Never Eat Alone: Managing the Gatekeeper

This is the fifth of sixteen parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s Never Eat Alone, where this book on building a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the ninth and tenth chapters, “”Warming the Cold Call” and “Managing the Gatekeeper – Artfully,” which appear on pages 79 through 93.

neaIn getting to know a person, the absolute biggest moment I dread is that first moment of introduction, when you don’t know each other. Knocking on someone’s door to introduce myself or greeting someone I don’t know in a public situation makes me feel really uncomfortable. Even worse: trying to get through a “gatekeeper” (an administrative or personal assistant) to get a meeting with someone.

Ferrazzi feels the same way, it seems. He focuses two thoughtful chapters on this very problem. Let’s dig in.

Draft Off a Reference
Ferrazzi mentions four rules for turning a cold call into a “warm” one – in other words, making the ultimate introduction of yourself to another person much more friendly by taking the time to put some pieces in place. He often relates this process to making a sale, since salesmen are often in the business of establishing such a rapport, although that connection is just as important for anyone. His first tactic, discussed on page 83, is straightforward – find a person that you have in common:

Credibility is the first thing you want to establish in any interaction, and ultimately, no one will buy from you unless you establish trust. Having a mutual friend or even acquaintance will immediately make you stand out from the other anonymous individuals vying for a piece of someone’s time.

So, if you want to meet someone important, your first step is to find someone in common that you know. Research that person and see who their obvious connections are – and see if you know any of them. Ask around your own social network and see if anyone knows this person.

I’ll use myself as an example. Let’s say I’m wanting to meet a particular writer at a meeting in the future. I could either walk up to that person without anything in common and make some awkward small talk (making that person want to be anywhere else), or I could identify someone we have in common and use that as an introductory point.

Why does this work? If you mention someone that person knows in an introduction, the person likely feels some obligation to listen to you, not just because of you, but via a sense of obligation to that person you have in common.

Remember, though, that the person in common is just enough to get your foot in the door. It’s up to you to carry it further.

State Your Value
If you do finally have someone’s attention, you need to quickly make it clear to them that you represent some sort of value to them. On page 85:

Once you have someone’s commitment to hear you out for thirty seconds, you’ll need to be prepared to deliver a high-value proposition. You’ve got very little time to articulate why that person should not try to get off the phone as quickly as possible. Remember, it’s all about them. What can you do for them?

Why exactly would I want to talk to Stephen King? Obviously, for me, it’s to get some advice on writing.

But why should Stephen King possibly be interested in talking to me? It would be an enormous stretch to call myself a peer of his – I’ve written one very simple nonfiction book that wasn’t a bestseller, while he’s written piles of bestselling fiction. Why would he want to talk to me at all beyond fifteen seconds of greeting a fan and signing an autograph?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that anything I got beyond that from a conversation with him would be solely from his good graces – but it’s never a good idea to bank on anyone’s good graces.

Instead, it’d be a waste of time for me to ever talk to him (besides attending a reading or something like that) unless I have something of value to offer that he might be interested in.

Just think about it this way – unless you can offer someone some real value, why would they talk to you? And remember that real value doesn’t mean that you’re offering them a “great deal” – it’s only a “great deal” for you, not them.

If you can’t figure out what value you’re offering, you shouldn’t expect to build a great relationship with someone.

Quick, Convenient, and Definitive
If you want to extend your relationship with someone beyond a quick meeting, you have to make it as easy as possible for them. On page 85:

You want to impart both a sense of urgency and a sense of convenience. Instead of closing with “We should get together some time soon,” I like to finalize with something like “I’m going to be in town next week. How about lunch on Tuesday? I know this is going to be important for both of us, so I’ll make time no matter what.”

At the bare minimum, exchange contact information – or at least get theirs. If you don’t do that, then there’s no way you can establish any sort of lasting relationship with that other person.

A much better step is to set up some sort of follow-up connection. Perhaps you can send along some additional information. Maybe you can meet later on for something else.

The key is to extend the conversation – make something concrete that has the expectation that at least one of you will be taking action to exchange more info (and it should be you making that action happen, since you’re the initiator).

Ferrazzi’s final tactic for making those “first meetings” go better appears on page 86:

Robert B. Cialdini’s book The Psychology of Persuasion shows how compromise is a powerful force in human relations. An example used to illustrate this idea concerns Boy Scouts, who are often turned down initially when trying to sell raffle tickets. It has been statistically shown, however, that when the Scout then offers candy bars instead, a less costly item, customers will buy the candy even if they don’t really want it. In giving in to the concession, people feel as if they’re holding up their social obligation to others. So remember, try for a lot – it will help you settle for what it is you really need.

In other words, suggest something big, like going out to lunch next week. If they hesitate, suggest something simpler, like swapping email addresses or Twitter usernames or phone numbers – a compromise.

Why? The “compromise” means that you’re doing them a favor by effectively reducing their commitment – you’ve made it easy for them to follow up instead of hard for them.

Since, in the end, all you really want is a way to keep the conversation going, you still get what you want out of it with a much higher degree of success.

The Gatekeeper
How do you handle administrative assistants? On page 87, Ferrazzi begins to discuss it:

First, make the gatekeeper an ally rather than an adversary. And never, ever get on his or her bad side. Many executive assistants are their bosses’ minority partners. Don’t think of them as “secretaries” or as “assistants.” In fact, they are associates or lifelines.

Every time I have ever tried to go heat-to-head with an administrative assistant, I’ve lost.

You will lose if you antagonize an administrative assistant. So don’t – it’s not worth it. You’re better off just backing off and letting it drop than you are getting in a war with a schedule-keeper.

Personally, the best approach I’ve ever found is just to be flat-out honest with administrative assistants. Tell them flat-out why you’re there, why you’re making that contact, and who suggested that you do it. Most administrative assistants vastly prefer straightforward honesty and humility to almost anything else – providing the information they need as easily as possible makes their life easier and makes them like you better.

So, whenever I’m trying to schedule something with an administrative assistant, I’m as straightforward as can be and provide as much information as can possibly be necessary right off the bat. I’m also usually just honest about my situation.

That approach has rarely failed me.

On page 91, Ferrazzi touches on how to keep on an administrative assistant’s good side:

Always respect the gatekeeper’s power. Treat them with the dignity they deserve. If you do, doors will open for you to even the most powerful decision makers. What does it mean to treat them with dignity? Acknowledge their help. Thank them by phone, flowers, a note.

Yes, the good old handwritten note. It works time and time again.

Let me make this as clear as I can: whenever someone helps you in a significant way in your career or your life, send them a handwritten note thanking them for it. This will always be a big positive for you.

Here’s a detailed guide for writing an effective thank you note, no matter what the occasion.

On Saturday, we’ll tackle the eleventh and twelfth chapters – “Never Eat Alone” and “Share Your Passions.”

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