Updated: May 4
Is a “sentinel” an actual sales term? No, of course not, but it represents the individual beyond the gatekeeper who has the power to say “no,” but doesn't have the power to say yes. During most BD campaigns, sales development representatives discuss methods of getting past the infamous, “gatekeeper,” (the initial voice you get on a cold approach sales call) but are often unknowingly transferring “qualified” leads of sentinels, which lead to dead end conversations and false hopes of next steps.
I always tell my team about the times when my father was a Superintendent of Schools within the Chicago public school system. He didn’t take many calls at his office because anyone who was supposed to reach him, had his mobile number. At times I would call his office line to see what time he would be picking me up from school.
After the third ring, a secretary would pick up the phone and the conversation would go something like:
Secretary: “Dr. Gilchrist’s office.”
William: “Hi I was wondering if Dr. Gilchrist was available?”
The secretary without any hesitation would say:
Secretary: “Dr. Gilchrist is in a meeting at the moment may I ask who is calling?”
William: “This is his son, I am trying to see when he can pick me up from school today,”
The secretary would laugh a little and say: “Ha, sure William, let me connect you, hold on a moment.”
The Gatekeeper is there to do one thing, block you at all cost from connecting with your intended point of contact.
It isn’t sinister or malicious; they are there to ensure the conversation is relevant and worthy of connecting. The last thing a gatekeeper wants is to mistakenly transfer their boss a call with a sales person trying to sell something irrelevant to the day to day realities of their business. We as sales and business development professionals know and understand this process quite well and have developed tactics to overcome it and get to decision makers.
However, what about sentinels?
You can tell you have reached a sentinel when you hear them say things like, “I will need to talk to the director about this, can you send me a proposal and I will present it to him/her.” Other times you will hear them say, “We are still in the planning phase and I will bring it up in our next planning meeting for next year.” Each route ends with the sales person chasing for updates on a “phantom meeting” or frivolously giving out massive proposals with discounts in hopes to catch the decision maker’s attention via the voice on the phone. These moments rarely end with a sale.
You’ve reached a sentinel, the often overlooked second stage of the blocking process. The filter between your pitch of value and the decision to close or not close.
The Sentinel’s job is to remove any power you may have to conduct your “sales magic” on the decision maker.
It is important to do 4 main things when facing a sentinel:
1. Be patient. Do not send unconditional proposals.
It is common for sales people to mistakenly overload a sentinel with the ‘pitch’ containing all data that will revolutionize their business. Instead, if you are asked to send a proposal, keep it high level and general. Discuss the potential value you could bring their business in order to grab their attention, but leave out the specificities to justify a conversation later. Create a clear next step expectation for follow up by having the sentinel commit to speaking to you again prior to sending any materials. Never bring up any budgets or cost projections in the proposal. You must be patient to get the Sentinel comfortable to introduce you to the Decision Maker.
2. Understand and respect the Sentinel’s position
Know who you are dealing with here. Be sympathetic to the position of the sentinel. Most likely they are senior enough to be semi-secure in their role, but not secure enough to make major mistakes on budget. The sales person must understand that very few people who aren’t the owners of a business are comfortable taking risks with the business. Signing off on something new, puts ownership on them internally, and if it goes bad, it goes bad for them. Like the Gatekeeper, it will be a risk connecting you directly to the Decision Maker, so they need to harshly filter and most of the time, extinguish risks.
3. Know when it is not real. Some people just do not like telling people “no”
Staying in a cycle of hunting for updates will be a complete waste of time for your pipeline. If a sentinel is not committing to follow up conversations, speaks very broadly about their goals and vehemently resists you speaking to those who have the power to say “yes,” then for your sanity, either drop them or find other channels to reach the Decision Maker respectfully.
4. No Decision Maker, no pitch.
This one should be obvious. If you can’t reach the decision maker, then do not pitch the full spectrum of your value. At times, a Sentinel can pretend to be a decision maker and try to extract a full pitch from the sales representative. You can try to say, “Great, if I were to show you everything now, and you like it, what would need to happen in order to move forward? Is there anyone else who should be in this conversation or can we determine whether or not this makes sense by the next chat?” It isn’t 100%, but experience is a major key here to see if you are pitching the right person.
It is important to find your way as a Sales Representative. Just because you have moved past the Lead Generation / Qualification phase of your sales career, does not mean that your conversations will be with those who can make decisions on the spot. As we move to a more automated way of selling through our various tools, it will be important to begin developing methods to ensure the right people are seeing our pitches and giving clear responses.