Sales veteran and mountain climber Susan Ershler shares her top-performance tips
By the time Susan Ershler decided to climb to the top of Mount Everest in the Himalayas – the highest mountain in the world – she was managing a 100-person sales team and trying to reach a $300 million sales goal for U.S. West, a small telecom company.
She knew achieving both objectives would require daily dedication. To keep focus over the long haul, she wrote down her goals and kept them where she could look at them every day.
For the sales goal, she wrote “$300 million” on the first page of her business journal. Each Monday, Ershler held a meeting with her team by conference call to measure their progress, and she always reiterated the goal of $300 million.
“There are so many things that throw you off track,” she says. “Sometimes, a large sale goes sideways or a customer gets angry or you get distracted by your weekly quota. Sometimes, salespeople will come to you and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.’ I tell them, ‘Yes you do. You have it in writing.’ ” At the end of the year, her team surpassed its goal, hitting 150 percent of its quota.
She used the same technique with her mountain-climbing goal, writing down the height of Mount Everest – 29,035 feet – on a “sticky note” and putting it on her computer. “That number is really high,” she admits. “But if you look at it several times a day, it can become doable in your mind.”
The Air up There
Before she started dating veteran mountain- climbing guide Phil Ershler in 1992, Ershler had never climbed before. “I’d never even hiked,” she says.
Early in their courtship, he offered to take her up Mount Rainier in Washington State. Climbing to 14,410 feet meant getting used to breathing with limited oxygen and suffering severe headaches (high altitudes can cause the brain to swell slightly).
“You get exhausted,” Ershler says. “You’re not sleeping right, and you don’t feel much like eating or drinking. I found that it was quite emotional. Things that would be very concerning at sea level are extremely concerning up there.”
The lows were indeed low, but the highs were exhilarating. “Getting to the top was such a sense of accomplishment,” she says. “I was hooked.”
After marrying in 1996, the Ershlers continued to climb the world’s most difficult mountains. Eventually, they decided to tackle Mount Everest, with the goal of climbing all seven summits together. A go-getter by nature, Ershler knew big success meant dreaming big.
“What I love about sales is that you’re evaluated by your performance. But in the beginning, it can be difficult, because you’re starting out at the very bottom,” says Ershler, who began her sales career as a customer-service representative. In time, a GTE manager recruited her to sell to major clients.
“I was green,” Ershler says. “I came in during the middle of the year, and I still carried a full quota.” For nearly a year, Ershler courted the top two law firms without any breakthroughs. GTE moved her to small-business sales.
Ershler was crushed, but defeat fueled her desire to land the deal. A couple of months later – a little more than a year after she had set her goal – she made the sale. It was one of GTE’s largest equipment sales ever.
“Once that hit, I was moved right back to major accounts,” she says.
By 2000, Ershler had completed 31 successful climbs with her husband to summits higher than 14,000 feet, including Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) near the Kenya border, Mount McKinley (20,320 feet) in Alaska and Mount Aconcagua (22,840 feet) in the Andes. In 2001, the Ershlers set out to conquer Mount Everest. During the climb, however, her husband’s eyes began to freeze, and his vision was severely impaired. A mere 1,500 feet from the summit, they decided to turn back. It was a bitter letdown. After taking a couple of months to reflect, there was no question they would try again.
“I’m motivated by someone saying no,” Ershler explains. “So, in 2001, we didn’t make it to the top. We turned around. Well, in sales, how many times do you put everything into it and work like crazy for a long time, and then, someone tells you no? One of the biggest things that separate the top performers is that they do not accept no.”