In days of old, the C-suite was accessible — salespeople and marketers could call or email them without much resistance. Now, decision-makers can isolate themselves with caller ID, email filters, and a host of intermediary employees to screen you and your outreach.
Those employees are most commonly referred to as "gatekeepers," and if you want to connect with a decision-maker, odds are you'll be connecting with one or more of them first.
Here, we'll explore what gatekeepers are a bit further, explore the concept of gatekeeper marketing, see some tips on how to work gatekeepers effectively, and explore the types of prospects gatekeepers might put you in touch with.
What is a gatekeeper?
A gatekeeper is any initial intermediary between a salesperson and a decision-maker within an organization. They might field calls for executives, be the first point of contact at a company's physical office, or fulfill any other responsibilities to screen who gets to connect with the decision-makers they work for.
Dealing with gatekeepers is a fact of life across several sales roles, so it serves you to have a feel for how to best approach them. Before you can get there, you'll need to have some idea of who they usually are.
Who are gatekeepers in sales?
Gatekeepers tend to have more of a presence in larger firms or corporations, and the term itself can cover a variety of different roles within an organization. For the most part, they're employees responsible for handling administrative responsibilities for executives in some capacity.
They tend to work closely with decision-makers. They might be executive assistants, administrative assistants, secretaries, or receptionists. In some cases, the gatekeeper standing between you and a decision-maker could be even their spouse or a relative.
Now that you know where in an organization gatekeepers tend to stand, it's worth understanding how to cater to them effectively.
Gatekeeper marketing is the act of effectively directing your message or objectives to gatekeepers who may grant or block access to key decision-makers. It's a process where you structure your efforts to accommodate an extra step between you and your target prospect.
Let's take a closer look at some strategies you can employ to get past any gatekeeper you're confronted with.
How to Get Past Gatekeepers
- Treat the gatekeeper as a resource, not an obstacle.
- Name-drop a connection
- Be polite and exude confidence.
- Don't use the decision-maker's last name.
- Don't lie.
- Have some background knowledge about the gatekeeper.
- Don't try and 'get past' gatekeepers … align with them.
1. Treat the gatekeeper as a resource, not an obstacle.
HubSpot Account Executive Chrissy Callen told me she considers gatekeepers less of an obstacle and more a resource when trying to reach a decision-maker.
As Callen says, "If it's a receptionist or an assistant, they hold so much power in what the decision-maker's day-to-day looks like — so lean into that. If they aren't in a rush to get off the phone, take some time to ask how their day is going and get to know them."
It might seem simple, but treating the gatekeeper like a human being is an important tactic when trying to reach executives. And it's the right thing to do, too.
Callen adds, "I find when you do this, gatekeepers will usually open up a bit more, and are more willing to give information as to when you should call back or the best way to reach the decision-maker."
2. Name-drop a connection
Andrew Dickelman, Co-Founder and Head of Enterprise Sales at Structurely, has been responsible for millions in revenue through cold outreach. As a result, he's refined two strategies that work well when getting past a gatekeeper.
First, he suggests, "Name-drop someone they're likely to know (like someone in their sphere or someone who works for a bigger brand name). When meeting with gatekeepers and using this approach, I'd say something like, 'Oh, I've been working with John Doe in your market, who [decision-maker] knows. He wanted me to connect — can you put me through to help make that happen?'"
Alternatively, if you don't have a strong connection to the decision-maker, consider how you might name-drop a publication related to their work.
As Dickelman advises, you might say something like, "'I've been reading/listening/watching some of [decision-maker's] recent work, and as a speaker in multiple industry publications myself, I'd like to connect to discuss these topics further. Can I speak to them about that now, please?'"
It doesn't hurt to do your research. The more you know about the decision-maker, the easier it is to connect on a personal level with the gatekeeper and demonstrate you're not just another cold caller.
3. Be polite and exude confidence.
It might sound simple, but in practice, it's a little more challenging. Perhaps it's the end of the month and you haven't hit quota yet. As a result, you might come across as exasperated or frustrated when speaking with a gatekeeper. But that's not what you want.
Instead, ensure you sound respectful and courteous. It's not fair to convey your stress to the gatekeeper — they're just doing their jobs, too.
4. Don't use the decision-maker's last name.
Mark Smith, a BDR at Proposify, believes the key to getting past the gatekeeper is sounding confident over the phone. Additionally, he told me he's found success by asking for the decision-maker by first name only.
As Smith puts it, "My usual phrasing is 'Is [decision-maker] in the office today?' or 'Is [decision-maker] around?' When doing this, never use the person's full name. I repeat ... never use the person's full name! If you're talking to a friend, would you address your friend by first and last name? No."
Smith adds, "If they ask for the last name, you should give it, but never lead by addressing your prospect by their full name."
5. Don't lie.
One thing that could break the gatekeeper's trust — and ruin the success of a deal? Dishonesty.
Whatever you do, you don't want to lie to get past the gatekeeper.
As Damian Schlereth, Business Development Manager at Qwilr, told me, "When interacting with a gatekeeper, there is one rule I enforce with our BDR's: don’t lie. Align the call with your email cadence content — lead with the truth and be firm but humble in your approach."
"For instance," Schlereth adds, "You might say, 'Sarah, I'm hoping you can help me. I am supposed to be connecting with John Smith today but can't find his extension/we haven't been able to connect yet. Could you patch me through, please?' Be very polite, and acknowledge their help."
Ultimately, even if a lie might work in the short term, it's likely it could backfire in the long run. If your decision-maker finds out you've lied to her employees to reach her, she won't want to do business with you. If you lied about that, what else might you be lying about?
6. Have some background knowledge about the gatekeeper.
Cam Karosis, a HubSpot Growth Specialist, advises sales reps to do their research on the gatekeeper.
He says, "If you know who your gatekeeper is ahead of time, check out their LinkedIn. If the gatekeeper is slightly higher up and might be someone who's used software similar to yours in the past, look up their prior companies and see what tech they're using."
Karosis adds, "This might trigger memories of negative experiences in the past with software they weren't fond of, or positive experiences with your software, etc., that you can bring up on the call and show that you've done your research and you're not there to waste their time."
7. Don't try and 'get past' gatekeepers … align with them.
Finally, when you cold call a business and reach a gatekeeper, consider how you might create rapport and build trust with the gatekeeper before you push for the C-level executive.
As HubSpot Account Executive Carl Ferreira told me, "Gatekeepers are humans and they are charged with protecting the time of their executives. So if you are a time-waster … unfortunately you will not get past the gatekeeper and will have to resort to pushy, sales-y tactics to bypass the gatekeeper."
However, Ferreira adds, "Gatekeepers can be extremely valuable if you win them and align with them as opposed to 'getting around' or 'bypassing' them. This is one area where a modern seller can differentiate from a legacy seller."
That's all well and good. But how do you align with the gatekeeper?
Ferreira tells me, "Don't treat them like a gatekeeper. That dehumanizes them. Treat them like you would treat the CEO you are trying to reach. After all … that CEO trusts and likely has a close relationship with that 'gatekeeper' already."
Who's beyond the gatekeeper?
Getting past the gatekeeper doesn't guarantee a sale, and in some cases, you might be connecting with the wrong person. Here's a closer look at the different kinds of prospects a gatekeeper might connect you with.
This is typically the C-suite; the person who signs the check, re-allocates budget on their own, and says "yes" without conferring with anyone — in some cases, they might even conduct independent research on the solutions they're considering.
Often, the decision-maker delegates the sales process to another type of prospect — the "influencer" — until it's further along. In this case, work with the influencer, but keep the decision-maker in the loop. Show you're happy to work with their team, but regularly check in with them.
The influencer is traditionally a junior-level employee who's asked to research options before their superior is briefed. They don't have the budget or authority to make a final decision, but they do have the power to influence the decision-maker.
The influencer is usually your main point of contact at the company, and they'll pull in the appropriate stakeholders (such as finance or IT) throughout the sales process.
To find out how much power your influencer really has, ask questions like, "Have you done this before?," "Are you confident the decision-maker will follow your recommendation?", or "Is there anyone on your team who might hijack our conversations?"
The answers to these questions tell you how experienced your influencer is in presenting solutions to the decision-maker, and it signals how much help you'll need to offer throughout the process.
The Self-Proclaimed Decision-Maker
The self-proclaimed decision-maker is a toxic prospect. If they're offering unsolicited information, like "I make X amount of money", "I carry a lot of weight around here," or "The CEO and I are buddies," chances are, this person has little influence and might be wasting your time.
Whether it's intentional or not, they're gating you from the rest of the internal purchasing process. Pay attention to those volunteering too much information about their authority.
Ask this influencer how often they meet with the CEO to gauge exactly how much weight their word holds at the organization. If they don't meet with leadership regularly, they might not be worth your time.
You'll also want to find out what other solutions they brought into the company and how that process worked. If they haven't sourced solutions before, consider finding another contact.
Many times, salespeople have their own definition of a decision-maker, but it might not match that of the prospect. By the prospect's definition, they're the decision-maker because they're deciding what to recommend to the C-suite. This person is actually the recommender.
In this case, the prospect is not being deceptive. Don't dismiss the recommender, because they're extremely valuable to the sale. Ask why they're researching a solution and who's asked them to do so. Their answer will tell you who the real decision-maker is.
Often, the blocker has all the qualities of an influencer. They're junior or mid-level, are in charge of researching solutions for their team or company, and are your primary contact at the company.
But, eventually, the blocker will stop answering your phone calls. Your emails will go unopened, and the deal will stall. You've been ghosted — that's the blocker's specialty.
Try to discern when it's time to walk away from the company and when it's time to simply find a new lead there. If you think you're talking to a blocker — and someone else at the business should hear what you have to say — do your research.
Track the company's hiring on LinkedIn to see when someone on a relevant team starts. Then, reach out to them to see if they'd be interested in hearing about your solution. Strike up a relationship with an executive and use that as leverage to engage someone new at the company.
Or simply use LinkedIn to track down someone else on the team and say something like, "I've been speaking with a colleague of yours about your need to lower export costs on overseas shipments. It seems like you might be the more appropriate person to speak with. Do you have a few minutes this week to jump on a call?"
Identifying who you’re speaking with and who you need to speak with is a crucial part of the sales process. Incorporate these questions into your strategy, and find more success with each person you talk to within a prospect’s company.
Learn to work with the gatekeeper.
Having to work past gatekeepers is a nagging but vital fact of sales life. While it might be frustrating to be turned away or put on hold by a receptionist or blown off by an executive assistant, you can't get demoralized or resentful.
Do your research, remain confident, and be polite when you connect with gatekeepers. Remember, they're people doing their job — just like you. If you can stay patient, remain professional, and build rapport with gatekeepers, you'll put yourself in a solid position to connect with decision-makers and set deals in motion.