Prospecting shouldn’t be so daunting.

Why is getting past the gatekeeper and finding qualified leads so challenging for salespeople? Because prospecting has gotten incredibly complicated, even though it should be a no-brainer.

At most companies, prospecting is a balancing act that doesn’t always work so well. It starts with inbound leads—responding to leads from marketing, answering website inquiries, and following up with podcast and webinar attendees. Then there’s outbound lead generation—identifying trigger events, determining relevant content to send in an email, creating messaging, preparing short videos, and networking on social media. Layered on top of these activities are a myriad of sales enablement and social selling tools, all of which are intended to help salespeople with effective prospecting and, in turn, generating qualified sales leads.

Simply put: There’s a lot coming at salespeople at once, and one thing standing in their way … or one person. The dreaded gatekeeper.

The Gatekeeper Is Not the Enemy

The #1 reason sales teams find their job so daunting is they believe circumventing the gatekeeper is the answer to their lead generation woes. They’ve become convinced that digital technology should solve all their business development challenges, but there’s still no button to push that will make gatekeepers grant them access to decision-makers. That requires conversations and real-world relationship building—skills that many salespeople have let become rusty.

The decision-makers you want to reach aren’t playing hide-and-seek with your team. They are, however, unreachable by cold call—thanks, in large part, to the assistants whose job is to protect their time. These dutiful gatekeepers are not only used to salespeople trying to get past them; they know every trick in the book.

One assistant told me cold callers lie and tell him the CEO asked them to reach out. Most are cocky; others are downright rude; and some try to lay on the charm. A lot of them keep calling, hoping to eventually get the green light. But no matter how suave they think they are, he shuts down every cold call without a second thought. There’s only one way to get past him, and that is to be an expected and welcome call.

Are You Always Successful at Getting Past the Gatekeeper?

I’ve been polling sales audiences for years about their top challenges, and it’s typically the gatekeeper. So, I included the question “Do you always get past the gatekeeper?” in my Referral I.Q. Quiz (a 14-question “Yes/No” assessment that can be completed in a few minutes). Out of almost 600 respondents, 79 percent answered no.

Well, that’s embarrassing. After all the effort put into getting past the gatekeeper, salespeople flunk again and again. What does that say about your team’s prospecting prowess?

But here’s where things get a little confusing. I asked the same group, “Are you totally comfortable having an executive conversation with a real person?” This time, 85.5 percent said yes.

Salespeople know how to talk to executives, but not executive assistants? It seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t the former be easier than the latter?

This does, however, explain why prospecting is so challenging for most sales teams. According to CSO Insights, the #1 sales execution challenge is the ability to generate enough qualified leads, and the problem is only getting worse. CSO Insights’ 2018-2019 Sales Performance survey of nearly 900 global sales leaders identified four main objectives:

  • Improving lead generation
  • Capturing new accounts
  • Expanding penetration into existing customers
  • Increasing win rates

Referral selling addresses all these challenges and solves that pesky gatekeeper problem.

The Trick to Getting Past the Gatekeeper: Be a Welcome Call

It’s much, much easier to get to decision-makers with a referral introduction. Prospects will always take meetings with B2B sales reps who’ve been referred by colleagues they know and trust. There’s no need for duplicitous gatekeeper tactics, because their bosses actually want to talk to these salespeople.

Research by IDC and LinkedIn proves this point. In a survey of business buyers, 76.2 percent said they prefer to work with vendors who have been recommended by someone they know, and 73 percent prefer to work with referred salespeople. That explains why another study by Amplifinity found that leads generated from referrals convert 4X better than marketing leads.

I’ve spent more than two decades working with sales teams on selling through referrals, and I’ve seen what happens when they adopt a referral process. Sales reps:

  • Get every meeting at the level that counts with one call
  • Arrive with trust and credibility already earned
  • Shorten the sales process because prospecting time collapses
  • Beat out the competition because they get in early and build relationships
  • Save money (referrals don’t cost a thing)
  • Convert prospects into clients more than 50 percent of the time (typically more than 70 percent)

Referral selling is your biggest competitive differentiation. No other marketing or sales approach comes close to the results you get with referrals. Yet, when CSO Insights asked sales leaders about their “ability to generate referrals from existing customers,” 48.6 percent of sales leaders admitted that process needs improvement, while 13.3 percent said it needs a major redesign.

I know that number is much higher. In my experience working with sales leaders, less than 5 percent of companies have committed to referrals as a strategy and implemented a referral system with precision.

Here’s the deal: Your current clients would be happy to refer you, but they probably won’t think to do so unless they’re asked. And your team won’t ask unless it’s part of your sales process.

So, what are you waiting for? Give them a way to get past the gatekeeper for good.

Help your team understand how referrals guarantee a one-call meeting. Invite Joanne to speak at your next sales meeting or professional development event.

This post was originally published on February 15, 2018 and updated January 5, 2020.