The Gatekeeper Is the Decision Maker

Let’s take the gatekeeper’s point of view.

Your job is to greet visitors and answer the phones. Your job requires some emailing, and you might be in charge of the internal company newsletter. When callers want to do business with your company, you direct them to the information that best addresses their inquiries.

Beyond answering the phones, though, as the gatekeeper, you serve a vital function: you are responsible for directing the flow of information throughout the company as efficiently as possible. You are the company’s ear to the outside world, and you are the voice of the company to those who call.

When a salesperson calls, as the gatekeeper, every time you must make a prediction: will the requested contact be happy to speak with this salesperson?

In other words, you ask yourself:

“If I call my boss and say John Smith with ABC Company is on the line, how will my boss react?”

The gatekeeper’s decision to put you through might look something like this:

  • “My boss will be happy you called.” ➡ Put the caller through.
  • “My boss will be unhappy you called.” ➡ Get rid of the caller as politely as possible.
  • “I’m unsure how my boss will feel about your call.” ➡ Ask the caller to send an email (the safe bet).

Of course, variations to this logic exist. For example, sometimes the “polite” way for the gatekeeper to get rid of you is to ask you to send an email that she knows your prospect will never read.

Now, with this understanding of the gatekeeper in mind, would you agree with the following rule?

When you’re speaking with the gatekeeper, at that very moment,
she is the decision maker.

Never fight the gatekeeper, because when it comes to putting you through to the eventual decision maker, she will have her way every time.

Sure, when you’re speaking with the gatekeeper, feel free to use an authoritative tone. Sure, impress that you have an important reason for calling. Respecting the gatekeeper’s authority doesn’t mean that you have to degrade your own.

But when the gatekeeper pushes back on you, don’t expect to “authority” your way through the gate.

Instead, consider a different approach.

How effective could you be if you treated your conversation with the gatekeeper like any other sales conversation? This would involve asking questions to understand the gatekeeper’s interests and the company’s interests. You would then position your ask—a conversation with the decision maker—as a clear boon to both.

What if you asked your gatekeeper how she decides whether to put a caller through? Or whether her company has a “don’t put salespeople through” policy? Or what topics she thinks might catch the decision maker’s attention?

At the very least, these questions would set you apart from the billion other salespeople who are calling.

If the gatekeeper pushes you to email or asks you to leave a message, she’s probably not ready to go to bat for you. That’s okay. Help her go to bat for you by understanding the decision maker’s business well enough that you can prove your call will be relevant. It might take 5 or 6 calls with the gatekeeper to get to this place.

To prove your call’s relevance, make it a goal to develop your understanding of the prospect’s business on every single call.

That’s right. No more, “Is Mary Sue there? No? Okay, thanks. Well please tell her I called.”

One more note for you.

Your relationship with the gatekeeper is unique. Unlike everyone else who you sell to, the gatekeeper’s job requires her to pick up the phone without fail.

When you dial your prospect directly, you might only reach your prospect 1 out of every 10 times. But when you dial the gatekeeper, you reach her every time.

Can you see an opportunity here?

How might being able to consistently reach the gatekeeper help you build a relationship? Knowing the gatekeeper’s name, any weekend plans, and having an inside joke at the ready will make your 5th and 6th touches far more likely to make it through to the decision maker. At the very least, the gatekeeper will pass your message along, and she might even add in, “Seems like a nice guy.”

“Seems like a nice guy,” sets you apart.

“Seems like a nice guy,” gets you noticed.

“Seems like a nice guy,” gets you a conversation with the decision maker.

Here’s a parting thought for you.

We often speak in sales about getting past the gatekeeper, or getting around the gatekeeper, as if the gatekeeper is an obstacle, a nuisance.

The gatekeeper isn’t a nuisance. She’s an important part of your sales call.

Let’s change our tune. Let’s talk about getting through the gatekeeper, where engaging the gatekeeper receives the respect and attention it deserves.

Offer the gatekeeper respect, understand her needs, and earn her friendship. You might find that the decision maker hops on the phone more often than you thought possible.

Yours on the grind,


A quick note on gender: the use of “she” in this article is consistent with its use throughout as a modern substitute for “he or she” or “one”. There’s no intention here to label the gatekeeper as a feminine role. Given the (too) colorful history of women in the secretarial role, I feel this clarification is important.

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