Product & Growth Tips

How to solve problems and influence people

Emi Tabb

As an undergraduate, Nick Thompson read the entire Affordable Care Act cover to cover. At the time, Nick had no intention of using the knowledge professionally–he just wanted to understand the impact of law, specifically on his friends and family. But as Nick wrapped up his senior year, corporate lawyers across the country were scrambling to understand and communicate the implications of the 700-page ACA on big business. Almost overnight, a once niche interest had become Nick’s most marketable skill.

After graduation, Nick landed a job as a benefits and compensation consultant. Most people at the firm didn’t have more than a cursory understanding of the ACA, so, out of necessity, his manager immediately threw him into the deep end. “They regularly put me in conversations I had no business being in. I was one of the few who could answer most questions without having to fake it. So at the age of 22, I was presenting to the finance and human resources executives of companies as big as Trader Joe’s.”

The learning curve was steep, but most days, Nick felt lucky. He had an opportunity few young professionals ever have: exposure to decision-making processes at the highest rungs of Fortune 5,000 companies. In the consultant role, Nick learned skills that would prepare him for his eventual career in sales engineering: careful research, answering complex questions on the fly, and presenting to highly intelligent, often impatient executives.  

Despite its virtues, however, the consulting world started to wear Nick down. “Over time, I became very frustrated with how much we were being paid to, more or less, postulate on solutions to complex problems. We didn’t use that much data to back up our claims. Most of the people at my company assumed that, because they had been in the industry for fifteen or twenty years, that they just intuitively knew what each organization needed.”

The resistance to using data in benefits and compensation consulting made services less valuable to customers, many of whom could find the information they needed on free platforms. “Glassdoor and others have made accessible the information that was once very tightly held by consulting firms. So fewer companies are willing to pay someone to tell them the salary they need to offer to hire a top software engineer.”

Nick left his job and went in search of a data-first company that helped its customers liberate knowledge from silos–instead of one that built those silos for profit. That company was Mixpanel. After a couple years working as a customer success manager, Nick decided to interview for a sales engineer (SE) position. He got the job, and since then, Nick has partnered with Mixpanel account executives to help solve hundreds of tough data problems for companies of all sizes, in nearly every industry.

Along the way, Nick has learned how to cultivate deep empathy for prospects, practice active listening, and find meaning in his everyday work. In this interview, he shares three lessons on patience and self-discovery for newly minted (and future) sales engineers.

Solving a problem counts more than making a friend

One of the questions Nick often hears when he describes his job is, “Why sales engineering, instead of just sales?” By now, he can see the question behind that question. “Obviously, both sales engineers and account executives have the same goal: sell. But sales engineers play a supporting–and more technical–role in any deal. So what I think people are really asking is something more like, ‘Why would you want to be on the offensive line when you could be the quarterback?’”

Nick traces his answer back to a discovery interview he had with Mixpanel’s Aaron Krivitzky. “Aaron asked me, ‘Would you rather solve a problem or make a friend?’ It was interesting because before I thought about the question, my instinct was to say, ‘Make a friend.’ Mostly, because I want to be liked by everyone. But then I thought about it from a professional perspective–literally, I sat in silence for two minutes thinking–and I realized that my happiest days on the job were the ones where I solved a problem for someone else.”

An aptitude for sales engineering boils down to this key preference. “At Mixpanel, sales engineering is about leveraging our technology to try and solve really massive data problems for people. To do that successfully, we have to understand the particular context of a business just as well as we understand our product offering. The sales engineers that do well here are the ones with a natural curiosity that drives them to ask a thousand questions–of the data, of prospects, and of each other–until that the problem that needs to be solved is solved.”

Practice active listening

Asking questions is only part of the equation, though. Sales engineers have to be choosy about which questions they ask (lest they ask something that they could have learned through research). They also have to quickly internalize prospects’ responses, so they can follow up with more probing questions that get to the heart of a problem.  

“In sales as in medicine, prescription without diagnosis is malpractice. That saying has become somewhat of a cliche in the sales world, but I think it’s true–especially in the analytics space. A company’s data stack can be wildly complicated. Many of the clients I speak with have already tried at least one other solution that fell flat. So the people we sell to are a little skeptical and highly discerning, for good reason. Part of earning their trust as a sales engineer means really developing a clear understanding of their problem before jumping in with the solution.”

To do this, Nick had to learn to sit with silence. “If I jump right into my demo and started talk, talk, talking, I’m going to sound like every other analytics SE they’ve ever spoken with. But if I can get comfortable with pauses, ask thoughtful questions, and prompt the other person to share more, the other person is much more likely to confide in me, which is what builds relationships.”

Patience has dramatically improved Nick’s results as a sales engineer. “I probably talk 30% less in a meeting than I used to, and the rest of the time, I just let the clients speak. Sometimes, this means I don’t get to share the parts of the product that I’m eager to share, but the other person becomes much more engaged as a result, which is my ultimate goal for any meeting.”

Empathy is a skill–not a gift

Becoming a patient and deep listener is all about perspective-taking. Nick goes into a meeting with a particular set of expectations for the meeting, but those expectations don’t always align with the what the client want for themselves.

“I always want to share all the great things Mixpanel can do for them. When I was new to sales engineering, I tried to share every single feature with the prospect, without taking the time to understand what they needed out of analytics tool.” Nick understands this impulse as a gap in empathy.

“Until I started to put myself in the shoes of my clients, I was more interested in the product than the problems the product could solve. I always wanted to showcase nit-picky features. But clients don’t care about those things as much. They care more about the problems they can solve with the product than the product itself. That’s often a huge disconnect between greener sales engineers and clients.”

These days, Nick often leaves demos having only shown clients three reports in the whole hour. That’s intentional. “I really try to focus only on what’s relevant to the client. For example, I might not mention Mixpanel’s retention analysis for a client who is struggling to get people through their funnel. If they don’t have enough people to retain and I’m trying to show their retention functionality, they’re going to feel like I wasted their time.”

Demos aren’t actually about teaching clients about the ins and outs of the product, but it’s hard to get out of the mindset. “You want to shout the virtues of your product from the rooftops. It makes sense–that’s what motivates a lot of sales engineers at first. But no one cares about the twenty things Mixpanel can do for them if it doesn’t solve a key pain point. Now, I don’t want my clients to leave a demo feeling like they can use Mixpanel perfectly. Really, I want clients to leave my demos feeling like I uncovered a really deep-seated problem and showed them a possible way forward.”

Interested in learning more about Sales Engineering at Mixpanel or joining Nick’s team? Check out our current openings in San Francisco, New York, and London.

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