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Be Nice - Gatekeepers Are People, Too!

Get ready…this topic may irk some readers, but it’s a conversation that needs to be held.

It also got my attention because it applies to what I teach and coach, including self-awareness, business etiquette, communications, and forms of leadership.

And stop being creepy.

A few days ago, I reluctantly engaged in a social media conversation on gatekeepers and those who try to get past them to get in direct contact with decision makers to sell their wares and services.

And while the conversations were based on so-called creative ways on how to “get around” the gatekeepers - which is a valid skill in the sales arena - what I was actually reading was a list of how to lie and do whatever it takes to get what you want.

I refrained from responding and engaging in this somewhat entertaining post until I got to the comment from someone who likes to “flirt” with the gatekeeper to get past them.

That kinda lit the fire in me.

A little background on me, if you don’t know me - I was in the administrative operations management field for about 25 years. I have now successfully started my professional Act II - not because I disliked the work but that I found due to my skills and passion my work was naturally morphing into something new - but what will always remain with me, and what I speak about with my clients, is the importance of having respect for other humans and building a life based on honesty, authenticity, transparency and vulnerability.

Let me also start by saying that no, I don’t see the world through rose-colored glasses, that I am extremely (and more than I prefer to be) well-versed in playing the politics needed to be successful in a corporate environment, and that I am also personally highly competitive. HOWEVER…

I do operate in my personal in professional life in a highly ethical and honest manner (sometimes too honest, but you’ll either get used to me or at least respect me for it). I neither engage in nor support the practices that some of these sales professionals promote as just a normal way to do business. The best salespeople I have met and worked with (and there have been hundreds, in various industries, around the world) of course have a job to do, are usually the highest earners, have the respect of their clients, and continue to grow and expand their knowledge and skill.

And I get it! You have a job to do. You have, or at least believe you have, valuable products and services that would greatly benefit your potential clients once you got in front of them, as well as goals to hit and bills to pay. But you don’t gain respect or build integrity with deceit.

I guess what I am yearning for is a world where people act professionally, respect each other, work together, and stop viewing others as “beneath them.”

And just be nice.

I am not putting the responsibility of this process completely on the shoulders of sales professionals. I acknowledge that not all gatekeepers are the same. Some are new employees of the business or are new to the profession, and understandably a seasoned salesperson may be able to get around them with their tricks.

And yes, some are actually downright stubborn and difficult to work with.

Also, before I continue, I’d like to add that during my commentary I may use the word “you” when speaking of sales professionals, because I am speaking directly to you. And I am actually focusing on those that may need some additional training. And again, please don’t misinterpret anything I say as possibly degrading or annoying - I fully understand and appreciate that the world, not just the business world, does not exist without sales. Your skills and what you do for your companies and customers is immeasurable. I have to do sales in my business, too, as a business owner, so I do understand. To those with whom I have worked in the past, I was watching you, I have learned from you, and the skills I gleaned from your ethical behavior have contributed to my personal success, so thank you.

Believe it or not, here are a few nuggets that some actually admitted, in a public forum, to using. Many commenters were just complaining about having to “deal” with the gatekeepers, and “how do we get past them?” But let me pose this question to you - if you were the executive, wouldn’t you want a gatekeeper? Or would you rather spend your day fielding calls from companies you never previously solicited and have no need for your services for a litany of reasons? But many (yes, I realize this is a broad generalization) of them seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable to lie to, trick or manipulate the gatekeeper to get through with no regard for the human being on the other end of the line. Now again, sometimes these lines may work, but they still leave me shaking my head. Some of these comments have been edited for clarity and grammar:

  • “I just tell them I’m returning the executive’s call. It gets me right through.”

  • “I sweet-talk the gatekeeper and get them to trust me.”

  • “Good ole gate keepers, send an email, I think not. I would love to do that, and I probably will, but Mr. X is expecting my call. Best method I have is call the number, ask for the name of Mr. X, and call the next day with ‘can I talk to Mr. X', always works. And a white lie sometimes, if it's a restaurant for example, I need book an event for 100 people, so I need to talk to Mr. X.”

  • If they say they're on another call, say this: "That's ok, I can wait on hold." They don’t know what hit them and you get put through sometimes from it.

  • Tell the gatekeeper you’ve known him for many years.

  • Tell them it’s his bank.

And some of my personal favorites from the past:

  • “I was just speaking with him and we got cut off.” (although he’s in another country or on a plane)

  • “We were at dinner last night and he asked me to call him.” (again, nope)

  • “I was referred by Ms. X to give them a call.” (uh, huh - do you see why you aren’t believed?)

One participant responded with her own valid question - “is there a site where gatekeepers go to vent? It could be enlightening.” And yes, there are many. Not only are there professional associations to which these gatekeepers belong, but there are forums to vent and share these ridiculous requests. And not only are stories shared, but company and REP names as well.

Any gatekeeper doing this work for any decent amount of time has heard it ALL. It’s actually quite entertaining, and often your request is share with other gatekeepers as “hey, guys, listen to this one.” Salespeople aren’t the only ones playing this game. Many gatekeepers have been doing their jobs far longer than you have and are exasperated that you still act the way some do. Clearly it must still work in some instances, but why can’t we just remember that we’re all human, we all have jobs to do, we all wants our companies to be successful?

And I ask you, as a fellow human, to consider this…when you lie to get through, and actually do, after the gatekeeper has been instructed to not put unscheduled calls through, what do you think happens?

The gatekeeper can be admonished, sometimes publicly, for not following instructions. And after that experience, I promise you that their outlook hardens and ain’t no one getting through after that.

They can be written up for not following instructions, or worst case - which I have seen happen - they are let go. By lying and manipulating the truth just so you can “win,” you can cost someone his or her job. If you’re OK with that, then there are other conversations we need to have.

And what happens when and if you do get through, and the executive loves your product or service, you manage to win the contract, but you are then told to work with his/her EA as the project lead? Can we say…AWKWARD!

Or, the executive, as quite often is the case, asks the gatekeeper for his or her opinion of you? What do you think happens then?

Later in the conversation, someone asked me why the gatekeeper doesn’t just put the call through, since the opinion is that the gatekeeper “is in no position to make a decision,” and I shared a few reasons, and below I actually elaborate further with additional insights:

  1. Instruction from the executive. If the gatekeeper is told to not put through any unscheduled calls for any reason, there are no options. It’s not personal. And know that the gatekeeper is most likely privy to the executive’s calendar, and there are no exceptions. And by the way, if the gatekeeper is also the executive assistant, they know where the executive has bank accounts, where the kids attend school, names of family members, etc., so it’s useless to use that fib.

  2. A top EA is a valued, informed member of the executive team, and is not only in tune with and knowledgeable about what is desired and needed to achieve company goals, they participate in the decision-making process. Believe it or not, top EAs are quite business-savvy and have no patience for game playing. They are also usually the point person upon whom the executive relies for opinions and guidance. Do you really want to upset that person?

  3. The caller’s attitude and delivery. If you treat the gatekeeper like nothing more than a blockade, a nuisance to deal with, or having no importance in the equation, I guarantee the sentiment will be returned.

  4. The gatekeeper/executive assistant has in-depth knowledge of the business operations. If he/she asks clarifying or qualifying questions, or asks that you send an email - consider that perhaps the person you are trying to contact is not the right person and you are genuinely being helped. Hopefully you are asked to send the information directly to the gatekeeper, but if you are not, chances are they are following instructions.

  5. And finally, and I know this may be disheartening, but as I am conveying this information with the intent of honesty and transparency, getting multiple sales calls a day is frankly distracting, exhausting, and irritating to deal with. I realize it’s neither your fault nor intent to elicit this response, but try to remember that the person answering the phone is only human and is juggling more responsibility that you could fathom.

I know that sales professionals get frustrated when the response they get from the gatekeeper is the standard “they’re in a meeting” (which may or may not be true), but they have no issue with lying to the gatekeeper, “I was just speaking with Ms. Xxx” or “I’m returning their call.”

We’re all frustrated. It’s all a game. And it would be nice if it would stop.

Perhaps start by asking for help, and acknowledging that the person with whom you want to speak may be unavailable. You’re the sales professional, and there is extensive training on how to handle and overcome these situations - I know because I’ve been in the training and even facilitated some of it…but don’t forget, so has the gatekeeper. And his or her job may depend on it.

Remember that you’re dealing with a human being, not a robot, and you’ll most likely benefit from the result.

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