Getting Around the Gatekeeper

The air has been thick on ERE and all over the recruiting space; thick with the din of ethics, legalese, and honesty and integrity discussions. What should you say to get around the gatekeeper without being deceitful? How much information should you reveal to the gatekeeper? How should you introduce yourself to the passive candidate when you call? What is ethical in sourcing and what isn’t? I am going to avoid all that and focus on two very important aspects of great recruiting: how to get around a gatekeeper without rusing (today’s article) and, once you get to the prospect or candidate, how you define the purpose of your call and then execute the art of recruiting (an article to come). This will be about tactics; a practical teaching session that any recruiter can execute immediately.

During my 12 or so years of recruiting and recruiting leadership I have learned a variety of tactics from some of the best-known names in the recruiting industry. Names like Sullivan, Radin, Leffkowitz, Adler, etc., read like a who’s who of recruiting consultants and teachers who have shaped my execution, teaching, and leading in the recruiting industry. The tactics and techniques I teach to my teams and that I will relay here come from my experience with what gets results and what the aforementioned recruiting industry thought leaders have taught me and many others. This article won’t discuss phone-call name generation or sourcing techniques, but that will likely come in a later article. Much of what I executed successfully as a recruiter, and now teach as a leader, was learned from Peter Leffkowitz in my TPR days. Those of you who have attended any of his seminars or training will recognize much in this article.

A Hypothetical Situation

You are conducting a search for a director of marketing or VP of marketing. If you’re a really great recruiter, you have competitive intelligence on a few candidates who you know are high performers. One of those high performers is a senior-level marketing professional at one of your competitors named Barbara Smith. You are now ready to make the call. Given the senior-level scope of your search, there’s a high degree of likelihood you’ll encounter your targeted prospects’ executive secretary or administrative support; the dreaded gatekeeper. Damn the man!

Want To Know How To Get Around a Gatekeeper? Hang Out With One

The first thing you need to do is get to know someone who has been a gatekeeper. Just about every organization has at least one gatekeeper or someone working in the company who did it in a prior life. Ask them how they did it. Understand how they were trained and what scripts they use. Listen to them apply their craft. Incidentally, hiring former gatekeepers to be recruiters is a very sound recruiting strategy. In order to get around the gatekeeper, it is critical to know the script almost all gatekeepers employ. Gatekeepers are taught to answer the phone in a very specific way, and the script pattern they use is designed to get as much information from the caller in order to make a decision about who to let through and who to block. Great gatekeepers are trained to block everyone unless they make a compelling argument for why they should be let through or the person they support has specifically indicated a caller should be let through.

Before we talk about how to design the call and get by the gatekeeper, we need to look at a typical recruiting call and the common script pattern a gatekeeper will likely use during their interaction with you the recruiter. As part of the call examination we need to look at how most recruiters, especially those in the corporate recruiting world, script their end of the call. Most TPRs are usually much better at this, though you wouldn’t know it by the voicemails and calls I have received from some of them recently. The background now set, let’s “listen in” on our hypothetical call:

Gatekeeper: Good morning; Barbara Smith’s office.

Recruiter: Good morning; Barbara please.

Gatekeeper: May I tell her who is calling?

Recruiter: Of course. This is Michael Homula calling.

Gatekeeper: What company are you with Mr. Homula?

Recruiter: Company X.

Gatekeeper: And the nature of your call?

Recruiter: Choke, gasp, uhhh, mmmm, aaahhh…

Read that exchange three more times. It is important to imprint this gatekeeper-recruiter give-and-take into your brain. It’s a dance, and you have to know the movements of the dance in order to effectively dance with your partner (the gatekeeper) and get around them. The gatekeeper script pattern outlined in this example is how the vast majority of them are trained to execute their craft of blocking you. It’s effective and often works very well. In order to know how to execute this call the right way, we have to first look at how it is done wrong. So, don’t read ahead. Stop right now and go back and read the exchange three more times, paying careful attention to the word patterns, the order and the rhythm of the call.

In the example above, our recruiter (played by me) did a few things right but a lot wrong. One thing the recruiter did do right was disarm the gatekeeper and build rapport by using her first name. Assuming you could actually “hear” this call, you would also know the recruiter mirrored their vocal pattern after the gatekeepers. In this example, I sounded like I belonged on the call. The call has to be delivered with confidence. As the “intruder” in this situation, you have to sound like you belong on the call. Too many recruiters feel some sort of guilt about making this call and therefore they sound guilty in their tone of voice. Using the proper tone and inflection, and using first names, sends a message to the gatekeeper — you should know me and I should be connected to Barbara. Some gatekeepers, especially in larger companies, may assume you work for their company (that you are an internal employee) or you are an approved vendor, and will pass you right along. Just think about how many employees or vendors there can be in some organizations. Executing this simple yet effective tactic may get you everything you need. Even though there were a few good points during this call, there was still a lot wrong. Namely, the gatekeeper got the recruiter off script and stuck them with a tough question: “What is the nature of your call?” This is a tough question for recruiters to answer and is often where the call ends or goes sideways. Many recruiters immediately begin to lie or employ some deceitful tactic to get put through. But that is not necessary. Try this exchange and technique on for size:

Gatekeeper: Good morning; Barbara Smith’s office.

Recruiter: Good morning; who am I speaking to?

Gatekeeper: This is Jim.

Recruiter: Jim, good morning. This is Michael Homula calling for Barbara.

Did you see that? Did you see what I just did? What I did was employ a technique that Peter Leffkowitz calls pattern or script interrupt. Telling him my name before he asked for it changes who is in control of the conversation. Most gatekeepers have a script pattern they work from; there is a rhythm and flow to it, just like a recruiter’s script. Most of these script patterns include a component of asking for the identity of the caller, the company they represent, and the nature of the call.

These key questions happen early in the call “dance” and help the gatekeeper to fulfill their purpose. That purpose is to gain control of the conversation, determine the call’s level of importance, how valid the call is, gather information about the caller, and then block the caller if they are undesirable. By interrupting this script pattern, the recruiter now owns the flow of the conversation; the gatekeeper is pushed sideways and out of rhythm and becomes distracted from his script and its subsequent purpose. The result is that the recruiter improves the odds of getting through to the prospect/candidate. In other words, what I did as a recruiter in this example is change the pattern of how my information goes into the gatekeeper, which in turn knocks her off of her routine or script pattern. I have changed the texture of the call, as well as who controls it. In a very real sense, we have humanized the call and humanized the gatekeeper. Instead of dealing with Jim’s script, I am now dealing with Jim the person. Now that I have wrestled away control of how the information goes in and the texture of the call, it is now just two people who see each other as humans and not scripts. The playing field is now leveled.

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About Those Tested, Experienced, and Grizzled Veterans of Gatekeeping

Even if you use the script interrupt technique outlined above, sometimes getting through can be very difficult, especially when dealing with a great gatekeeper (who, by the way, you should recruit). The conversation with this person often goes more like what follows, though please note that I am using a number of interactions I have had over the years with gatekeepers to create a general response here. Most keepers will use nicer terminology than this, but the substance of the message is legitimately the same.

Gatekeeper: Good morning; Barbara Smith’s office.

Recruiter: Good morning; who am I speaking to?

Gatekeeper: This is Jim.

Recruiter: Jim, good morning, this is Michael Homula calling for Barbara.

Gatekeeper: Mr. Homula, unless I know the purpose of your call, I won’t transfer you to Ms. Smith. Is that clear?

Recruiter: Ugh, ummm, choke, cough…

The key here is to not get confrontational with this gatekeeper. Lying, rusing or deceit is not really the best choice either, and can be illegal. This is what works best, based on what I’ve have learned from years of experience and training by the leaders mentioned above:

Recruiter: Jim, I appreciate why you’re asking that question. You see, my call involves a high degree of sensitivity and confidentiality. I believe that needs to start with Barbara. Once I speak with her, if she feels the sensitive information I have can include you then all of us can be involved in the communication. I just think we need to let her make that decision. Until Barbara makes that decision, the sensitive nature of my call means I should speak with her first.

The gatekeeper, knowing that their director of marketing probably deals with a lot of sensitive information, is likely going to transfer me to Barbara Smith or to her voicemail. There isn’t a gatekeeper in the world that wants be responsible for a sensitive and confidential situation not getting through. If Jim the gatekeeper puts me on hold to announce my call to Barbara, he will inform her that the nature of the call is sensitive and confidential, which will create a degree of wonder and urgency for Barbara.

Recruiting Is Sensitive and Confidential

The recruiting ethics police out there may want to argue that by declaring my call to be “sensitive” and “confidential” rather than revealing my identity as a recruiter calling to offer Barbara a better opportunity is scandalous, unethical, or even illegal. To that I query back in advance, what can be more sensitive or confidential than a recruiting call? Barbara — someone I know to be a high-performing director of marketing — is entitled to learn about other opportunities that may be better than her current situation. Barbara also has a right for any conversation she has with me, or any other recruiter for that matter, to be handled with a high degree of sensitivity and confidentiality.

Once I speak with Barbara, she can decide whether or not to continue speaking with me. Barbara is also the only one who gets to decide if she would like to share the nature of our conversations with anyone else, including her current employer. Her company does not have the right to make that decision for her and certainly neither does her gatekeeper. The days of indentured servitude ended long ago in this country and only the talent I am trying to reach gets to make decisions about their future. Stay tuned for a future article which deals specifically with the actual recruiting call. Too many recruiters make the recruiting call ill prepared.

Michael Homula has over 10 years of high performing recruiting and recruiting leadership experience in third party as well as corporate recruiting.