Voice Mail, Gatekeepers, And Other Obstructions To Sales Success

You know your job, the characteristics of your market, and your product. You were hired in your latest company because of your experience – you’ve been selling your product line for some time with great results. No one has ever needed to teach you to sell because of your history of success. You do your homework well: you know how to find, and get in front of, prospects, and close a deal within a reasonable time period. You’re at the top of your game in your company and well-respected. You get referrals and close deals regularly, with authority and honesty. You’re a professional.

Your new prospect (The ‘Acme’ Corporation) has a need for your product; you’ve done your research and know this: you either know one of the people in their company who says they are seeking to solve a problem, heard through the grapevine that they are looking for a new vendor, or you’ve actually received an RFP from them. And it’s clear that your product will resolve their issue.


You first seek the right person to introduce yourself and your product. You believe you need to get an appointment to go in and meet this person face-to-face, and introduce your product while showing how it will resolve their business problem.

Your first challenge is to get through the gatekeeper. Your charm is often effective: you’ re respectful and you will let her know you need her (“Can you please help me?”). But in this case, Acme has a receptionist who is not friendly. If you don’t know the name of the person you’re calling, she can’t help you. So you do more research – on line and with colleagues – and get the right name. You call back, and after being put through to the right department, you are met with yet another gatekeeper who doesn’t want to put you through.

“Does Mr. Jones know what this is in reference to?”

“No, Mr. Jones doesn’t know me or my company. But I think he’d be interested in speaking with me since I have a product that he might be able to use to resolve his business problem.”

“Sorry, but I can’t put you through to Mr. Jones without him telling me to give you time. I’ll put you through to his voice mail and you can leave a message. He’ll get back to you if he’s interested.”


Here’s the message you leave:

“Hi Mr. Jones. My name is Kate Anderson. I’m the senior sales consultant at Merriweather. I was speaking with Joe Jones yesterday and he told me of your desire to solve your X problem. We have a product that can manage that for you, from what I understand from Joe, but of course I’d need to know more if there is indeed a chance that my product could help. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to return my call so that I could possibly ask you some questions and determine – with you – if my product would serve your needs. Please call me back at ___________.”

Now you have to wait to hear from him, and you know that most people do not respond to voice mail, especially when they don’t have a clue who you are.

What are your odds of getting a call back? Slim to none: unless Mr. Jones 1. is actually seeking exactly the solution you offer, 2. his current vendor can’t manage his needs, or 3. he’s seeking to compare possible solutions, he won’t speak with you. Why should he? If:

  • he’s not aware that he needs your specific solution, he won’t know he needs to speak with you;
  • if his current vendor is managing the problem, he won’t know your solution is better/cheaper/quicker;
  • if he thinks his problem can be resolved with his current team, he doesn’t need outside support.

In fact, he’ll return the call only if he’s seeking to check out all possible alternatives, and needs to compare price, (the automatic assumption is that the solutions are similar so the price has to be similar or lower).

In other words, if you get a return call you must expect to be treated like a commodity and be ready to defend your price points; if you don’t get a call back, you’ve lost a new prospect that most probably needs you.

Is it the fault of the gatekeeper? Nope. Remembering that a gatekeeper’s job is to let in the folks that will serve her boss, and keep out those that will waste his time, she’s just doing her job.

Is it the fault of your product or your marketing? Nope. That’s all just fine: clear, professional, manages a need.

Is it your fault? Nope. You’re a professional, and truly want to serve.

So what’s the problem?


The problem is that the buyer doesn’t know the decisions he needs to make internally to choose you, or to make a decision on whether or not you or your offering could be a part of his solution design and resolve his business problem.

How many times has this happened – that you’ve known you have the right solution for a prospect, known you’re a professional, and then not had the opportunity to get in front of the prospect, or get talked down irreparably on price, or lost to a lesser competitor? Too many times. Obviously if the prospect really knew your product and its value, knew your level of professionalism and care, understood that your product could manage their identified problem, you would have a closed sale.

It’s not you. Not your product. And not even the appropriateness of the solution. It’s about the string of decisions that buyers need to make before they can choose a new product/vendor and ensure that they don’t disrupt their internal systems (people, policies, relationships, etc.). Until or unless buyers address these issues – with you or without you – they will take no action and delay a buying decision.

Until now, the entire field of sales has been based on appropriately placing a product. More recently, the buyer has been incorporated into a needs analysis to ensure that they are getting exactly what they need. But all information gathering, analysis, and consultation, is based on the area directly around the identified need. If that were all there was to it, you’d be closing all of your sales because you do such a good job of this stage. Indeed, the skills that sales espouses are incomplete as they offer limited access into the buyer’s hidden systems that created and maintained the identified problem. And until these are addressed, the buyer-seller gap will remain a product-based push, no matter how well you gather data or analyze the problem.

Let’s take each piece of your approach and see how failure is built in, remembering that your product is most likely a great potential solution but that each person you connect with must first decide to connect with you before you can make the next move.


  1. if you are required to give a name to a receptionist, there is no way around this one. Just a company rule; the receptionist is too low level to make her own decisions.
  2. the gatekeeper to your identified prospect has a different set of problems. Her job is to let the right people in and keep the wrong people out. And you forget that with this first contact, she IS the primary decision maker. Your job here is to help her decide that you will be the ‘right’ person to serve her boss. Telling her that you have a solution and that you’re a professional doesn’t do the job. You must help her make a decision to choose you by using her own criteria for choice – which you don’t know. How will she know that you will be capable of serving her boss?


  1. voice mails offering data will not help the person decide to call you back unless they are already at a stage in their decision making process that they know what data they want to listen to. And by that time, you’re in a competitive situation.
  2. it’s possible to use voice mail to help the prospect recognize their internal criteria and decide to call you back because they recognize a collaborative decision making experience that will aid them in discovering all of their decision criteria right from your message. Ask the prospect how they are currently managing X and how they will be deciding on a new vendor to support their needed solution.

Face visits:

  1. prospects need to make systems decisions within the environment that created the identified problem before they choose a product solution. If they are lead through these decisions (and which they can’t always see clearly before they begin to seek a solution) on the phone, they will have the right people at the first face meeting. Otherwise, they will only have the first level decision makers and you’ll have to wait some extended period of time until the others get involved. And there are always others.
  2. Dale Carnegie advocated face visits because in 1935, it was the easiest way to connect with a prospect. This is no longer true and actually wastes time. Since buyers don’t make decisions based on information and since the product sale is the second half of a two phase sales process (the buying decision half is Phase 1; the product placement half is Phase 2), wait for your face visit until they have recognized and managed the hidden political, relationship, and policy issues necessary before their solution can be fully designed. Then visit to present your product in a way that addresses the solution they just designed, that must fix the entire scope of the identified problem.

Here are a few ‘givens’ that Buying Facilitation works from:

  1. information doesn’t teach someone how to make a decision. All of the years you’ve been pitching, offering product data in one form or another, and gathering information has been at the wrong time in the sales cycle. You are actually slowing down your sale. People need to first make decisions around how their solution design will have to manage a set of their unique internal criteria before they will choose a product or service to solve the problem.
  2. having the right product to fit a need does not ensure they will know how to buy it.
  3. buyers live within a unique set of internal systems that involve people, rules, politics, initiatives, vendor issues, relationships, historic attitudes, that have created and maintain the status quo. That means, the identified problem is a part of a larger, hidden system that must be managed before change can happen. And this system can’t be understood by any outsider. Any outsider. And understanding the buyer, the problem, or who the decision makers are does not help the buyer address the systems that need to be managed. Only insiders can manage this.
  4. until or unless a prospect manages their internal systems issues so that major disruption will not occur when they bring in a fix, they will take no action.
  5. the time it takes buyers to come up with their own answers is the length of the sales cycle.
  6. sellers should use their time with prospects to help them recognize all of the internal systems issues they need to manage, and then help them create a structure within which they can design a solution that hopefully builds in the seller’s product. Then a seller can gather and offer information.

The Buying Facilitation Method® was developed as Phase 1 of the conventionally accepted sales process, recognizing that you’ve never had the tools within the ‘sales’ model to actually deal with the hidden, historic, and idiosyncratic issues that buyers must manage internally that have kept the identified problem from being resolved until now (why wasn’t it resolved yesterday). The Method includes Facilitative Questions that assist sellers in leading buyers through the tactical and systems decisions (old vendor issues, historic union issues, new relationship management issues from another department, strategic initiatives that are getting badly managed) they need to make before bringing in a new solution. They need to handle this. They’ll do it with you or without you. I would prefer they do it with you and meld you into their solution design.

After all: do you want to sell? Or have someone buy?

3 thoughts on “Voice Mail, Gatekeepers, And Other Obstructions To Sales Success”

  1. Pingback: Proposal Management: the missing qualification piece | Sharon-Drew Morgen

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