he says, your target is less likely to cancel.

After Darcy Huston has made several unsuccessful tries to connect, she leaves a message along the lines of: "I will be in your neighborhood at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, April 10, and would like to meet with you for 10 minutes to explain XYZ and how it can help you. Please let me know if this is inconvenient, otherwise I'll look forward to seeing you this Wednesday." She says this usually gets a response.

Corporate voicemail can also stop you if you don't know who to ask for. Betsy Vavrin suggests pressing "0" on your phone -- often, it will put you through to the company operator, on whom you can work your charms.


  Secretaries must not be the dying breed I thought they were because I received a lot of mail regarding this traditional gatekeeper. Most of the suggestions focused on a theme Aretha Franklin made famous: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Befriend them, writes Betsy Vavrin. Treat them like heroes, advises Tom Holtzinger. Develop a good relationship, Francisco Narvaez of Argentina contributes.

Mark Miller suggests that, if you struggle slightly, the gatekeeper will "rescue" you. Robert Bond drops off a bag of Mrs. Fields cookies to the secretary and calls her the next day. He tells her he just got assigned the account and wanted to know how he could help them. Sounds like a well-spent couple of bucks to me!

If you're stuck with a gatekeeper who just says no, Lee Otsubo suggests transposing the last 2 digits of that number, you might get lucky and find someone who is more helpful. To keep from getting stuck, Roger Szafranski advises using the first name in a confident tone of voice, as if you're a personal friend.


  Some submissions were just too creative for my tastes, but others recommended straightforward strategies. "Develop trust," writes Robert Bond. This requires patience because trust is not an "add water and stir" kind of relationship. Stress the potential mutual benefit, Christine Uong writes. Both ideas can take time to implement -- but each can pay off handsomely.

Everyone agreed that a referral made the job of selling easier. One unique idea I received was from Terry Daly, who was calling on a C-level executive he knew to be very devout in his faith. The salesperson asked his pastor to write a letter of introduction, and although the executive and the pastor had never met face-to-face, they had several organizations and interests in common. Daly got his meeting.

When it comes to referrals, don't forget that the quality varies. One suggestion is to ask the referrer to call the person you want to see and personally introduce you. If you can get them to make the call while you're standing in his or her office, all the better, says Don Grogg. What's great about this idea is that, once you get used to doing it, it won't seem so difficult a request. After all, your current customer probably got a similar call about you from someone else, so all they will be doing is repeating the process.


  One reader questioned the assumption that someone who is good at presenting, closing, and servicing an account must also be adept at making the initial contact. This reader explained that she achieved great success with the support of an "appointment setter." It's worth thinking about: If you hire someone to do your accounting, taxes, or other jobs, consider hiring someone to line up appointments as well.

There's an old saying in sales: Nothing happens until something is sold. Well, nothing gets sold until the initial contact is made. I hope this column has given you some new ideas on getting through to prospective customers. 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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