They Can’t Say Yes — but They Can Say No!

gatekeeper cartoon  My first sales job was for an unnamed office products company nearly four decades ago. This was back in the day when almost every decision maker had a secretary — not an executive assistant or an office administrator but a secretary.

Of course, our goal as salespeople was to get in front of the decision maker. Therefore the central paradigm of our sales training went like this: the secretary is the gatekeeper keeping you away from the decision maker. Therefore it is vital that you learn ways to “get past the secretary.” I don’t recall any training designed to help us build credibility with the secretary so that she would become our ally and not our adversary.

We were frequently reminded not to “waste time” talking with the secretary because she (back then almost always a “she”) did not have the power to say “Yes.” This may have been true. However, as I learned to my chagrin, she frequently did have the power to say “No.” The professional secretaries I encountered, like their executive assistant and office administrator counterparts today, wielded considerable influence earned over years of experience; and if they wished they could use that influence to help you win the sale — or to make sure your proposal ended up in the round file (no recycle bins in those days).

One time I had made a presentation to a large concern in downtown Seattle. The order would have been a very good one for a junior salesperson to bring home, and getting this particular client to use our equipment would have represented a feather in the cap of my company, potentially leading to future sales down the road. So during the sales process (going against my relational instincts) I followed my training and worked my way past the secretary, doing absolutely nothing to earn her good will or to listen to the product features that might have been important to her. After all, who really knows the office environment — the secretary/admin professional or the so-called decision maker? Had I spent time asking her questions and listening for her insights I would have gained invaluable information and earned her trust in the process.

But I didn’t. And as a result we lost the sale — because, as I later found out, the secretary preferred one relatively minor feature of my competitor’s product to mine. Could I have overcome this so-called objection? I’ll never know — but I’ll bet you a latte the answer would have been yes.

Are you in sales or fundraising? Treating everyone with respect and courtesy is a given, of course — and if your behavior causes them to use their considerable influence on your behalf, so much the better. My suggestion is, don’t be as quick as I was to try to circumvent the very individuals who may be able to provide you with the greatest assistance! That so-called “gatekeeper” may not have the power to say “Yes” to your proposal, but he or she can very likely say “No” — and that’s a word we would rather not hear, isn’t it?

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