5.6 Gatekeepers

A saleswoman on the phone.
Photo by Patrice_Audet, CC0

If you want to sell a product to a large company like Walmart, you can’t just walk in the door of its corporate headquarters and demand to see a purchasing agent. You will first have to get past of a number of gatekeepers, or people who will decide if and when you get access to members of the buying centre. These are people such as buying assistants, personal assistants, and other individuals who have some say about which sellers are able to get a foot in the door. Warning: Do not be rude to or otherwise anger the secretary!

Gatekeepers often need to be courted as hard as prospective buyers do. They generally have a lot of information about what’s going on behind the scenes and a certain amount of informal power. If they like you, you’re in a good position as a seller. If they don’t, your job is going to be much harder. In the case of textbook sales, the gatekeepers are often faculty secretaries. They know in advance which instructors will be teaching which courses and the types of books they will need. It is not uncommon for faculty secretaries to screen the calls of textbook sales representatives.

Getting Past the Gatekeepers

So what do you do if you’ve prepared your opening statement and done your research, but when you make your phone call, it isn’t your prospect who picks up the phone; instead, it’s their assistant, who wants to know who you are, why you are calling, and why you think your prospect should want to talk to you anyway? This is a likely scenario in B2B sales when your prospects are busy executives who don’t have the time to handle every call that comes through their office. If you want to see your prospect, you may have to go through the gatekeeper first. Their title might be secretary, assistant, administrative assistant, or executive assistant but their role will be the same: keeping unwanted distractions from interrupting their boss’s busy schedule. Salespeople often think of gatekeepers as road blocks—something standing in the way of getting to see the prospect. Gatekeepers are human beings (not obstacles) whose jobs are important to the successful running of their organizations. Think of them as part of the selling relationship and treat them with the courtesy and respect with which you would treat your prospect.

Put yourself in the gatekeeper’s shoes for a minute. You have been answering the phone all day, responding to people who don’t often treat you with much respect, and you get another call:

Salesperson: Hello, this is Camille Martin. Is Maria Gonzalez in her office right now?

Assistant: Yes, she’s here, but she’s busy at the moment. Can I ask what you’re calling about?

Salesperson: I’d like to schedule a meeting to see her. When would be a good time to call back?

Assistant: I’m sorry, but Ms. Gonzalez doesn’t take unsolicited calls.

Notice that the caller didn’t give the name of their organization or the purpose of their call, even when the gatekeeper asked for more information. The salesperson was abrupt with the gatekeeper, so the gatekeeper was abrupt in return. Remember that it’s the gatekeeper’s job to find out whether your call is worth their boss’s time, so if you tell them the purpose of your call, you are helping them to see that your call may be valuable. Learn the gatekeeper’s name and be friendly. 

Review the approach shown above using a referral as a way to work with the gatekeeper as an ally, rather than view them as a barrier:

You: Good morning. My name is Camille Martin and I’m calling from Preston and Preston; we’re a full-service digital photography studio here in Cleveland. I’m following up on a conversation that Jason Kendrick, our company’s CEO had with Maria Gonzalez. I understand she is looking for a partner in the digital photography area. May I speak with her?

Assistant: Let me check and see if she is available. Can you give me your name and company again?

You: Thank you. I appreciate your help. I’m Camille Martin from Preston and Preston What’s your name?


Example: Milton Hershey

Hershey Chocolate World Store 2018 New Location 6604
Hershey Chocolate World Store” by , CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When Milton Hershey first opened his candy store in Philadelphia, he had to shut down after six years because he never made enough sales to get the business off the ground. After closing in Philadelphia, he moved to Chicago, then to New Orleans, then to New York, each time failing and starting over again. In fact, it took ten years of rejection and failure before Hershey’s business succeeded. You already know how the story ended for Hershey (now a $5 billion company), but now you also know that the Hershey Chocolate Company wasn’t an overnight success; the business only took off thanks to one salesman’s persistence in the face of failure (Alonso, 2023).

Rejection (fear of failure)

Rejection is a reality that all sales professionals have to deal with occasionally, no matter how experienced or skilled they are; it comes with the territory. Prospects will sometimes hang up on you or refuse to see you, and others will listen to your sales approach and then tell you that they aren’t interested in what you have to offer. However, if you approach your sales call with confidence and refuse to take rejection personally, then the possibility of rejection doesn’t have to be a barrier to your success. Recognize that it is the fear of failure, more than anything else that creates a barrier between a salesperson and a successful sale. The best approach is to practice (Roque, 2017) so that you build your confidence which leads to a mindset for success (Girard, 2011).

Successful selling is all about mastering your attitude, and this is especially true when it comes to facing rejection. There are many reasons that a prospect may reject your offer—very rarely is it personal. The product may not be a good fit, they may not be ready to make a deal (no budget or commitment from the decision makers), or they like their current product or service (Brudner, 2016). To overcome the fear of rejection, you can practice to increase your confidence and your ability to communicate (role play with other reps, do ride alongs, ask your manager for help), keep your office space very organized so that you can focus on the actual sales process, follow Nike’s slogan and “just do it” –procrastination is a huge barrier in sales.

“9.5. Successful appointment making” from The Power of Selling by Dr. Michelle Clement is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

“4.3 Buying Centers” from Principles of Marketing by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Sales Leadership Management Copyright © 2023 by Fanshawe College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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