He has a palpable passion for B2B sales leadership. His broad dossier of experience includes stints at two league offices. He carries a baseball bat around a soccer organization. He’s Brett Zalaski, VP of Ticket Sales and Service at the Houston Dynamo.
Before the Houston Dynamo matched up against the visiting San Jose Earthquakes on April 22nd, Brett Zalaski, Vice President of Ticket Sales and Service for the Dynamo, sat down with ALSD.com for a wide-ranging interview. Zalaski chronicled his vast sales experience, including past positions at Corporate Executive Board, the NBA’s TMBO, and the Major League Soccer National Sales Center. He also explained his fanaticism for Tottenham Hotspur, introduced us to his best pal on four legs, and detailed what’s to come for the ALSD’s B2B Sales Forum.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start with your experience at Corporate Executive Board (CEB). For those that might not be familiar, what does CEB do? And what was your role at the company?
CEB has become popular recently for two big reasons. One, they wrote the book The Challenger Sale, which has redefined the way a lot of people think about who a sales rep is and what they should be doing when they’re selling. And the second [reason] is they just got bought by Gartner for I think close to $3 billion.
They are an executive best practice research firm, meaning for the C-suite, they do best practice research under the principle that executives in similar functional areas, regardless of what industry they’re in, face similar challenges. The CFO of a consumer packaged goods company is different than the CFO of a car company in some ways, but they also have a lot of things on their plates that are very similar.
[CEB] will find out from those executives what their top challenges are across the board, and then do best practice research on those companies that are solving those challenges the best, and then teach and document back to the members what the most progressive companies are doing.
My first responsibility there was scheduling the meetings for other people to go on to sell the memberships to. Some days would be 200 phone calls to chief marketing officers and chief advertising officers at Fortune 500 and Global 3,000 companies.
“I was literally calling all the hardest people on the planet to reach from a business standpoint.”
The target market was any company making $750 million or more in revenue a year. I was literally calling all the hardest people on the planet to reach from a business standpoint and scheduling meetings for someone else to go on.
After about ten months, I got promoted. And in my second year, I traveled around the country and was the one who sold to chief marketing officers and chief advertising officers. I’d fly to Bentonville, Arkansas to meet with Walmart. I’d fly to Miami to meet with Dole. I was all over the place and meeting all these companies. It was an awesome experience as a 25-year-old to sit in front of some of the most accomplished people in the entire world, trying to sell them our memberships.
Even though I loved every experience at CEB, that’s when the NBA came calling.
Before we get to the NBA, I have one more question about your time at CEB. While you were selling to the biggest, bluest chip companies our economy has, what were you able to learn about, not just B2B sales, but B2B communications, B2B culture, and how corporations want to be communicated with and sold to?
A lot of times, teams take for granted how cool they are. And when they call a company, there’s almost this expectation that you should take a meeting because I work for this team, as opposed to, I’m going to earn this business every step of the way.
Earning that business doesn’t start when I walk into the room. Earning the business starts from the first time I pick up the phone, the first time I send that person an email, the first time I connect with them on LinkedIn. I’m thinking about how am I earning that business every step of the way. That’s the mentality I picked up at CEB that’s been enormously helpful, whether I’ve been at the NBA, Major League Soccer, or indoor lacrosse.
How does the sports sale differ from the non-sports B2B sales?
They are way more similar than they are different. The challenge is that unless you simply just want to fight for the entertainment budget, which I never want to do when I sell to a company, there’s no inherent need to a company for sports. And so that’s the challenge. Cool brand. No inherent need for a company to buy sports tickets. We have to manufacture that need or amplify how the things we do can support what they do in a way that makes a dynamic difference.
Teams say you’ll get x-amount of ROI if you buy one of our suites. And well no, that very heavily discounts what the salesperson in that company is doing in that process. The suite itself is just a cool engagement opportunity to help move the sales process along.
A lot of times, sports teams get caught up on the concept of ROI, which is why they see a lot of turnover in the suite area. They have a tough time renewing [suite holders] because it’s sold as an ROI source, and they get to the end of three years, five years, seven years, and the companies are wondering where is that ROI that was specifically promised.
Let’s move forward to your stint at TMBO, which all of us in the industry recognize to be as close to the pulse as anyone. Tell us how you landed there and what your role was.
I had no intention of leaving CEB. I had no idea that you could work in sports. I didn’t know that a sales job in sports existed.
I’m from Simsbury, Connecticut, which is where Scott O’Neil is from. His dad helped with the high school basketball team at Simsbury High School, and every time I’d go back, I’d help Simsbury High School basketball during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
I’ll never forget the conversation when Doc, as his dad was called, asked me if I’ve ever thought about working for the NBA. I thought he said have you ever thought about getting your MBA. And I told him no, I’m happy where I am. I love CEB. And when he said no, the NBA, I was like I’d love to talk to them.
“I got my bachelor’s in sales from CEB. Then I got my master’s in sport management from TMBO.”
I had a chance to interview with [TMBO], and came in as a senior coordinator for the NBA league office. A lot of my job was to coordinate the best practices being disseminated to teams and helping some of the analytics. I could not have possibly learned more in the almost two years that I was there.
They also had me working on premium seating. They had me work with group corporate ideas. I helped launch the WNBA team in Atlanta, helped start the D-League team in Erie, Pennsylvania, and had the opportunity to sell the FIBA Americas tournament, the Olympic qualifying tournament, out in Las Vegas.
I like to say I got my bachelor’s in sales from CEB. Then I got my master’s in sport management from TMBO.
The Houston Dynamo is not your first rodeo in MLS. Where have you served previously and in what capacities?
I left the NBA league office for that opportunity to help start the D-League team in Erie, Pennsylvania, which led to an opportunity with an expansion indoor lacrosse team in Boston. That led to an opportunity in women’s pro soccer, which is still one of my most favorite times in sports, which led to an opportunity to be the first director at the National Sales Center (NSC) for Major League Soccer.
To this day, I believe [the NSC] one of the most innovative aspects of sports business. It got a lot of publicity when it started. But I still believe it is one of the most underrated assets that has been created in sports business to date.
Bryant Pfeiffer took a chance on me, coming from women’s soccer to lead the National Sales Center. I did that for two years. And the whole goal of that when they hire a director is to have them there for two years before they move them to the MLS side.
I got the opportunity to go to the Columbus Crew, where I spent, again, two of my absolute favorite years in the sports industry. In the two years I was there, we had the largest average attendance increase in Major League Soccer, both in numbers and revenue, and it was done in two of the worst years the Crew had on the field.
Also prior to coming to Houston, you launched Get After It Sports, and ran that sales training firm for three years. What services did you provide to teams and venues at Get After It Sports?
The bulk of what I did was the traditional two or three days, come into the market, and do sales training. I also did some long-term consulting and worked with a few teams on a more long-term basis. A lot of it was around culture and structure.
Every once in a while, I dabbled in recruiting. I didn’t want to make that a huge part of the business because I wanted there to be a clean separation between church and state. I didn’t want a team to hire me for sales training and worry that I was looking to find their reps to move somewhere else, so the bulk of it was that training and consulting.
While traveling with Get After It Sports, was there something you thought you were absolutely, positively certain of about our industry that you found out you were completely wrong about?
One of the things that I had ingrained into me with the two stops at the two league offices was market doesn’t matter, sport doesn’t matter. Process and best practice matter. And the thing I learned traveling across the country was that it does [matter]. Everything matters.
Some matter more than others. Some matter less than others. But your sport, your market, your stadium, the weather where you live, traditional sales stuff, literally all of it matters everywhere.
From your experience in evaluating and hiring young salespeople, what have you found to be the most consistent tells for a successful rep? And how do those tells reveal themselves during the hiring process?
When we recruit for inside sales, we do a two-day sales training forum where we’re literally evaluating everything. And by that, I mean the minute you walk in the door, how are you dressed? How are you communicating with the other people in the room? How are you communicating with the managers on our staff? What types of questions are you asking? How focused and intent are you from a sales training standpoint?
I believe the best way to interview someone is to spend time getting to know them and understand them. The more you’re able to do that, the more you’re able to truly see how dedicated the person is.
“I will take a not-buttoned up person with fortitude ten times over someone who is buttoned up, looks the part, but doesn’t have that level of fortitude and backbone.”
Someone can walk, talk, look, act, and say things the right way, but I can’t measure what’s in their heart in terms of the fortitude they’re going to have in terms of going out for the sale. I will take a not-buttoned up person with fortitude ten times over someone who is buttoned up, looks the part, but doesn’t have that level of fortitude and backbone.
I like to look for people with a track record of success. I know that’s easy to say, but I like to see people who aren’t afraid of putting their numbers out there and are proud of what they’ve accomplished in other places. I see a lot of résumés where they’re trying to hide their numbers.
I also like to ask questions around competitiveness. I want them to describe for me situations where they were competitive, and how that competitiveness got them a win or how they learned from a loss. And the more specific they are in their answers, the more they show how competitive and hungry they are.
I remember interviewing a young lady who has gone on to have a tremendous level of success in sales. She could remember the volleyball being three inches wide when the competitive point happened, and how that turned the match for her team. She actually got the job partly because of the way she answered that question.
I do want to also make sure we’re not just interviewing in a traditional environment. We do some non-traditional interviews, walk-and-talks, and stadium tours. The more we get to take them off a traditional interview, the more we get to know who they are, and the better off our decision-making process is.
The more rushed the process is wherever I’ve been, the more mistakes we’ve made from a recruiting standpoint. The more time we’ve taken to get to know the people that we believe in, the better the decisions have been.