This is a question we hear from just about everybody who’s responsible for outbound business development – for reaching out to customers as opposed to just responding to inbound leads and inquiries. How do you sell past the executive assistant? How do you get past the gatekeeper, the person who is responsible for intercepting our call or reading our email before someone else gets a chance to read it? This is an area where we can definitely accomplish some things if we think more clearly about what’s going on here. We need to think about that role of an executive assistant. It would be too simplistic to assume that their job is to block out the entire world, that they don’t want to let anybody through or talk to anybody. That’s not true. What’s more common is that they’ve been asked to block out anybody who is irrelevant. But when they find somebody that is relevant, they should put them through immediately. The point is that we should recognize that their primary goal isn’t to block you, it’s to find out if you have something of value to add, whether or not you have something to contribute. If you want to sell past the executive assistant:

1. Approach the executive directly. This is a valid approach that works well in many situations. If you’ve got their direct contact information or can get it, reach out to them directly; at least give it a try. I’ve seen a lot of sales people have success in the last few years with leveraging LinkedIn. There’s a study that shows if you take the same message that you would send via email and you instead send it by LinkedIn InMail, they’re three times more likely to respond to the LinkedIn message than they are to email. They’re going to get notified in the same email inbox that you would send to directly, but when it comes through LinkedIn they’re more likely to pay attention. Figure out a way to reach out to them directly to the avoid the executive assistant altogether.

2. Call at time the assistant isn’t there. Call early in the morning, try 8:00am, before the assistant is even there. This can be a very effective technique. I’ve had great success, especially reaching senior executives early in the morning because they tend to come in earlier and start their day before the majority of other people are in the office. If you call at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning—use your own judgment here, if you don’t want to call that early you don’t have to—sometimes they’ll pick up their own phone and you can talk to them without having to go through an assistant. Another great time to reach them is after hours, 5:00 or 5:30pm and I’ve spoken with executives as late as 6:30pm. Again, use your judgment as to what you think is the right thing to do, but you can reach people before and after hours. Don’t forget the lunch hour, which can be an excellent time to get through when someone isn’t necessarily screening calls. Sometimes the primary assistant is on a lunch break and a substitute is there screening calls and they’re not quite as good as screening them as the primary assistant. That can be a good time to reach people directly.

3. Work with the assistant to gain access. This is usually a better option than trying to go around the assistant, and I take this advice from an assistant herself. Frequently, when we do a workshop on selling to executives, we’ll bring in an assistant from the company we’re working with to talk to the salespeople about what it’s like to be an executive assistant. In a workshop I did a few years ago this woman said, “The biggest thing is that I’m sick of salespeople trying to trick me. They try to make me think they’re an old college roommate, an army buddy, or an old pal so I’ll put them through. Just tell me the truth. If you can explain to me why you should get time with my boss, then I’ll make sure you get time with my boss.” And that leads me to my next suggestion.

4. Sell to the assistant. If you want to sell past the assistant, the best way to do it is to sell to the assistant. Present to them the same presentation with the same approach you would if you got their boss on the phone. Prepare the same four things you may have heard me mention before:

  • A reference point they can easily recognize as your reason for calling such as, “I met this person who suggested I give you a call.” “I read an article where you were quoted.” “I went to your website and saw that you’re in charge of the division.” Give them a reason you’re calling.
  • Share something you’ve learned about them. You’ve probably done some research, read their website, gone to their individual LinkedIn profile, and you’re going to talk about something you learned about that person or organization. Share with the assistant what you’ve learned.
  • Tell them how you’ve helped others like them. Share with the assistant exactly what you’ve done to help other companies like theirs solve some business problems or achieve some results that might be relevant to them.
  • Give them a call to action. What you want them to do next? Take a phone call, join a web conference, meet with you when you’re in town? Tell the assistant what you’re hoping the executive will do next.

In my experience, when you present the executive assistant with those four things a surprisingly high number of them will respond favorably and help you find time on their boss’ calendar. Use the exact same approach on the assistant as you would on the executive. If what you have to say isn’t good enough to impress the assistant, it’s probably not going to be good enough to impress the executive either.