One of the most important steps in any business transaction, whether it's making a sale, signing a new client, or even landing a new job, is getting to a decision-maker with the power to make it possible.
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Chances are, however, that a decision-maker with that kind of power also has a gatekeeper, usually a receptionist or an administrative assistant, whose job it is to make it difficult, if not impossible. Even in literature, a classic quest requires the hero to negotiate with trolls, ogres, and sphinxes to win the object of desire. The key to achieving what you seek is persuading the gatekeeper to let you in.
Do Your Homework: Knowledge is power. In any situation, the more knowledge you have, the more resourceful you can be in finding ways to get what you want. Before approaching any business transaction for any reason, familiarize yourself with the target company. Fortunately, these days that's as easy as clicking a mouse. Visit the website. Learn who the key executives are. Read the mission statement. Find out who the company's major clients are. Read the press releases. If the company is publicly owned, research the financial data. Do a keyword search for any recent news or business articles. The more you know, the greater your chances of finding a way in.
Identify the Target: If the company has more than a handful of employees, chances are the decision-maker won't be the owner or the president. The person you need to see may be the VP of Marketing, the head of Human Resources, or the director of PR; and gaining an audience with a second-tier manager is much easier than getting to the top banana.
Request an Appointment: Your first impulse may be to try reaching the decision-maker on the phone, which is often the gatekeeper's most guarded point of entry. Instead, you may be able to schedule an appointment. It's always worth asking.
Don't Ask, Do Tell: Always be assertive when contacting a decision-maker by phone. Instead of asking if that person is available, confidently state your name and say who you are calling for.
Get Personal: In some cases, a casual, first name approach may have the desired effect, especially if you already know the gatekeeper and/or decision-maker. By giving the impression that you are a familiar contact, you may increase your chances of getting through the gate.
Have a Ready Answer: Whether contacting a decision-maker by phone, or attempting to schedule an appointment, you'll likely be asked, "What is this regarding?" And you'd better have a compelling answer. Before making that call, spend a few creative minutes coming up with one.
Talk to the Voicemail: Instead of trying to get through to the decision-maker in person, you might simply ask to be put through to voicemail, where you will at least get to make a compelling pitch that could win you a return phone call.
Do a Little Schmoozing: Don't underestimate the power of making nice with the gatekeeper. Recognize the fact that he or she may be part of the decision-making process, and that a few moments spent explaining your purpose or even making small talk may go a long way toward getting you in the door.
Timing is Everything: Choose a time when the gatekeeper may be away from the phone to make your call, perhaps during lunch hour, a few minutes before the start of the business day, or a few minutes after close of business. These might be times when the decision-maker answers the phone.
Do an End Run Around: E-mail addresses are often listed on websites and business cards, making it possible to contact the decision-maker directly. Requesting a "Read Receipt" could also tip you off that the decision-maker is at his or her desk and is available to speak with you while your e-mail is fresh. And don't forget good old postal mail. A letter stands a viable chance of finding its way into the decision-maker's hands, but you'd better make it a good one if you expect a follow-up call.