What is a Gatekeeper?

On the phone in an office

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A gatekeeper in business is much the same as the image the term brings to mind—someone standing at an entry point to prevent unwanted traffic from coming through. It's the person responsible for keeping a decision-maker from being bothered by what she or he considers to be irrelevant and bothersome visitors and callers. Gatekeepers and salespeople are often at odds, with two quite different goals in mind.

The Role of a Gatekeeper

A company's gatekeeper is typically the receptionist or maybe a secretary in many businesses, but in a restaurant, it may be the maître d'. In some types of businesses, such as auto dealerships, there is likely a whole squad of gatekeepers—countless salespeople on the floor at any given time. In all cases, the decision-maker, manager, or head chef is busy with the challenge of keeping the business up and running as well as profitable. They can't take every call and can't see every visitor because it would take them away from their primary focus and job responsibility. 

Enter the gatekeeper who shields and protects the person in charge. The gatekeeper screens calls and visitors, typically deflecting ones they believe are unimportant. A good gatekeeper is intuitive and can detect an unimportant interruption in a heartbeat. It usually comes from someone who does not have a complaint, is not calling to purchase goods or services, but who wants something for themselves. For example, to make a sale. 

Gatekeepers and Outside Salespeople 

Many gatekeepers develop a level of hostility toward outside salespeople. This is understandable if you consider that salespeople frequently resort to trickery or outright lying to get past gatekeepers in order to reach the decision-maker. Many gatekeepers probably think you're interfering with the timely performance of their own jobs as well.

It's vital to treat the gatekeeper with respect and integrity. Hopefully, you'll gain their cooperation, and this can make your sale far easier to close. The alternative is to antagonize them to the point that you'll have no chance of ever speaking to the decision-maker. 

Breaching the Gatekeeper 

B2B gatekeepers like receptionists and secretaries are typically responsible for taking all general phone calls for the office and setting appointments. They're rarely involved in the decision-making process, so your best tactic may be to use the system to your advantage. Don't try to get past him or her. Instead, let them do their job and arrange an appointment to see the decision-maker. 

Executive assistants often become involved in the buying process, at least on an advisory level, so you might want to take a different approach with this kind of gatekeeper. You need to sell him or her, then give them some time to sell you to the boss. ​Start by explaining what you're offering, then tell them that you'll touch base again in a week or so. It's best to treat these kinds of gatekeepers as extensions of the decision-maker.

B2C salespeople also have to deal with gatekeepers, although the gatekeeper function is less formal. For example, a parent might act as a gatekeeper for their child, or a husband might do it for his wife. B2C gatekeepers generally turn out to have a say in the purchase, so it's extremely important to be respectful toward them. As with the executive assistant, you might want to devote some time to sell them as well