How to Circumvent Gatekeepers Using Voicemail System Features

Gatekeepers are the Cerberus of the recruiting industry. Their job is to allow the properly associated souls to pass, while turning back the rest of us at the gates.

Many articles have been written about how to approach them, what to say to them, and even about forming long-term relationships with them.

While administrative assistants are usually the most difficult gatekeepers, receptionists can also be protective, asking your company and reason for calling. Even when receptionists are obliging, after speaking to them 20 or 30 times a day, they will start to recognize your voice.

Calling late to reach an after hours “auto attendant” feature that clicks over after 5:00 p.m. is used by some as an alternative. The problem with this is that the person you are trying to contact may have gone home, forcing you to leave a message.

The solution has typically been to find an extension for someone at the desired company, and then sequentially dial other extensions until you find the person or group that you are looking for. While this technique can work, it is very time-consuming and impractical in the extreme at larger companies. Also, many companies are aware of this tactic and will assign extensions in a more arbitrary manner.

Fortunately there is a way to directly contact almost anyone at any company, using little-known, but very useful features built into voicemail systems. Below is a brief summary of my findings.

All voicemail systems have the ability to transfer from person to person and reach automatic phone directories. Many of these will also give out extension numbers that are easily turned into direct dial numbers.

The first thing you need to do is get a direct dial number. Almost any one will do. This can be done different ways. The easiest way is to compare an office’s phone and fax numbers. If they share the same suffix (i.e. 415-989-3800 and 415-989-3801), then try dialing something around that number, like 415-989-3822. If you get an error message, don’t worry; I will address the issue of finding a direct dial number near the end of this article.

Once you get a valid extension (it’s key that no one answers, you must get a message), then you have everything you need to get started.

Every voicemail system is different, but certain keys on your phone will bring up different options in different voicemail systems. The first keys you should try though are the “*” key and the “#”. Try pressing them while you are listening to the person’s greeting message (always before the beep!). Your results will be different, depending on the voicemail system. For the purposes of instruction, let’s assume they have an AudixTM system.

An AudixTM system can be recognized when you hear the message “Your call is being answered by Audix.” There are exceptions to this rule, but it is easy to confirm this particular system. Before the beep, quickly press * and then 8 on your phone. If you hear the message “Enter the four digit extension and pound sign,” you are in an AudixTM system.

Now the fun begins. With the keys you just pressed, you can now enter an extension and be transferred to the desk of the person you wish to speak to. After pressing *8 you have the option to press * and then 2 on your phone and you will hear “Enter last name and pound sign.” This will allow you to transfer by spelling their last name.

The real gold behind an AudixTM system is its directory. After pressing *8 or *2, try pressing **6 (two asterisks and a six), and again you will hear “Enter last name and pound sign.” The difference this time is that instead of being transferred, the system will confirm the person’s name and give you their extension. After this it will patiently wait for you to enter another name. With this, one could literally collect extensions for everyone in their voicemail system.

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I will provide a link at the end of this article for a reference card with instructions for other voicemail systems, but usually it is a matter of pressing * or # during the initial voicemail greeting and listening to the options it gives you.

Now that you have an extension, let me show you how to dial it directly.

Often it is a simple matter of replacement. For example, if a company’s main number is 650-327-8000 and the extension you have is 78239, then dial 650-327-8239. Other times it may have a different prefix. Take a look at the company’s fax number to see if it will “plug in” there.

Try seeing if it has a contact on its website for investor relations. This phone number will most likely conform to the other extensions.

If all else fails, Google can frequently give you the answer you need. Try searching using the company name and the area code, using the Google “-” operator to exclude the final four numbers of the phone number. Using the above example, you would search for: “XYZ Company” +650 -8000. This will usually yield direct dials for other people at the company that should conform to the extension you have.

The information provided in this article should give you a hint of the power of voicemail surfing to avoid gatekeepers. That being said, there are many, many more techniques and tips for surfing voicemail then we have space for here in this article.

I have made a PDF available on our website that will give you directory commands for other voicemail systems, as well as more tricks and tips, and more comprehensive instruction on voicemail surfing. It is free and no registration is necessary to download it. Just go to and click on the “Voicemail Surfing” link below the “Download .PDF” header.

Please be aware that companies can modify their voicemail instructions and new versions of voicemail systems also appear, so you may need to modify your techniques slightly at different companies or as systems are upgraded.

Grab your phones! Surf’s Up!

Greg Pankow manages the Outsourced Candidate Development service, otherwise known as “Profiling," at RW Stearns, Inc. He is fluent in both Spanish and English, and has spent several years unraveling the mysteries of voicemail systems. Countless customers have benefited from the outsourced candidate development services offered by him and the rest of the team at RW Stearns. Prior to working at RW Stearns, he was a partner at a startup company in Santiago, Chile, where he began his career in the recruiting industry. RW Stearns is celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2009, and are continuing their tradition of providing timely profiling services as well as accurate organizational research for both recruiting and tactical intelligence initiatives.


10 Comments on “How to Circumvent Gatekeepers Using Voicemail System Features

  1. I loved this. Richard Stearns was the gentleman that introduced me to phone sourcing way back when. He was so patient with me (I am hard to teach!) and always so kind. I think of him as a true pioneer and will always be grateful for his generosity. I am delighted you all are continuing his fine work.

  2. Great resource! I love the table too on the most common VM systems. Thanks so much – will share.

  3. Gregory- Thank you for adding your knowledge to others. Very unselfish and helpful to all who do some phone sourcing.

  4. Thank you for your insight especially overcoming the differing variations of messaging systems that is gret info.

  5. I enjoyed this article because it was good to see other individuals using similar search techniques. It was great how Gregory’s analysis pinned it down to specific VM systems, like Audix. Half the fun of recruiting is being creative and making it up as you go along!

  6. Thank you all for your wonderful comments. I’m glad people are finding these tips and tricks as useful as I have over the years.

    If you’ve been to our website and downloaded the full whitepaper (everyone should), please feel free to share it with your colleagues and associates.

  7. wouldn’t it be easier to just get the company phone book?
    that’s what we do. email me if you want more info. Stan

  8. Stan,

    You are comparing apple to oranges here.

    Obviously it would be easier to order a company phone book, but only if you had a very large quantity of names.

    In a case like this it would be more cost/time effective.

    However, if you have a smaller number of names, voicemail surfing has the advantage of being free and more up to date, since most company phone directories will be months old at the least.

    Don’t get me wrong, purchasing directories is a fine thing in certain circumstances, but for up-to-the-second phone info, or for smaller numbers of individuals, voicemail surfing is more cost effective.

    It just depends on your needs.

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