Small Business

Getting Past the Gatekeeper


Barriers to new customers range from wariness of salespeople to workplace restrictions. To reach these potential buyers, prove your relevance

Do you feel like it's getting harder to get through to new customers? You're not alone. Everyone is putting up barriers designed to keep strangers, spammers, and scammers out of the workplace. So what's a salesperson to do?

Start by seeing the situation from your potential customers' point of view. They often feel stressed out, overworked, and afraid they'll lose their jobs if they buy something new and it doesn't work out. As a result, they stick with the tried and true.

This may make them feel more in control, but in reality they are keeping out new ideas that could help increase revenues and decrease expenses or liabilities. What's frustrating is that if they achieved those results, they would probably get a promotion, a bonus, or a raise. Your job is to convince them of that. But first you need to get past the gatekeepers, in whatever form they take.

Bricks in the Wall

Customers often put up psychological barriers to salespeople by sending themselves messages like "Be wary of everything salespeople do or say. They're liars, and if you fall for one of their tricks, you could lose out on a promotion or even lose your job."

And many companies put up companywide barriers, such as approved vendor lists, potent e-mail filters, and touch-tone alphabetical phone directories. These barriers may have started out as a response to the spam and scams arriving from all corners of the earth, but they often overreach their goal.

Take the phone directory example. If you don't know the name of the person you should talk to, how are you supposed to spell out his or her name? Or the approved vendor list. You can't sell until you're on the list, yet you can't get on the list until you prove you're a reliable, quality vendor. It's a classic Catch-22.

Oh, the pain! Don't give up—get smart. The key to getting through any kind of barrier is relevance. If you can show how your offering is highly relevant to your customers, they will return your calls, meet with you, and buy from you. It's really that simple.

Relevant Strategies

There are three basic strategies for relevance—referrals, proven results, and testimonials. To get more referrals, ask more of your clients for referrals more often. To show others your proven results, measure your clients' results and ask them to certify your findings. If you want testimonials, ask your clients to tell you what they liked about your product or service, write it up, ask them to edit it, print it on their letterhead, and send it back to you. I often find customers will add more compliments to their testimonials before they're finished. Sometimes I give them three lead-off ideas and let them finish them in their own words. You can put copies of these flattering letters in subsequent proposals and mailings. You can post them on your Web site and quote from them for cover letters.

Keeping relevant applies to voice-mail messages you leave, too. Make sure your first five to 10 words are extremely relevant. I didn't appreciate this until I watched my husband retrieve his voice mails from work. He ran a $30 million yearly budget so, as you might imagine, he had a lot of salespeople calling on him. I watched him zip through 10 messages in one minute. When I asked him how he did that, he admitted that he only listened for the first few seconds and if the message didn't sound highly relevant, he skipped to the end and hit delete. So forget long and brilliantly argued voice mails. Prepare a compelling message that proves your relevance right up front and then close for the next step. The same goes for e-mail (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/24/06, "Selling to Giants").

If you have targeted a customer who is hiding behind barriers, don't give up easily. Be polite, persistent, and patient. It may just be a game of wearing them down or contacting them when they need what you sell. If you get discouraged, don't show it by becoming pushy or ugly. Consider taking a break from calling on them and come back in a month or so. You'll feel refreshed and might have a new idea—or a more relevant approach. Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols, the founder and president of sales consulting firm Savvy Selling International, leads a weekly podcast and writes her Savvy Selling column every other week.

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