3 Ways to Get Past the Gatekeeper

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Mar 30, 2015
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.

The first and most important thing a recruiter must do is get through the gatekeeper to the prospective client. Smiling and dialing is fine for voicemails you hang up on, but placements aren’t made that way. You might as well be talking to your kids.

If you follow me, I’ll show you where the secret passages are to get past the guards at Placeland.

1. Find the Hiring Authority

More placements are lost by calling the wrong person than any other reason. That’s why the recruiter’s bumper sticker reads, “So many sendouts, so few offers.”

In a large corporation, your most valuable source of information is some busy live operator. Unlike assistants, operators are not there to screen. They’re pressured to transfer a call as fast as possible.

Let’s say you’re running with a senior financial planner who currently reports to a vice president of finance. You don’t call and ask for the vice president of finance. Maybe the company doesn’t have one. Or maybe he’s not the one who makes the hiring decisions. Instead, you ask the operator “Who’s in charge of the financial planners?” Here’s how the conversation might go from there:

Operator: Ed Davison. He’s the director of operations.

You: Who does he report to?

Operator: Bruce Janklow, our controller.

You: And who does Mr. Janklow report to?

Operator: That’s Stan Shaw.

You: What’s Mr. Shaw’s position?

Operator: He’s the chief financial officer.

You: And who does he report to?

Operator: Lets see… I think he reports to Herb Reston. He’s our vice president of finance.

You: Herb Reston. He reports to your president?

Operator: Right.

You: What ‘s his name?

Operator: Dennis Hardy.

You: Thanks. Herb Reston, please,

Of course, this little exercise is time-consuming. About 33 seconds, to be exact. But it’s time well spent. You’ll be talking to the person who reports to the president.

In a smaller company, you might be able to get through to the president immediately. You should always do so if you can. If he’s not the right person, he’ll refer you. Then you can say, “Dennis and I were just talking, and he suggested I call you.” (Translation: “Listen fella, the boss sent me.”)

But you don’t stop here. It’s equally critical to verify that you’ve hit the bullseye. After it’s been established that the company has an opening, you say, “Are you in a position to hire someone today?” Even if you hear a panicky “Yes,” ask if there is someone else (the president, personnel manager, etc.) who should be included in the decision. Herb might just say he’s the hiring authority to impress you (or himself). Keep at it by something like, “Can you think of anyone else who should be included in the hiring decision?”

You absolutely must know what you’re up against from the gate, or you’ll be racing your MPC (most placeable candidate) around an empty track entertaining only the popcorn vendors.

2. Bypass the Assistant

The assistant, secretary or other gatekeeper is often highly skilled at screening calls. You undoubtedly know recruiters who have counterintelligence names like “The Field Service Office” or “The HR Department,” or initials like “NBC” or “IRS.” Starting out with a subterfuge is about as welcome as calling up and saying, “Hi, ihis is Lee with your copier service. I can’t read the model number of your machine on this order. Would you check it for me?”

The important thing is that the assistant believes the boss will want to talk to you. If you don’t influence him or her favorably, your name might as well be “Search Out Losers.” Then you can correctly call yourself “SOL.”

Your first approach should be brief, direct and authoritative: “This is Lee Dawson with Bond & Associates. Is Herb in?” There’s no point in wasting another 33 seconds talking about why you’re calling, and it can be the only explanation you’ll make.

Assistants are lieutenants. They respond to commands. Not long-winded, vague, unsure babbling. The difference is:

Positive Reaction: “Mr. Dawson with Bond & Associates is on the phone. It sounds important. Shall I put him through?”

Negative Reaction: “Someone with Bond & Associates is on the phone. He sounds like a headhunter. Shall I tell him you’re busy?”

The executive relies on the assistant’s judgment. Over 90% of the time.

Now, I know it doesn’t always happen like that. Some assistants will pump you for more information before buzzing the boss. After you identify yourself, they ask, “Does he know you?” “May I tell him what it’s regarding?” or the flattering “Who?” You should reply, “We haven’t met, but I’m sure Mr. Reston is familiar with our company. The call is somewhat personal.”

Well, it is “somewhat personal.” You’re not a dialing machine. And it’s your job to convince the assistant you’re not.

Then, there’s the ultimate put-down: “Look, Mr. Lee . . er . . . Dawson . .. If you’re a recruiter, Mr. Reston isn’t interested in talking to you. He asked me to tell all recruiters that we’re not looking for anyone. But you can send a fee schedule and resumes to the HR administrator at our office in the Fiji Islands. Would you like the address?”

Now, you’re a decision-maker. If you believe that you’re just throwing resumes against the wall indiscriminately, then say, “Geewhillikersgollywow. I’m sorry to have taken your valuable time with this foolish call. Please don’t worry, I won’t bother you again. Thankyoubye,” and hang up gently.

But if you believe that you’re a pro and have a valuable service to provide, then press on: “There are a few things I’d like to discuss with Mr. Reston immediately. He’ll be familiar with Bond & Associates, and we’d appreciate a few moments of his time. It’s important.”

Now, you’ve said it all. Stop talking and allow the silence to emphasize your point. The justification is there. The gauntlet has been laid down. The assistant is on the spot and may be fencing fatally.

We’re all instantly aware of the self-image of people we talk to on the phone. If you sincerely believe that you have a valuable service to provide, the gatekeeper will believe it too. The conviction and authority you convey starts in your own mind.

3. Leave a Message

There are messes and there are messages. Some recruiters don’t even leave messages, since their rate of return is so low. Others receive call-backs constantly.

This is nothing more than an extension of your attitude as discussed in Item 2. It’s unlikely that Reston woke up with the primordial urge to hear from a recruiter. He’s probably like most prospects salespeople encounter — blissfully ignorant of the value of your call.

“Please tell him it’s urgent,” compromises you. It’s not.

“We’d appreciate hearing from him today,” is more like it. Authoritative, but not as though you’re calling the Better Business Bureau to complain about your brake job.

Calling again is another missed opportunity. This time, ask for and use the secretary’s name. Press for an answer and stop when you get one, using our “Measured Message Method”:

  1. “Sharon, Mr. Reston and I both have busy schedules.”
  2. “Is there any particular time when Mr. Reston will be available?”
  3. “Is it in the morning or the afternoon?”
  4. “Is 2:00 or 4:00 better?”
  5. “How about this evening at home around 7:30?”
  6. “What’s his home number?”

Using the assistant’s name is powerful. Almost all the time, it’s a hard-working person without a name. Ask her what she does for a living and she’ll tell you she’s “just a secretary.” Or maybe she’ll just say she’s an “assistant.” If you want to impress and influence her, use her name!

Specific, concise questions add to your delivery too. Giving an alternative (“Is 2:00 or 4:00 better?”) implies that you have a busy schedule. The assistant thinks, “He must be important if there are only two times Herb can call him.” But if you asked, “When would it be convenient for Mr. Reston to talk?” you’d be implying that your time is less valuable than his. The response is usually, “I don’t know. He’s very busy.” What you say and what you convey are crucial: Conviction and authority.

You might have to make as many as four calls to connect. This factor alone should make you deliriously confident. How many recruiters do you know who’ll cold-call a hiring authority and leave four messages?

On the third call, say something like, “Sharon, my calendar is booked solid. It’s going to be quite difficult for Mr. Reston to contact me. When do you think is the best time for me to call him?” As before, you’re targeting the time, but now you’re asking the secretary to be your ally.

Sometimes we get so hung-up in expecting rejection that we forget how willing assistants are to assist. After a few calls and the familiarity of a first-name basis, ask:

Some recruiters use researchers or even other recruiters in the office to place calls for them. This reduces “recruiter rejection,” and gives the impression of authority to get past the gatekeeper. Then it sets the stage for “Mr. Reston? Just a moment please, I have Mr. Dawson on the line.” It works.

Three ways get past the guards at Placeland!

This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.
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