Top 10 Phone Sourcing Rules

STE_telephone.nsaPeople would rather focus on phone sourcing’s sister cousin, Internet sourcing, than telephone sourcing. Phone sourcing still seems scary to most; after all, a keyboard and computer screen don’t talk back to you and stymie you in your efforts at seeking information. This reluctance is becoming today a not-so-subtle avoidance issue and hiring managers are noticing and demanding more.

With that in mind, I’m in the process of finishing a Telephone Names Sourcing Rule Book. So far I have 46 rules. The following that are the 10 rules that, so far, I see as the “top.” Feel free to add yours!

Rule #1: Say hello and state your name.

When the Receptionist Gatekeeper answers, she usually says her name. Make that your cue to say your own.

“Hello, Anne, this is Maureen Sharib. Can you…”

Rule #2: Repeat her name back to her.

“Hello, Anne, this is Maureen Sharib. Can you please transfer me…?”

It’s said that a person’s name is the most beautiful sound (to that person) in a person’s language. It’s also the beginning of the knowledge exchange and capture.

Rule #3: Ask for one thing at a time.

Do not overwhelm her. Keep it simple.

“Hello, Anne, this is Maureen Sharib. Can you please transfer me to the Director of Risk Management?” asks one question and is easy to cope with. Think of her as a child and give her one instruction at a time.

Asking several questions/giving her too much information in one hurried onslaught will turn her off, sending up her defenses and more than likely cause her to turn you away.

Rule #4: Don’t lie.

“Hello, Anne, this is Maureen Sharib. My boss is on a deadline and he talked to your Director of Risk Management last week about a possible project but I’ve lost his name and I need to address correspondence today or I’m going to lose my job and I don’t want to lose my job!Who is your Director of Risk Management?” does little more than open you up to something cold from Anne like this:

“We don’t have a Director of Risk Management and haven’t for a long time.”

You want to go there? This takes us to the next rule:

Rule #5: Listen and hear what’s in the Gatekeeper’s voice.

You have a few seconds to decide your tack when she answers. A Gatekeeper’s voice will tell you many things if you’re listening. Many times it will reveal if she’s young, middle-aged, or older. This information can speak to her level of maturity and experience on the phone. You can hear frustration, resentment, and hastiness in a person’s voice as well as happiness, patience and serenity. Having her speak first when she answers is a monumental advantage in phone sourcing that gives you a superior couple-second position to choose your approach.

“ABC Corporation. It’s cold, icy, and snowy here in Minneapolis today, Anne speaking — may I help you?” exclaimed chirpily might tell you Anne is a young and energetic Gatekeeper who doesn’t mind repeating all that yadda-yadda each and every time she answers the phone, but at some point, you have to think it gets old. It could be presenting an “ice-breaking” opportunity though:

“Hi Anne, this is Maureen. Wow, that’s a mouthful. I hope you’re staying warm!”

Anne: “Oh I am! It was really cold though when I came in this morning — they turned the heat down over the weekend — can you imagine?”

Maureen: “I had a boss that did that once. Nobody wanted to be first in the office in the morning. Consequently nobody came in before 10. He got the message.”

Anne: “I guess there’s more than one way to skin a cat!”

That above is pretty close to an actual conversation I had in the past, and afforded an opportunity to move to the next phase of my call as if we were old girlfriends with no secrets between us. I forget what was obtained out of her on that call, but rest assured it was probably pretty powerful and fruitful information!

It can go the other way though:

“ABC Corporation. It’s cold, icy, and snowy here in Minneapolis today, Anne speaking — may I help you?” said listlessly might say Anne is older and weary of repeating that mantra each and every time she answers the phone. That too, can be worked to an advantage:

“Hi Anne, this is Maureen. Wow, that’s a mouthful. You have to say all that each and every time you answer?”

Anne: “Yeah, can you believe it? It gets old but they insist…”

Maureen: “Anne, I’m trying to reach the Director of Risk Management — can you direct me?”

Anne: “Yeah! He’s onea’ the ones who insists I say all that! Don’t tell him I said anything!”

Maureen: “You’d think he’d know better! Don’t worry, Anne, I won’t say a word!”

That too comes close to a conversation (or two/change the locale/weather conditions) that I’ve had with Gatekeepers. Once again the manner in which I interacted with her set the tone for the level of cooperation she gave me. Remember, a Gatekeeper’s reality may not be what you think it is or anywhere aligned at all to your own.

There’s another not-so-pleasing way it can go as well:

“ABC Corporation. It’s cold, icy, and snowy here in Minneapolis today, Anne speaking — may I help you?” repeated tonelessly can indicate hostility and an uncooperative Gatekeeper. It’s usually best to just get down to business:

“Hello, Anne, this is Maureen Sharib. Can you please transfer me to the Director of Risk Management?”

Anne: “No.”

Maureen: “No?”

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Anne: “We have a no-names policy here. I don’t have titles here at the front desk — you need a name to be transferred. Do you have a name?”

Maureen: “Well, yes, Anne, I do have a name. Can you please transfer me to Jim Maloney?”

Anne: “He’s not the Director of Risk Management.”

(And she said she only had names at the front desk? Be aware that most Gatekeepers lie as one of their job functions. It’s a shame really. Most of them don’t like it and as a result resent having to do it.)

Maureen: “I know, but I thought maybe he could help me. Can you transfer me please?”

Anne: “What is it you need?”

Now at this point handling Anne gets tricky. I know I probably have an angry/resistant/hostile/burned-out Gatekeeper on my hands and I have a few choices here. I can either strong-arm her by insisting she send me on to Jim without stating my business, but that’s probably not going to work.

I can also excuse myself from the conversation and say something akin to: “Maybe I have the wrong information — let me check my notes and get back to you,” and quickly hang up the phone before she has a chance to say anything and this isn’t a bad tack to take with hostile or resistant Gatekeepers because if she is like this, chances are you’re not going to get a lot further anyway.

This high-risk/low-return scenario doesn’t appeal to me (usually) but if I got up on the wrong side of the bed that day I might pressingly say: “Anne, are you going to transfer me or not?” which is probably going to be met with the “not” ultimatum and is the main reason I rarely challenge Gatekeepers. Sometimes harsh, gruff words precede surrender in life but it takes a lot of emotional stamina to play that psychological guilt game with her.

I look for low-risk/high-return situations, so in most of these unpleasant situations I just get off the phone as quickly and painlessly as possible. When I first started names sourcing I was told the following and startling truth:

“It’s just a phone. If you freak out, Maureen, just hang up!”

And it’s usually what I do, though I try to do it with some grace. Some phone sourcers just hang up. That’s not very nice and might close off further chances of communication with her on a day she may be feeling better. I try not to burn bridges. I prefer to save my strength for opportunities when they present themselves. They always do if I’m patient and persevere.

This rule is so long because it’s very important. It leads us into the next rule, which is:

Rule #6: Never, ever, ever argue with the Gatekeeper.

It’s almost a 100% bet you’re not going to change her mind, so allow her to have her way with you. After she’s done this a couple times and you’ve obediently followed her “suggestions” she’ll feel an investment (of her time) in your progress. Because she is investing her time she is likely to become more, if not very, helpful at some point allowing you to begin directing her actions. This is when you gain the upper hand.

Rule #7: Understand that phone sourcing may not, and very well might not, be your cup of tea.

Phone sourcing, in general, calls for a personality type that:

  • Is in tune with their senses — uses internal feelings to deal with the outside world
  • Is likely to be quiet and reserved — difficult to know well but may appear warm and sensitive — an enigma
  • Has an interest in contributing to other’s sense of well-being and happiness — are service-oriented
  • Grasps intuitively information that belongs or doesn’t belong
  • Are attuned to underlying meanings
  • Is not easily led or controlled
  • Requires personal space — are independent and original
  • Can work with subtle differences in the personalities of others
  • Are usually penetratingly accurate in assessments of other’s personalities
  • Are action-oriented “doers” easily bored with theory unless it holds practical application
  • Make value judgments based on strong, subjective beliefs
  • May be harsh, self-judging perfectionists
  • Is spontaneous/impulsive and can lose selves in action — acting soberly and intensely in the here and now sometimes with little to no planning or preparation appearing to be caught in a whirlwind driven by some inner compass
  • Is gentle toward others, showing consideration through action rather than words
  • Do not often express themselves verbally, allowing their body of work to speak for them; this seems odd in light of the work but when you observe a good phone sourcer in action you are impressed with how little he says
  • Are competitive
  • Learn through enjoyable experiences
  • Is optimistic

Rule #8: Lose the stinkin’ thinkin’.

Anticipate reactions and prepare your own but don’t expect defeat. Be decisive. Be bold. If you can’t lose the negativity, seek professional help. There’s medicine available.

Rule #9: Be humble.

It’s one of the main lessons in life for being successful. I learned this one the hard way! Embrace your foibles. They’re what make you human. Laugh at yourself often and at others never.

Rule #10: Give back.

Take the time to help others who want to learn. You’ll come across them and they will teach you far more than what you can ever teach them. Believe me.

There are 36 other rules I see as important in the booklet but I want to hear what rules you think should be included. Post here, and if they’re different from what I already have or if they match what I already have I’ll give you credit in the booklet.

Maureen Sharib has been a “Socratic sourcer” her entire sourcing career; from the moment she first picked up the faxed list of Silicon Valley high-tech companies that was her target list to “phone source” in 1996 to today she has instinctively followed this method of investigative sourcing using (mostly) the telephone.  She is a proponent of sourcing as a synonym for success and envisions the craft moving away from a dangerously drudgery-paced life-form existence to an exciting investigative/competitive place within organizations where practitioners co-exist within a framework of market research, human resources, and C-level future planning. She owns the phone sourcing and competitive intelligence firm, Inc. You can contact her at Maureen at or call her at (513) 646-7306.  If she’s not on the phone she’ll pick up!


43 Comments on “Top 10 Phone Sourcing Rules

  1. May I suggest a rule?


    People can hear a smile in a voice. It will help break the ice. And, it will help you maintain a positive attitude and perhaps add a bit of energy to your work efforts.

  2. Critical comment: Rule Number 5 is long because it goes beyond just “hearing what’s in the gatekeeper’s voice,” not just that it’s important….

    What the author describes as probably an “angry/resistant/hostile/burned-out Gatekeeper” is actually a highly effective Gatekeeper–and maybe even one who enjoys and relishes his or her role in the organization! Good Gatekeepers, by definition, only let those in who leadership WANTS let in (Hence, their paycheck. If Gatekeepers were just Gatewatchers, this would be a whole different article).

    As recruiters we can break down doors, cajole them into being opened, or find a way over the wall. A good gatekeeper forces you to find a way over the wall, nothing more. Thank the good Gatekeeper for his or her time, congratulate them on protecting their resources, and ASK THEM (!) for any suggestions on how to get the person/role you’re trying to reach! You might be surprised at what they suggest!

    (I should add that, while I’m no apologist for gatekeepers, the broad claim that “most gatekeepers lie as one of their job functions” is quite offensive, and could easily be turned on our profession, as well.)

  3. I have two tips that I use:

    One, Stand. Standing helps your state of mind, giving you more confidence and focus.

    Two, Call back during the lunch hour. If you are having trouble getting past the gatekeeper, his/her fill in during the lunch break may not have such strick protocol and may transfer you through more easily.

  4. Great reminders Maureen! Even when I’m going down in flames (and smiling) I sincerely thank them for their time.
    And I’ve even propped up a mirror from time to time just to make sure I’m wearing a smile not a grimace.

  5. Great list, and always a pleasure to read your posts.

    Maybe you consider this a cop out, but I will call in after hours to get a basic understanding of the phone system I will be working with. Knowing how to navigate without talking to the gatekeeper over and over can be a good thing. You can always blame the phone system hanging up on you if you talk with the same person many times too.

  6. Julia, I don’t consider that a cop-out at all. In fact, the Rules Book has three sections under which all these rules fall:
    Remove the Mystery
    Listen to the Silence
    Understand Yourself

    What you do would fall under Listen to the Silence and you’re way ahead of the game doing it – good for you! Thanks for reading.

  7. Hi Maureen, Thanks for “Giving Back.”

    I think one thing to add is “Being Consistent.” If you are calling on the same company time and again, you can develop a relationship with the gate keeper by being the same consistent, positive person throughout. Actually, the things you mention above all come together under a consistent approach. All the best. Joe Slevin

  8. From the days in which I followed you around the cubes at Walmart Corporate, you are THE goto person on how to be when I pick up the phone… and pick it up again… and again. Here is a tip which I learned from both you and Shally: before you dial, look at the company on Google Earth. 360 it, look at the type of neighborhood it’s in, and look at the cars in the parking lot. Get a true visual. Then, close your eyes and visualize how things might be layed out inside the building.

    Then, close your eyes when the gatekeeper begins speaking. And, not only hear what SHE is saying but hear what is going on around her. Science says that when one of our senses is halted, the others instinctively try to make up for the loss. Try it; it works!

  9. Teresa: That made such an impression on me – you following me around like an eager and rapt little puppy dog – I was enchanted and impressed! I remember as the day wore on you accumulated a few others in your entourage and by day’s end, as I recall, there were half a dozen of us crowding around the phone. I have to tell you the truth – when I tell people that phone sourcers are rare and you’ll recognize one when you see one I always think of you!
    For real, that trick about shutting off one sense to enhance the others is extremely valuable. There’s a lesson in the book about this but it doesn’t mention the sensory deprivation thing. I’ll put it in w/ a nod to you!
    Rule # Study your target.
    This could have been the first lesson in this setting but the first lesson I chose is really the most important for a phone sourcer because an experienced phone sourcer can get on the phone to almost any target and obtain the sought-after information without too much study on the target upfront. After phone sourcing for a few years you’ll know what I mean but I absolutely DO NOT recommend you try to phone source in your early career without following this sage Rule #.

    People/companies reveal themselves. These days, with the Internet, they can’t help but be revealed! Using the guideposts the Internet offers it’s not a far jump to see where one is able to place oneself in one’s mind inside a company’s four walls. Think of yourself as an avatar if you will but the important thing is to visualize what is going on in the inside of your target. Stand there and listen to the noise going on around you. Feel the atmosphere. Watch the activity. Ringing phones, people coming and going, urgent requests flying across desks, people getting coffee, going to the bathroom, leaving for doctor appointments, slacking off, hard work, – most of the daily accoutrements to life on Earth can be witnessed inside a company’s brick and mortar walls. I call this walking the grid
    and if you do this in your mind and use this information to your advantage before and while you make your calls your phone sourcing job will be much easier!

  10. My addition to the rule book would be to remember to sound as if you have a REASON and PURPOSE to make this business call.

    When I am sourcing, I am not calling to ask a questions. I am conducting business. I speak as if I am in the middle of something and have a reason to call that Director of (XYZ). When I reach resistance, I stop and assess as you have outlined, and in my next step I am curteous often restating what I was inquiring about.
    I may even apologize by saying… Oh I am sorry gatekeeper (name), I wasn’t very clear. I was looking to speak with Director X… can you help or send me along to their assistant? Then with the assistant I start over… fresh to see what I can get- or I hang up and try another tactic.

  11. Once again, Maureen leads the way! Rules number 8 and 9 demonstrate solid insight and great thinking. Maureen is the real deal

  12. Heather, that’s a good point. I strive to sound like a bored secretary just doing a rote, matter-of-fact job on most of my sourcing calls – I attempt to sound just the right amount of indifference on the call – and I find that works many more times than not. It’s related to what you’ve recounted and I haven’t covered that in the rules yet so I’m going to add your technique as a rule w/ credit to you! Can you suggest the actual rule words?

  13. Maureen, How about…

    “Be in Business mode, not recruiter mode when sourcing.” Speak as if you have a business reason to call this company and person. (And remind yourself that you do! )

  14. Hey, Maureen.

    Good for you in helping people out.

    I started in recruiting 25 years ago and have worked both sides of the fence. Currently I’m Head of HR for a Private Bank in Bahrain.

    One thing that I would see as being near the top of the rules is, ‘Be authentic!’.

    Gatekeepers can smell a rat a mile away and even placing another human being into that box can diminish the likelihood of gaining key information from the outset.

    This year I plan to ramp up my direct sourcing and the last thing I want is to start exploring the waters with a mask on.

    There is much to be said for being up front and candid.

    Why not tell the ‘gatekeeper’ that you wish to speak to the target because you have a definitive referral. If you only speak to people on reference, the ones defending have no choice but to down ammunition and allow you past.

    If we persist in seeing some people as obstacles, that is what they will remain.

    But if we them as enablers then we will always have a clearer path ahead of us.

    I’m really not being naive in suggesting that if I’m on a fact finding mission and I don’t know who’s who, then I may have to make some cold calls BUT if I can find a route in via my network, then the gate is that much easier to open.

    Congratulations on creating a business that generates income from generating contacts.

    Go, girl.

    Malcolm Harris

  15. “What is it that you need?” OR the ever present, “May I ask what this is regarding?”

    Peter Lefkowitz has the mechanism I prefer:

    “I hope this doesn’t sound…evasive. The nature of my call is a little (pause) sensitive…I’m happy to discuss it with you but I’d need to make sure that it was ok with (name) first,” and then go silent. Say nothing unless specifically asked a question. That kind of material takes a little audacity and poise. Get it right and before you know it, you’re through the gate and in to the castle. Get it wrong and you’re put through, but put through to yet another gatekeeper with slightly more experience. For the tier-two gate keeper, I use almost the same phrase, “As I told (gatekeeper 1), the nature of my call…” and then I pause. “Do you know if (name) checks his own voicemail or is it only semi-private?” At this point, alarms might be going off within the castle announcing that an intruder has breached the gates. So, you might do better calling back after 5:30 PM and asking the dial-by-name directory for help. She’s not so protective and not nearly as hostile.

  16. Love Lefkowitz!! Thanks for remembering his sound advice, Todd! I’m cutting and pasting this hint and putting it by my phone. When I started cold-calling almost 14 years ago, I didn’t have the guts to try Lefkowitz but I think I could do this now. Thanks again Todd… for reminding us of our core pioneers!

  17. Maureen, Your tips are great…
    My tip : for companies having their presence all over the world/all over the country.
    I call a gatekeeper and inform her that i am from the other branch (only if asked) and ask for the target for my “business mission”

  18. Hi
    Yup, smile and be confidence and be polite and professional.

    Create white lies that you’re from (association, event, or anything you can think of)

    You can always get any names, probably whole list of it.

    In this article, rule no. 4 don’t lie. If the job title is high rank Director/ Manager, then you don’t need to lie.
    if it’s middle or lower rank, lying is necessary.

  19. Rosamundwo/Uma,
    Your advice serves the belief that phone sourcers lie as part of their job descriptions. I’m not going to kid you that telling the gatekeeper you’re from “one of the branches” or an association “building a list” was the old-school lessons of learning the phone sourcing business but allow me to enlighten you, please, that this industry has evolved so far beyond that it’s not necessary for a skilled phone sourcer to lie.

    I say it again – many phone sourcers started out doing it that way but, as most people are so uncomfortable lying (and very few can really do it effectively!) the really great phone sourcers moved beyond that and found ways of communicating where lying wasn’t and isn’t necessary.

    Rosamundwo, I sense that when you say you don’t need to lie to find Directors or Managers what you’re really saying is many of those higher levels can be found on the Internet; foregoing the “need” to lie. I agree that the higher you go in an org structure the more you’ll find on the Internet but I disagree that you have to lie to find the lower ranks – the worker bees.

    I’ve written plenty on this subject – you might search on my name “Maureen Sharib” or “MagicMethod” or “Magic in the Method” to read more about the ways one can telephone names source without lying.

    Good luck.

  20. Rosamundwo:
    Take a look at this:
    That was for a storage engineer job – it doesn’t really matter what you’re looking for – the technique is mostly the same across most industries – it’s a few words that change but for the most part the approach is the same.

    Like I said before, google for information using the keywords I suggested in my last post to you.

    By the way, THINK ABOUT what sales engineers do each day and follow their courses of action. <—HUGE tip

  21. Hi Maureen
    The tip from is good. It is effective for companies having gatekeepers who know to read… here in india we also have gatekeepers who are unskilled, daily wagers and donno names from the company and speak local language.. during non office hours!!Also We have as many as 18+ languages..
    While i would love NOT to lie.. it is easier and effective to get names lying…atleast in Indian situations..

    Would love to know more links on the “old school lessons” of learning phonesourcing…it might work for us..though it is old..

  22. Hi Uma C

    You’re facing the same thing like me, i am in Malaysia, we have multi racial languages.

    Agree with easier and effective to get names lying, in Malaysia too.

    If calling Hongkong, you will get nasty tone from hongkong’s companies. worse

  23. Hi Maureen

    I have one tip which i use.

    I change the extension numbers and search for the person from the organization.

  24. I have found in the past if you find yourself up against a very difficult gatekeeper. Wait an hour or so. Call back and ask for “Accounts Payable.” What type of company is going to give up the opportunity of getting paid by being frosty. When you are put through to the accounts department, you very politely explain, “I seem to have been put thorugh to the wrong department, I am very sorry, would it be possible for you to transfer me through to….. now, I have head of Risk Management down as Amanda Smith. Is this still correct?”
    I tend to find that the accounts department are less skilled at gatekeeping and therefore disclose this information more easily.
    I know this is sneeky, but it is effective.

  25. Fantastic tips Maureen. I often ask about the weather – what’s the weather like in your area – oy.. here in the NY area we have terrible rain. This way I feel I’m making conversation with a friend and then the gatekeeper is more apt to help.

  26. Great tips thanks – Sometimes it helps to be upfront with the reason for the call. Also using lingo the gatekeeper may not understand but is too embarassed to ask what the hell are you talking about helps. “Hello Anne, my name is Jack Black, the reason for my call is I’m doing due dilligence please put me through too Harry Potter”.

  27. I honestly believe that the human ear can “hear” the slightest inflections of guilt, anger, fear, etc… That is what phone sourcers use to evaluate gate keepers on a conscious level, but most gate keepers do it naturally on an “unconscious” level. I try to focus on the tone of my voice, and NOT holding my breath, which I have found myself doing all too often. 😛

  28. I have found, during my 23 years of sourcing, that if you start at the top, you will generally get most of the information you need. The President, surprisingly, doesn’t get all that many calls, as most of his/her duties are delegated. They are very kind and helpful. Even if you only get to their assistant, you will get a wealth of information (and a new best friend). Then when you call the intended prospect, you say, Mr./Ms. XYZ (or their assistant) suggested that I speak with you. Believe me, they sit up straight and LISTEN to what you have to say!

    Another good gatekeeper end around is to ask for “Accounts Payable”. The gatekeeper wants nothing to do with money owed! People in accounting are not trained to screen calls. Continue by saying “I’m sorry, I was trying to reach your CIO and must have been misdirected. Could you share the name with me and transfer, please?” You’ll get them every time!

  29. Do your homework and become knowledgeable on what you are sourcing. Best way to elicit information is by giving information. The more information you can share on a topic you want to source on, the more return you will have. I.e.: ” I am working on xxx project and we want to develop a new strategy for dealing with xxx because we are finding challenges such as… the way we are doing it now. Are you finding these type of challenges too? If you are generous, they’ll be generous. If you share what you know, they’ll share what they know. If you engage in the conversation, they will too.

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