The “Reaching Decision-Makers” Competency and The Gatekeeper

Reaching Decision-Makers” Competency and The Gatekeeper

Picture credit: Warner Bros. TV

By Joe DiDonato | Chief of Staff | Baker Communications, Inc.

One of the competencies that makes a good seller is the ability to reach decision-makers.  One of the real problems of being good at this skill is getting past the notorious person that we folks in sales call “the gatekeeper.”  In light of that, I thought it might be fun to talk about some of the ‘evil’ things that great gatekeepers do, to prevent you from reaching their bosses.

One of the greatest gatekeepers that I’ve ever known worked for the CEO at one of my former companies.  We’ll call her ‘Berta’ after the character that the great, late actress, Conchata Ferrell played in Two and a Half Men.  That’ll be a good visual to keep in mind.

Berta, the gatekeeper, used to get a real kick out of frustrating people who were obviously making sales calls or seeking statements for one of their press articles.  Berta said that most of them tipped their hand early in the process by saying dumb things like:

  • May I speak to your boss?
  • Who is your supplier for [copier paper, network infrastructure, telecom]?
  • How would you like to increase your social media presence instantly? I need to talk to your boss about this immediately.

Berta’s first question was, “Is this a sales call?”  If they came clean, she then asked, “What are you selling?” She’d then sometimes ask them for more information or to send a marketing brochure.  You weren’t going to get the actual name of her boss at that point – or through to him – because it was her job to keep her boss from getting these endless calls.

If you lied about the fact that you were making a sales call – well, that’s what really irked Berta.  For these people, her favorite trick was to say, “Hold on while I check for you.”  Then Berta would put them on indefinite hold until they hung up. If after an hour they were still there, she would pick up and say, “I’m still checking.”  She had one of those multi-line phones, so she had plenty of open lines to still get inbound calls.  When someone asked her if that wasn’t a bit harsh, she replied, “If your first contact with me starts with a lie, then you’re not someone we want to do business with anyway.  We only do business with people we trust.”

For the more skilled sellers, she would hear these types of approaches:

  • I’m calling your boss about her inquiry with our company.
  • I’m returning your boss’s call.
  • I’m a friend of your boss.
  • I’m your boss’s stockbroker, and there’s been a margin call. I need to speak with him right away.
  • I’m calling about the article on your boss that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Of course, Berta had been with her boss for 15 years.  She knew all his friends and business acquaintances because she had to reach out them from time to time.  So, whenever someone tried these lines, she knew instantly that they were a salesperson.  At that point, she asked them for their name and number, wrote down the information, and then double-checked with her boss before she connected them.

If you asked Berta what the right approach should be – one where Berta would be more inclined to pass you through to her boss – she had this answer. “The best salespeople treat me with respect.  They honestly try to get to know me, and when we talk, they treat me with courtesy.”  She went on to mention that the best sellers don’t lie or try to hide things from her.  They are more than happy to talk about what they do.  They freely volunteer information and details about what they’re trying to talk with her boss about.

So, a lesson here is that just because a person is a ‘gatekeeper,’ it doesn’t mean that they won’t let you pass through the gate.  Berta said that if they could demonstrate what kind of value they could offer or show her how their product or service could make her boss’s life easier, she made sure that their information or contact details got to her boss.

So those are some of the tips a great gatekeeper would pass on to you.  The thing I always remembered about Berta was that she was not your average assistant; she was a well-paid, six-figure individual who made her boss’s life a lot more productive.

However, before we leave the topic of getting to decision-makers, I would like to add some other tips to consider if you really have a solution that merits a C-level person’s attention.  The first and foremost is to have someone at their level recommend you to them.  Introductions and referrals are the tools of trade for the people who are successful at reaching senior level people.  If you can get a C-Level peer to recommend you – for anything from a job to an appointment to demonstrate the value that you can bring to their company – you’re going to get pass the gatekeeper.  Whether you’ve done the proper amount of research when you get that chance – well that’s another competency that we’ll discuss in a later blog.  Just don’t think that you can “wing it” in a situation like that.  The word will get back to the person that introduced you, and you will be persona non grata to them from that point on.

In today’s world, we have a few other ways to make a more direct connection with senior-level executives.  That’s the world of social media. Many senior people have their profiles on LinkedIn and actually read their messages and the posts that are pushed to them.  So, it’s not uncommon for me to be asked to introduce someone to a peer of mine, virtually, through LinkedIn.  But if you have a lot of contacts like me, I’m going to play the gatekeeper role.  Like Berta, and the senior-level executive that provided you with a referral, I’m going to be pretty upset if you go in unprepared.  And if I don’t know you all that well, I’m going to be very hesitant to recommend you.

Of course, you can also pay more money to LinkedIn to enable your sending of a direct message to someone.  But remember, we’re all bombarded with connection requests and direct messaging daily.  Personally, I’ve grown to hate that direct access, and I’ve disconnected with a lot of people who violate good business approaches and ethics, or I tell them as nicely as possible that I’m not interested in being asked to buy something on our very first interaction.

The explanation I give them is to think about social media as a big party.  If someone brings someone over to meet you at a party, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t try to sell them an insurance policy, no matter how good that would be for them.  If you did that, you’re going to be standing all by yourself for the duration of the party.  People are attracted to interesting people.  Be interesting.  A good rule to follow is the 5 and 1 rule.  Simply put, provide 5 interesting pieces of information before you ever make your first ‘ask’ of anyone.

Maybe those first outbound shares from you are some kind words about an article that the person wrote, and how it was similar to something you’ve experienced.  (But remember, Berta is probably screening the executive’s social media accounts, and a C-level person is going to see right through any attempt at patronizing them.)

Maybe you’re sharing important articles about an area that your research has shown to be a problem for the person you want to meet.  It could either be in their personal or professional life.  Maybe it’s some statistics that you have that might add an eye-opening dimension to that person’s job role.  Be helpful and interesting during those first 5 encounters, and when it comes time to make your ‘ask,’ the person is going to be much more receptive.

Take stock in how people like Gary Vee (Gary Vaynerchuk) handle their daily communications via YouTube.  If you become a Gary Vee junky, imagine if he reached out to you personally to make a request.  Maybe you follow celebrity businesspeople like Arianna Huffington or Saygin Yalcin or Melina Emerson or Lori Greiner or Kevin O’Leary or Daniel Pink.  All of them expand their influence via social media by providing interesting information.  And when it comes time for them to make a recommendation, or (can you imagine) reach out to you on LinkedIn, what would you do to accommodate their request?

You don’t have to be at their level to be successful in making contacts at the senior level, but head down a path where you openly and honestly try to help the person that you’d eventually like to meet and create a relationship with.  One army veteran sent me a lot of information about how complex the world of HR was becoming during the pandemic.  He sent me information on the PPP program, and how small businesses could take advantage of the program to keep their doors open during the pandemic.  There was also information on liability that he passed on to me.  It wasn’t until his seventh outreach when he asked me if I’d be a supporter of his upcoming Indiegogo project for an HR platform for services that he came up with.  Pretty easy decision for me to make after all he did to help me during the COVID-19 crisis.  Told him I’d make a financial pledge when his project goes live in March of 2021.

What else do we look for in the data when we’re reviewing this competency?  Here are a few of the things we check for in our seller assessment:

  • The seller shows a history of calling on the actual decision-makers.
  • The seller believes that speaking with the decision-maker is required.
  • They make reaching out to the decision-maker a milestone in their sales process.
  • The seller doesn’t need to be liked.
  • They are comfortable talking to the targeted decision-maker.
  • They don’t start the sales process with buyers.
  • They use selling skills to reach the decision-maker.

Hope these tidbits of information have been helpful.  I also hope that they will help you accomplish your goals of reaching more decision-makers in your efforts.  If you’d like to find out more about how we use competency data like this to create individual learning and coaching paths, I invite you to take a listen to one of our recent webinars: How to Implement Data-Driven Sales Enablement:  You’ll see a lot of great ideas for bringing your team up to their next level of accomplishment.