How to get past the toughest gatekeepers

In the typical company,
about 80 percent of business decisions are made by only 20 percent of its employees. Before your team members can get to a “yes” for an
order or deal, they must first
navigate past the gatekeeper
to reach the decision-maker
with the big pen.

Most companies spend their
efforts training salespeople
how to sell but neglect to
teach them how to get in front
of the manager who can give
the nod.

As the CEO of a Fortune 500
company, I was always
impressed and, at times, even
amused by the renegade peddler who made his or her way
across the desk from me for a
one-on-one session. I would
wonder if this person was
the no-account brother-inlaw of my gatekeeper, had
incriminating photos or
perhaps was a bona fide
seller who had convinced
my assistant that he was
offering something that
could make a difference.

So what’s the combination to
unlock that formidable door?
First, make sure your people
are targeting the right person.
Translation: Find out who in
the company calls the shots
on what your organization is
trying to sell and, equally
important, who is this honcho’s trusted assistant.

Sometimes, reaching the
higher-up is easier if one initially
starts a step lower. Increase
the odds for success by writing and/or calling the target’s
assistant, addressing him or
her by name. Always remember an administrative assistant
has real clout and must be
treated accordingly.

Unless the salesperson is
lucky, the initial call or note will probably not get the job
done. Instead, teach your people how to stand out in the
crowd. Start with a letter to
the assistant and follow up
with a phone call two or three
days later, but no longer, or
the note will be long forgotten.
Any combination of phone
calls, e-mails or personal
handwritten notes can be
effective in breaking through
the clutter that bombards an
overworked assistant.

Bear in mind that assistants
aren’t obstructionists. It’s just
their job to block time-wasters.
The worst nightmare for any
gatekeeper is being rebuked
by the boss asking, “Why did
you let that turkey in?” One
must always provide meaningful rationale for the proposed
tête-à-tête with the leader.

I vividly recall around the
spring of 2000 when my assistant suddenly started telling
me “wonderful things” about
the state of Pennsylvania.
Turns out that Tom Ridge, the
then-governor of the Keystone
State, learned that I would be
making a decision on where to
locate a new mega-sized distribution center that would
employ hundreds of people.

Instead of sending me the
usual propaganda, he chose to
call my assistant, introduce
himself and explain why
Pennsylvania would be the
right site for us. My assistant
later “confessed” that she had
several calls and a note of
thanks from the governor,
who subsequently became the
country’s first security czar.

Although she never admitted
it, I suspect the assistant provided the governor tidbits of
useful insights about the other
states with which Pennsylvania
was competing.

It sure doesn’t hurt, either, as
was the case with Gov. Ridge,
to convince this right-hand
person she would be fulfilling
her mission by getting him
through to me because, in
fact, Pennsylvania really was
the best location.

Things to avoid include calling and saying, “I’m from the
IRS,” or implying that it’s a
“sensitive personal matter,”
which might get one through
to the boss but also result in
having the phone slammed
down in the caller’s ear within
three seconds.

Also, never, ever bully the
gatekeeper with threats, such
as, “Do you know who I am?”
This tactic is guaranteed to
put the pursuer at the top of a
“black list” — which can
prove more difficult to get off
than Homeland Security’s “No
Fly list.”

For those who ultimately
reach the sacred ivory tower
and are successful, it’s wise to
give the gatekeeper credit for
having had the smarts to let
them in, which is exactly what
Tom Ridge did. Teach your
team members that the velvet-glove approach can spare
them the wasted energy from
huffing and puffing and trying
to blow the door down.

P.S. Yes, Pennsylvania won
the competition to become the
site of the new facility.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves
on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and
building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at [email protected].

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