What Is a Gatekeeper in Business?

Definition & Examples of Gatekeepers

Receptionist on the phone in an office

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A gatekeeper in a business is there to keep many incoming calls from getting to any key decision-makers in the organization. It is typically the first person you'll encounter if you call or visit the office.

For a salesperson, interacting with gatekeepers of various kinds is a key skill to develop. If you want to have a chance to sell your product, you've got to learn how to get through the gatekeeper first. Here's what you need to know about this important job.

What Is a Gatekeeper?

In business, a gatekeeper is exactly what it sounds like: someone standing at an entry point to prevent unwanted traffic from coming through. It's the person responsible for deciding who can get through to the decision-maker, with the goal of preventing interruption from bothersome visitors and callers.

CEOs and other key leaders in companies are typically very busy. The gatekeeper's role is to prevent them from spending unwanted time talking with people who won't help them with their business objectives.

How a Gatekeeper Works

A company's gatekeeper is typically the front line person, such as a receptionist or secretary in a business. In a restaurant, it may be the maître d'. In all cases, the decision-maker, manager, or head chef is busy with the challenge of keeping the business running smoothly and profitably. They can't take every call or see every visitor because it would take them away from their primary focus and job responsibility. 

Enter the gatekeeper, who shields and protects the person in charge. The gatekeeper screens calls and visitors, typically deflecting ones they believe are unimportant. A good gatekeeper is intuitive and can detect an unimportant interruption quickly. Anyone who isn't calling to complain or to buy something, but instead wants something for themselves, such as a salesperson, is denied access.

Gatekeepers and Outside Salespeople—Sworn Enemies?

Many gatekeepers develop a level of hostility toward outside salespeople. This is understandable if you consider that salespeople frequently resort to trickery or outright lying to get past gatekeepers to reach the decision-maker. A gatekeeper who allows someone unworthy to have access to the boss will likely be reprimanded, so they're motivated to do their job well.

There is no trick that will keep the gatekeeper and the decision-maker from getting annoyed by you, which isn't good if you're hoping to make a sale. Instead, it's better to treat the gatekeeper professionally and with respect. Your goal should be to gain their cooperation so your sale is far easier to close. The alternative is to antagonize them to the point that you'll have no chance of ever speaking to the decision-maker. 

Getting Through Different Types of Gatekeepers

The ideal approach will depend on the type of gatekeeper you are dealing with.

B2B Gatekeepers

B2B gatekeepers, such as receptionists and secretaries, are typically responsible for taking all general phone calls for the office and setting appointments. They're rarely involved in the decision-making process, so your best tactic may be to use the system to your advantage. Don't try to get past them; let them do their job and arrange an appointment for you to see the decision-maker. 

Executive Assistants

Executive assistants often become involved in the buying process, at least on an advisory level, so you might want to take a different approach with them. It's best to treat these kinds of gatekeepers as extensions of the decision-maker. You need to sell them, then give them some time to sell you to the boss. ​Start by explaining what you're offering, then tell them that you'll touch base again in a week or so.

B2C Gatekeepers

B2C salespeople also have to deal with gatekeepers, although the gatekeeper function is less formal. For example, a parent might act as a gatekeeper for their child, or a wife might do it for her husband. B2C gatekeepers generally turn out to have a say in the purchase, so it's extremely important to be respectful toward them. As with the executive assistant, you might want to devote some time to selling to them as well.

Key Takeaways

  • Gatekeepers are there to block unwanted callers or visitors from getting to key decision-makers in the business.
  • They are typically the first people you encounter when you call or visit an office—the receptionist, secretary, or executive assistant, for instance.
  • Salespeople should be aware of the type of gatekeeper they're talking to so they can tailor their approach accordingly.
  • No matter the type of gatekeeper, you should always make it a priority to be respectful if you hope to get through to the decision-makers.