From THE HINDU group of publications
Thursday, November 22, 2001


Tackling the gatekeeper

M. Muhamed

We have all heard of gatekeepers. Kotler taught us this first and then every business-to-business marketer talks about this species. I am sure owners and managers of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are familiar with gatekeepers. Especially since the majority of SMEs are engaged in industrial marketing.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, gatekeepers are people who protect the decision-maker in an organisation from the troubles lesser mortals like you and me put forth whether in selling our products and services or some other way. In practical terms, these include the security at the entrance, receptionist, telephone operator, special assistant, executive assistant, secretary or whoever at the first stage in a company who will do the screening.

In a typical industrial marketing scenario, one needs to get past the gatekeeper in order to make contact with the right person for a first time audience. All your sales techniques are worthless unless you can talk with the decision-maker. That is not always as easy as it sounds.

The gatekeeper is a very dangerous person, because he or she can say no but cant say yes. That is why, for example, when you are talking with the gatekeeper, you should give as little information as possible. The less they know the better off you are. In this issue of Shop Talk, let me suggest a few methods to get past the gatekeeper.

Take a direct hit; be offensive

This is your most direct approach. You must use your verbal offensive line to help you break through. A good gatekeeper asks you many questions before you are allowed to talk to the boss.

The more questions you answer without getting rejected, the closer you are to the goal. Respond to the question with the minimal amount of information, then follow up with a request.

Secretaries know that an important part of the job is to screen calls. Often they do not feel they have done their job suitably unless they ask some questions. And if one or two questions mean they are doing a good job, asking three or four means they are really going the extra mile.

Only after these secretaries/gatekeepers feel that they have done their jobs properly, and, assuming you provided no information to make them shut the door in your face, do you stand a chance of getting through to the decision maker. For example, you might say, This is Balasubramanian calling for Mr Shantakumar. Please put him on. Notice that it ends with a call to action. And which company are you from?(Sounds familiar?) I am with Innovative Media. Please tell Mr Kumar I am holding for him. Is he expecting your call? I dont believe we have set up a specific time, but please let him know I am on the line. And what is it regarding? Let Mr Kumar know that I have the answers to the marketing questions. Does he know you? You know, I dont think we have met personally, but I do have that information for him, so please let him know Im holding for him.

Notice that Balasubramaniam responded to each question with minimal information. By allowing the gatekeeper to ask a lot of questions, the caller has enabled the gatekeeper to feel that he or she has properly screened the call.

At the same time, Bala did not put the call in jeopardy by giving enough information to get disqualified. Even with this technique you can still get sacked some of the time, so you need some other plays.

Reach through a different route

If the direct hit approach does not help you get past the gatekeeper, sometime a different route works. Try reaching your prospect by calling a different department. If, for example, you want Biju Verghese in the Finance department, try calling Production or Sourcing and asking for Verghese. They will tell you that you have reached the wrong department. Ask them to transfer you directly to Vergheses office. Sometimes you will get transfered directly into the office. With the electronic systems in most offices these days, try punching any extension number to try this route. That way, you save some money by not waiting for an operator.

Top-down approach

One method many people have tried successfully and that is particularly effective at times is to call the office of someone higher up in the company. If you are trying to reach the vice-president, for example, call the CEOs office.

The CEOs secretary will inform you that you have reached the wrong office and usually offers to transfer you to the right party. A call transferred from the bossoffice stands a better chance of getting through.

Be an early bird

If you are seriously trying to reach the decision-maker, try starting early. Sometimes this work very well if the person you are trying to reach is an early bird.

Try calling very early in the morning. Often, busy executives get to the office by 8 or 9 a.m., long before their secretaries or other gatekeepers show up. And when their phone rings, there is a very good chance they will pick it up themselves.

You may also try the same technique in the evenings since most of these people are likely to work late. This is true of weekends as well, especially in India. This also might work at lunchtime when the gatekeeper steps out and leaves a substitute in place.

If nothing works, then move on

Sometimes you just have to cut your losses. There are many more prospects out there and if you are not able to get through to this one, even after you have given it your best, it is time to move on. Perhaps throw that lead in your file or palmtop and try calling back five or six months down the line.5

(The author is Chief Consultant, Innovative Media, a knowledge management company. Feedback can be e-mailed to

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