• Causal Engines

How a professional AE navigates the sales cycle with flair

Last week, SaaS Operational Tactics interviewed Karl Schutz, a top-performing sales guru at Amazon Web Services. We learned about the importance of studying prospects in great detail and digging in deep to identify salient pain points.

This week, we had the opportunity to chat with Zach Steele -- a former MuleSoft AE-turned-Instabase sales manager who consistently ranks at the top of the organization.

Zach grew up in New Jersey around the time of the Dot.com bubble with a deep fascination with technology. He spent time during high school helping local stay-at-home moms edit photos, create newsletters, and fix routers and computer viruses. While these tasks came naturally to Zach, he realized a large segment of people lacked technical prowess and needed someone who could provide a clear explanation. Zach soon understood that his true talent was communicating with others to solve their problems effectively.

At Cornell University, Zach took up a special interest in studying psychology while pursuing his degree in Economics and Management. He later reflected that these insights allowed him to better understand human behavior: a necessary prerequisite for effective selling.

After graduation, Zach traveled to San Francisco to hone his sales skills at a couple of startups. In 2015, he joined Mulesoft and quickly rose to the top. Zach now works as the Regional Sales Lead at Instabase, a SaaS business that helps businesses automate document workflows.

We asked Zach to explain his process for navigating the sales cycle. He revealed that while certain frameworks like the MEDDIC and SPIN frameworks certainly help organize the process, his differentiating philosophy revolves around thinking of the sale as a pyramid of factors.

At the base of the pyramid -- the most fundamental level -- is the entire field of psychology, which encompasses the way in which people think and behave. At a higher level, Zach refines his understanding of the sale to social psychology, a specific branch of the subject that explains how people interact with one another.

Zach remarked that one of the most influential books he’s read in his career thus far is Never Split the Difference, by ex-FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss. Although the stakes for enterprise SaaS contracts aren’t nearly as high as hostage negotiation, the same underlying psychological principles are transferable, he explained.

At an even higher level, Zach considers organizational behavior (i.e. how people behave in companies). All of these analyses are completed before he even thinks about the business dynamics and financial implications of his product offerings on a prospective customer. At the tippy-top of the pyramid, Zach considers sales frameworks that can guide his underlying insights.

In practice, Zach often prefers to meet in-person (barring a pandemic), because it provides more information that isn’t readily available on a phone or Zoom call. During a meeting with a prospect, he keenly observes every detail about the way others in the room react to certain statements. Nonverbal cues are critical.

Often, he can tell who the influential decision-maker is by paying attention to whom people instinctively look when a question or provocative statement is posed.

Zach also explains that a lot can be learned from hallway chit-chat before and after meetings. He emphasized the importance of active listening, especially “parroting” ideas back to demonstrate an understanding of what the person is saying.

All of these findings are necessarily important: they allow Zach to weave together a compelling value proposition that can effectively address salient pain points.

Throughout the sales process, Zach works to build trust with prospects, a key element of long-lasting relationships. He achieves this through a thorough emphasis on equality.

Oftentimes, sales relationships can be one-sided, he explains. This sometimes looks like a dictatorial AE who relies on unreasonable pressure and intimidation to influence a sale. Other times, it’s a prospect who puts the AE on a leash, controlling every part of the process. Both of which are suboptimal power distributions, Zach says.

Instead, Zach is clear about establishing a relationship with prospects built on equal terms:

I’ll do X, Y, and Z for you as long as you promise to deliver on A, B, and C. Does that sound fair?

This can occur in the form of an up-front contract, where specific terms are outlined at the beginning of a meeting in order to hold one another accountable. Either way, a multilateral agreement creates expectations that each party of the transaction is required to participate.

It’s teamwork, after all, Zach says.

We would like to thank Zach Steele for his time and insights.

This article was written by Grant Sobczak.