The Old Woman at the Door

My Wife and Mother In Law

My Wife and Mother In Law
famous optical illusion
by William Ely Hill (1915)

It may seem strange to talk about a guard to keep potential customers away in a blog post about marketing so I’ll relate a story to help make sense of it.

I associate the old woman with mysticism and mythology but I can’t remember the first time I heard about “an old woman at the door.”  The old woman is a guard who tells people not to go inside, that some healer isn’t really a healer, or that it is dangerous to cross some threshold, bridge, river etc. The “old woman” performs the function of a gatekeeper. The most recent examples of a gatekeeper which come to mind are:

  • The “Fat Lady” in the Harry Potter series who guards the entrance to Gryffindor, and
  • The wife of the healer in Eat, Pray, Love.

In both of these instances the women try to influence those interested in the “expert” to stay away. She tells the seekers that there are great problems when one sees this person (or enters this place).

So why do these “old women at the door” exist? The old women are there to test the commitment of those who want to cross the threshold. In other words, they are there to let the right people through and to turn everyone else away. “Who is in your target market?” “What are your limits on who you will work with?”

Why You Need a Gatekeeper

The costs of working with a difficult client has a trickle down effect on everything in your life: your co-workers, your time, your wallet, your sleep, etc.

Your time is valuable and you should pick and choose the projects you want to work on.

I recently met with someone who in half an hour of learning about him and his project showed me 3 red flags which I picked up by listening to him carefully. I determined that he was:

  1. Possibly difficult to work with
  2. Not loyal
  3. Not honest

Those three items were enough that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to work for him. Would you?

Ways You Can be Your Own Gatekeeper

  1. Ask questions about motivation to work with you
  2. Test their commitment – are they serious or just dipping their toe in the water?(For me this usually means that I won’t compete on price, if price is all that matters to them, they are not a good client for me because I’m focused on quality and customer service and deserve to get paid well. So, to test their commitment, I ask for a fair price instead of trying to lower my price to the point where I’m confident they will hire me).
  3. Listen for clues that reveal their integrity
  4. Follow your intuition

While you might not need an old woman at your door spreading bad news, recognize that this role is important. Choose which clients and companies you want to work with instead of “prostituting yourself.” You have every right to

  • get paid well
  • enjoy your work
  • work for companies and causes you care about

Please share your stories about how you act as your own gatekeeper.


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