Peter Donovan's main goal was to stop doing free estimates, but after switching Mastercraft Contracting & Remodeling, Westchester County, N.Y., to a design/build format five years ago, he was having a tough time qualifying clients. Enter Coleen Lieberman, who works for My Design/Build Coach and is the remote gatekeeper who has helped raise Donovan's level of qualified leads.

A gatekeeper is more than an office manager or receptionist. He or she, although it's usually a woman, asks a series of specific questions to elicit responses about what a prospect wants, needs, and anticipates in a remodeling project. Those who are good at it engage prospects in a conversation that puts them at ease. Joe Dellanno, a remodeling industry consultant and owner of My Design/Build Coach, says, “A woman's voice usually has a calming effect that causes the inquiring homeowner to slow down in their hot pursuit of finding a contractor.”

The off-site gatekeeper idea developed when Dellanno and Lieberman recognized that there was a need among remodelers who couldn't afford a full-time hire or whose gatekeepers were absent for extended periods.

Lieberman has many years of experience in the remodeling industry and works as gatekeeper for several remodelers, including Mastercraft, from her home in Pennsylvania. She uses some customized forms that guide the lead-qualifying conversation, and is familiar with the individual businesses.

Donovan's receptionist takes basic information from a prospect, then funnels that to Lieberman, who is connected to the Master-craft office via computer. Lieberman is paid by the call, $30 for an unqualified lead and $100 if it's a qualified lead.

Although Donovan tried to train his already busy receptionist/office manager to do the job, he says the message wasn't getting across the way he wanted. “People like Coleen; her job is to give them the attention they deserve.”

Donovan has seen qualified leads rise and is saving money in overhead by not hiring a full-time gatekeeper. “But more importantly,” he says, “I have someone who gets it and who thoroughly knows the system. Unqualified leads come away saying, ‘Mastercraft is a good company. That was a cool experience; I just can't afford them' or ‘they're not right for us.' They have a good feeling, too.”