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How to conquer the 7 summits of sales

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This post is an adapted excerpt from “Conquering the Seven Summits of Sales” by Susan Ershler and John Waechter (HarperBusiness, October 2014). Get the book will be available at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

Project: every success begins with an ambitious and clearly articulated vision.

If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes. — Andrew Carnegie, founder of Carnegie Steel Company

Mount Everest is located in the Himalayan Range on the border between Nepal and Tibet in Asia. At 29,035 feet, Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth and the most dangerous of the Seven Summits to climb. More than 250 climbers have lost their lives there.

It was May 24, 2001. After sixty-three days of climbing Mount Everest, Sue and John had just one day left to reach the summit. It was late in the climbing season, the weather was looking ominous, and their goal of reaching the top of the world and completing their Seven Summits quest would come down to one last push.

Human bodies aren’t designed to operate efficiently at extreme altitudes. Above 24,600 feet, sleeping becomes difficult, digesting food is almost impossible, and climbers face an increased risk of high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high- altitude cerebral edema (HACE). These conditions, caused by low oxygen, can often prove fatal. Contending with headaches, nausea, and persistent fatigue, climbers quickly exhaust their energy stores and begin to rapidly lose weight.

Sue and John were now at 26,000 feet, an altitude known as the Death Zone. At this elevation, virtually every human — unless they receive supplementary oxygen — will begin to experience a rapid deterioration of bodily functions that leads inexorably to loss of consciousness and, eventually, death. On the evening before their final 3,000-foot push to the summit, John and Sue huddled anxiously in their tents against the freezing temperatures and howling wind. The climb awaiting them would be the most difficult of their lives. Would they be able to summon the drive and energy they would need to succeed?

The storm that had arrived the day before was building in strength when they dragged themselves from their tents at 11:00 p.m. to survey the conditions and make final preparations. After forcing themselves to take a few sips of water, they began to climb. It was almost midnight and pitch-black. The jet stream had moved in like a freight train, bringing heavy winds that drove needles of snow into their faces. They could barely see each other as they climbed into the darkness.

Sue struggled as she ascended a series of steps that had clearly been carved into the icy mountain for climbers with legs much longer than her own. It was like climbing a staircase made of chairs. Slowly, painfully, she trudged on, following the pale circle of light cast by her headlamp on the snow.

Her muscles were already sore from months of climbing and years of training. Her pack felt heavier and her headlamp cord froze where it snaked against her neck. The vent in her oxygen mask, which allowed her exhaled breath to escape so she wouldn’t suffocate, kept freezing over, too. Every few steps, she had to stop to break the ice. And no matter how she adjusted the ascender in her safety harness, it kept banging painfully against her knee. Her fingers were stinging and she couldn’t feel her toes. She began flexing them, hoping to prevent frostbite from setting in. To keep herself going, she chanted the three mantras she’d written in her journal:

You have the ability; now believe, believe, believe. Olympic athletes perform through the pain. So can you. Pain is temporary, push through the pain.

Somewhere up ahead, John too was facing the harsh realities of climbing in the Death Zone. The thin air had affected his ability to think clearly, a condition known as hypoxia that results from diminished oxygen levels to the brain. This light-headedness had caused John to vacillate when determining which gloves to wear from High Camp to the summit. Warm down mittens would provide maximum protection against the harsh elements, but they would restrict the dexterity needed to handle the fixed ropes and devices required to climb. Ultimately he had chosen thin gloves that provided little protection against the frigid wind and subzero temperatures. Now, he was losing feeling in his fingers despite his repeated attempts to keep the circulation flowing. Ignoring the numbness and stinging pain, John continued climbing. As he approached 27,600 feet — only approximately 1,400 feet from the summit — the wind and snow began to batter his face harder than ever and his progress slowed. He became increasingly certain that the mountain was not going to be climbable that day. Disappointment began to dampen his spirits.

After hours of climbing, Sue and John came together for a break with the one other team that was on the upper mountain that night — an American team striving to get the first blind climber to the top of the world. This team was also diminished, so the two teams discussed their plans and agreed to watch out for one another as they climbed the next leg.

Although climbers work as a team, each is alone when it comes to marshaling the strength and endurance needed to overcome the challenges of a serious climb. During the past sixty-three days of their climb, Sue and John had many long hours to think about their motivation and push down the voices inside their heads saying things like “What in the world are you doing up here? You’re not a professional mountain climber. Why put yourself through this kind of pain?”

Scaling a Quota

Two months earlier, before attacking the perils of Everest, Sue and John had faced equally daunting challenges in their business careers. Sue was at US West (now CenturyLink), a Fortune 500 telecommunications service provider, where she led the sales organization responsible for the firm’s largest Internet service provider (ISP) accounts. How, she wondered, would they overcome fierce competition, rapid market changes, and limited resources to achieve the dramatic increase in their revenue objectives — from $250 million to $300 million — that had just been mandated by senior management?

John was mulling over the future of Waechter Lufkin, LLC, the boutique investment banking firm he had cofounded four years earlier with his friend and fellow climber Andy Lufkin. The company, which specialized in providing guidance and venture capital to start-up technology companies, had enjoyed enormous success throughout the technology boom of the late 1990s. Then, just prior to the Everest expedition, the bubble burst, plunging the country into recession. John would now have to define a new vision and business strategy to maintain the growth the company had enjoyed until then. However, with Everest looming, this was a challenge that would have to wait until he returned from the mountain.

As sales professionals, we’re accustomed to high pressure and seemingly unreasonable expectations. We’re always being challenged to do more with less. We’re expected to find new clients, service existing ones, and stay current with industry trends while meeting strict deadlines. Somehow, through all this, we must also find time to have a personal life. And if you’re in a management role, as we were, you have the added responsibility of successfully building and leading a team.

Have you ever felt stymied while chasing a dream? Felt like you’ve only just started, yet the obstacles you’re encountering already seem overwhelming? “This is too difficult,” you tell yourself. “How will I ever make it happen?”

We’ve been there too. But through experience, we’ve learned that anyone can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and achieve their personal vision of success.

Project. Prepare. Persevere

The act of climbing a mountain has long captured the human imagination as a metaphor for meeting life’s challenges. On the mountain, we must overcome harsh weather and physical barriers to reach the summit. In business, sales professionals must overcome constant rejection and scarce resources to fulfill their quotas and earn financial rewards.

We’re proud to count ourselves among the elite climbers who have ascended the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. In sales, too, there are Seven Summits that every top performer must conquer, one for each chapter of this book.

For more than eight years, we fully committed ourselves to achieving our vision of climbing the Seven Summits. We trained year-round and spent all of our annual vacations pursuing this goal with single-minded determination. Along the way, our climbing experiences proved to be a rich source of inspiration, bringing us new skills and perspectives that we could leverage to achieve success in every aspect of our lives. Throughout this book, we’ll illustrate these principles with anecdotes from our business and climbing careers and show you how to apply them in attaining your own vision of personal and professional success.

Project Your Future — CLIMB

It all begins with a well-defined vision and a set of clearly defined goals. The CLIMB system we developed on our journey to becoming top performers will provide you with a structured approach to goal setting that is both disciplined and focused.

Let’s take a look at a leading executive who used our CLIMB principles to achieve remarkable success in a rapidly changing industry. Marka Jenkins, CEO of Metropolitan Travel, was recognized nationwide as one of the top executives in the travel industry. Prior to her stewardship, Metropolitan Travel enjoyed considerable success by delivering exemplary customer service and innovations in travel management consulting to an impressive roster of corporate clients under the leadership of her business partner, and chairman, Jeff Schoenfeld.

Then the Internet arrived and hit the travel industry hard. Airlines began reducing their commissions to travel agencies, eroding their core revenue streams, and making it increasingly difficult for the travel industry to operate profitably. More worrisome, travel agencies were now facing new competition from companies planning to offer ticketing and reservation systems directly to customers through the Internet. If this took hold, travel agencies like Metropolitan Travel faced the very real threat that the foundation for their service-based business was in serious jeopardy.

This message of impending change was brought home with a vengeance when Marka attended a speech given by Bill Gates to alumni at his high school alma mater, the Lakeside School. His words were blunt and to the point. If you don’t have a business vision that includes the Internet, your company won’t survive the coming decade. It was a wake-up call for Marka. She started to educate herself about online business models and soon set a new strategic course for their company, one that accounted for the coming marketplace changes while retaining the values that Jeff established to set Metropolitan Travel apart from the competition.

They began with a new vision: to become the intelligent choice for corporate travel management by delivering exceptional customer service along with innovative Internet-based tools for travel management. As part of the branding overhaul, the company would change its tag line to “Self-service when you want it; full service when you need it!”

Marka relied on the principles of the CLIMB system to reposition their company for success in a rapidly changing marketplace. Let’s see how our CLIMB methodology helped Marka achieve her vision and goals:

Concise: Marka’s vision was to build an Internet-based reservation system that would meet the following criteria:

  • It would innovate by enforcing company travel policies.
  • It would be so easy to use, it would encourage self-service.
  • It would retain a full-service component while providing con- venient online access to booking information.

Levelheaded: metropolitan travel possessed deep operational knowledge about the inner workings of the various airline ticketing and reservation systems, which gave the firm a distinct advantage over competitors whose expertise was primarily in software development. the company made sure to recruit a talented team of developers able to apply this subject matter expertise when developing the company’s new software.

Integrated: to survive in the new environment, metropolitan travel would need to integrate its new self-service systems with its proven methods for delivering high-quality, personal service.

Measurable: Marka and her team took a comprehensive and disciplined approach to project management, tracking the development process and deliverables closely and ensuring they were on time and within budget. then, when the software was deployed, they measured the extent to which clients were utilizing the self-service capabilities by comparing the number of bookings made online versus offline and the level of satisfaction clients expressed about each method.

Big: Marka’s goal to develop a new system was extremely ambitious for a moderately sized company like metropolitan travel, especially since it placed the company in direct competition with industry giants like Microsoft, American Express, and Galileo. However, they felt confident that the firm’s domain expertise would give them an edge, resulting in a system that offered a superior user experience.

Marka had always believed that Metropolitan Travel’s new software would be attractive to other similarly sized travel companies. So, a year later, when development was complete, she formed a new company, HighWire, to market the booking software, which was now known as Travelport. However, she had not fully appreciated the appeal the new software would have for large corporations until 2001, when Microsoft Corporation selected Travelport as its internal travel booking system. Then, just six months later, Galileo, now owned by Cendant Corporation, acquired HighWire outright after failing to deliver the booking system it had been developing for its own network of travel agent clients. Thinking big had paid off handsomely.

Thanks to Marka’s vision and the CLIMB methodology, her company weathered the subsequent contraction of the industry, which saw more than five hundred travel agencies shut their doors between 2000 and 2002.

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