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Getting past the gatekeeper

  • Neal Glatt, CSP, ASM
- Posted: August 1, 2015
Anyone who has ever tried cold calling a commercial business knows that the first person who answers the phone is there to halt a conversation before it starts. No matter how nice these gatekeepers may sound, the reality is that they have a four-step process to ensure hardworking sales professionals don’t bother their bosses. While there are some exceptions, the typical process for any caller who isn’t skilled enough to break the cycle is:
  1. The gatekeeper asks: “What is your name?”
  2. The gatekeeper asks: “Where are you calling from?”
  3. The gatekeeper asks: “What is this regarding?”
  4. The gatekeeper transfers you to voicemail.
Once in a great while, when someone on the other end sounds particularly confident or very desperate, the gatekeeper will page the decision-maker to ask if they want to take the call. Of course, the answer is usually a resounding “no” and despite being afforded a slight glimmer of hope, the salesperson again lands in “voicemail jail.” 

So how can the cold call advance beyond the receptionist? Is there any way to quit the endless dials and voicemails? Is it possible to beat the system and actually accomplish something on the phone? With some clever techniques and lots of practice, salespeople can win the gatekeeper game. Following are four of the best strategies to get past the gatekeeper:

The saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” applies to cold calls as well as anything else. By acting like the gatekeeper’s BFF (Best Friend Forever), they may be willing to not only pass along the call but even provide valuable data about the decision-maker, the service, the budget, or the process. A little charm goes a long way. Showing some consideration can provide a stark contrast to the disdain that receptionists deal with constantly and may compel them to help.

This tactic works particularly well when the gatekeeper sounds like they are filling in for someone else, are a higher level than a standard receptionist, or don’t robotically answer calls all day. One of the best methods is to put them in a position to help, since people generally like helping other people.

For instance, when asked if you want to be transferred to voicemail, acting indecisive then asking for advice can yield great results. Try saying: “Well, I guess I could leave them a voicemail, unless you’d recommend trying back later? What do you think would be the best way to get ahold of them?” 

Rewards from this tactic often consist of learning the best time to call based on schedule, personal messages being delivered (always better than a voicemail), and even coveted cellphone numbers. The universal rule is you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

The lunchtime

This technique strives to disguise a cold call as something else entirely. The core function of a gatekeeper is to keep salespeople away, so if a salesperson can masquerade as something else, they may short-circuit the process. To execute, a salesperson must know the first name of the person they are calling and how to sound like a good friend. They must also pay attention to the time of day, since this one really only works between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

During that narrow window of call time, when a gatekeeper answers, you can ask “Has Joe left for lunch?” to fool them into sharing information or transferring a call instead of transferring to voicemail since they believe Joe’s good friend is on the line. There will be follow-up questions like “Who is this?” but by projecting confidence and using single-word answers, the charade can continue for a whole conversation. Acting just slightly annoyed that a gatekeeper would even ask such questions of Joe’s good friend helps. Try making the call reclining in an office chair with feet upon the desk to channel the right attitude.

The boss
Gatekeepers are usually lower-level employees who haven’t had much management experience. As a result, they tend to be sensitive to authority figures. An experienced cold caller can use this to his advantage and take control of the conversation simply by using an extremely confident tone and short, demanding phrases: “Jim, please” instead of “Hi, this is Neal from Case Snow; is Jim available?” Acting as though you’re just as important as the owner of the company (and not a salesperson) is a simple way to shock the receptionist into directing the call appropriately. It is critical to not let the four-step process start, but instead invoke a deer-in-headlights reaction where the call is over before the gatekeeper even realizes what happened.

Walking the fine line between projecting confidence and being too demanding, or even rude, can be tough, and a misstep in either direction will end the call. Practice by calling your own company and pushing past the person who answers the phone quickly without disclosing your identity. Finding the balance between respect for a coworker or employee and the privilege due a senior colleague or owner is the exact tone to exercise when cold calling with this tactic.

The bypass
Sometimes, gatekeepers are excellent at their jobs and the situation seems hopeless. This can often be the case at larger companies; but, fortunately for salespeople, these corporations have an Achilles’ heel: serialized extensions. When companies buy phone extensions, they will often assign the first number to the main desk and each subsequent number to a direct-dial extension. Salespeople can use this to their advantage by dialing random numbers, systematically, until they reach a live person. It does not matter who this person is, as long as it is someone who is not the receptionist. Experienced sales professionals know that a transfer from another office is always more powerful than one from the receptionist. Acting confused is a great way to get help. The script, “I’m sorry, I was looking for the facilities management office and this doesn’t sound like the right place. Do you have any idea who I would need to speak to?” is a great place to start.

Playing the game
There are many people who would view the gatekeeper game as silly, and they’re right. Cold calling can feel like an exercise in futility, where a “reasonable” or “professional” method of communication would be to just transfer people where they want to go. Unfortunately, the game exists in some iteration at every company. So salespeople have a choice - sit in voicemail jail or play the game. The upside is you get paid if you win!
Neal Glatt, CSP, ASM, is an account executive for Case Snow Management Inc. Contact him at

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