November 22, 2015


Ka-ching ›

Sales: getting past the gate-keepers

Your "new business development" mission: to add another substantial account to your stable of agency clients. To achieve this you are going to have to put on your fishing gear, grab your harpoon and go whale hunting!

One of the many tricky things about whale hunting is that the elusive whale (your key sales target) is often protected by pitbull-like protectors we affectionately refer to as "gate-keepers". Gate-keepers often feel like the #1 barrier between you and sales success.

Gate-keepers can take many forms, including:

  • Executive Assistants (EAs)
  • Personal Assistants (PAs)
  • Call centres
  • Junior staff
  • Voice messages

Your aim

The main thing to remember, when making what is - effectively - a cold call to your whale, is that your aim is not to close a sale over the phone. Your aim is solely to book in a meeting time, at which point you will make your full sales pitch.

To that end, when talking with either the whale or the gate-keeper, you don't have to make a sales pitch or tell a complicated story over the phone. You need only sum up why the whale should meet you, in one or two very succint sentences. 

Play by the rules

You should (at least to start with) attempt to play by the rules and go through the gate-keepers. There is no sense in ruffling any feathers before they get to know you better!

Be very clear about what you want to achieve, which is a meeting with the whale. Firstly state your objective, then back it up with the compelling reason of why the whale should give you their time.



Bless their socks, EAs and PAs are pitbulls personified. They are loyal and protective, with a bark almost as powerful as their bite. They understand their company's business extremely well. They are intelligent, organised, and - usually - quite rationale. They can be your best advocate or your worst nightmare.

EA-PAs are masters of their whale's diary, so if you want a meeting booked, you'd better be ready to convince the EA-PAs that you are worthy to consume their whale's time and attention.

Treat EA-PAs with a good helping of respect, politeness and friendliness, and the battle is half won.


Call Centres

Have you ever wanted to call a whale, but you only have the phone number of their Call Centre?

In many large companies, the Call Centre staff have been instructed not to give out the phone numbers or email addresses of management. They may take your details and say that they will ask someone to call you back, but you really should avoid this if you can help it. 1) there is no point in giving your speedy sales pitch to a non-influencer; 2) the impact of any written message will be lost; 3) there is a low-to-zero chance that a whale will return your call.

How can you get around this situation?
  • Don't give up!
  • Ask to speak with the whale's EA or PA.
  • Ask to speak with the next person down in the foodchain from your whale (e.g. if not the GM, could you speak with a Marketing Manager, or Marketing Assistant?).
  • If they won't give out a phone number, ask for the whale's email address, or someone else's email address.
  • If they won't give you an email address, then leave a brief "call me back" message with the Call Centre (what have you got to lose?), but determine to find an alternative means of contacting your whale (see below).


Junior staff

Whales are usually busy people, and (right now) you are of no importance or interest to the whale whatsoever - you are not even registering on their sonar. It is possible you'll get fobbed off to a more junior staff member (either by the EA or PA, or the Call Centre). Don't despair, this could be an opportunity in disguise - junior staff members may not be decision-makers, but they can be influencers!

By sharing your business proposition, and helping them to understand the benefit you can bring to their business, you are giving them an opportunity to impress their boss with a new idea. As long as you make it very clear that your aim is to get a meeting with the whale, and then ask them to arrange it, then you are still meeting your sales objective.


Voice Messages

So, you were able to get through to your whale's landline or mobile voice message? Good for you! Though not exactly the human you were hoping for, this is your chance to leave a message enticing enough that the whale just has to call you back. To do this your message must strongly say "what's-in-it-for-the-whale" (highlighting the "why", not just the "what").

You may find that the whale is too busy, or not interested enough to return your call. All is not lost, however. The next time you phone your whale it will be a warm call, not a cold call. You will be able to refer back to your previous voice message, sum up what you said, and ask for a face-to-face meeting.


Still no luck?

If the gatekeepers are doing their job well, you may not be able to talk with your whale via conventional means. It's time to dig deeper and get creative:

  • Try sending them a LinkedIn InMail (direct message).
  • Ask for an introduction through a common LinkedIn connection.
  • Ask for an introduction through a common business acquaintance.
  • Find them at a networking event.
  • Join their gym (hey, it just might work!).

If the whale hunt is proving fruitless, then just move on. There will always be other large fish to fry!



Sarah Ritchie
Sarah Ritchie


Sarah Ritchie is the founder of AM-Insider - a website bursting with tips, tricks and resources to create account management superstars in the advertising, design, PR, experiential and print industries. Sarah has been involved in account management for 25 years and has a passion for encouraging, mentoring and helping others succeed.

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