Friday, March 29, 2013

Baptism by Fire

At the summit of the Grand Teton, 13770 ft / 4197 m, Wyoming, USA 1996
Approaching my challenge: The Grand Teton from the parking lot, July 1996
Today I am pleased to present another guest post by Sarah Simon.

I spend a lot of time in the mountains - seeking their summits, their beauty, their good tidings. Climbing for me is more than a hobby; it’s an obsession and a lifestyle.  The mountains have taught me a lot of valuable lessons over the years.  It’s occurred to me that many of these lessons can be applied to Voice of Customer and Customer Experience.  And so I bring you a short series of customer experience lessons from the High Country.  This series is intended to be light-hearted and inspirational in nature, and I hope you enjoy it as such.

What the Mountain Teaches
It’s the summer of 1996, I’m a 22-year old kid – wiry with dirty blond pigtails, plus a crooked grin and a high-mileage sedan.  I’m working for a ranch in Wyoming, and an amazing opportunity presents itself: Would you like to climb the Grand Teton?

As part of my employment, my boss arranged for a guided group climb of the second highest peak in the state.  Standing an impressive 13,770 feet / 4,197 meters above sea level, the easiest route to the top of this majestic peak requires technical climbing.  For those less familiar with the sport, I mean helmets, ropes, harnesses, carabiners, cams, and nuts.  At this point, my technical climbing experience is limited to indoor gym climbing, a high ropes course or two, some more-involved caving adventures, plus some outdoor rappelling practice.

Me?  Climb “The Grand”? <gulp!> Sure!

After two days of rock school, practicing climbing moves, essential rope knots, and safety practices, we are off on our two-day adventure.  Much of the first day is spent hiking to the saddle, gaining several thousand vertical feet along the way.  We have to traverse some snow fields higher up, but the day is mostly mellow.  At the saddle, we settle in for dinner, then snuggle into our sleeping bags for a well-earned rest.

The alarm rings.  It’s 3:00 AM, pitch black, and bitterly cold.  Headlamps flicker on, and the climbing hut becomes a hive of activity.  Soon, we are dressed with our boots laced, harnesses pulled snug and shouldering our packs, we head into the mountain chill toward the summit.  The sun slowly rises in the east, casting upon Idaho the pyramidal shadow of the monster I’m about to climb.  I realize the enormity of what I’ve committed to.  Holy *&@#.

As we ascend, the day grows brighter and the terrain steeper and more demanding.  We begin the technical climb. The exposure is huge – my head spins, the holds seem miniscule, my mouth goes dry…I’m scared.  But my fear is tempered by other sensations: Joy, elation, thrill.  Soon the sun warms the mountain, and I can smell the minerals in the craggy vertical rock just inches from my nose.  Final exams, bills, relationship woes – all these worries slip away as I’m focused on the here and now. I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt before. I’m actually enjoying this!

We pop out onto a jumble of boulders, and suddenly there is no place else to go, no more climbing to do. We’ve reached the summit! We snap some quick hero shots on the top, drink in the incredible views, and then begin our descent. The overhanging 50-meter rappel went by quickly and painlessly.  We weaved our way back to the saddle, rested, and had some snacks, then hiked back down to the valley.

Looking back, I laugh a little at my hubris. Some kid with zero alpine climbing experience taking on a peak like the Grand Teton is pretty audacious, even with strong young knees and a guide! Much of my bliss was due to ignorance, I confess. I lacked the climbing experience to really appreciate, at a gut level, the risks I was exposing myself to.  Yet I had overcome mental fear and physical challenges and made it to the summit and back. Strolling the sidewalks in Jackson Hole later that week, I had a spring in my step, a boost in my confidence. I was proud. I had not only survived, but thrived, on the Grand Teton.

Applying This to Customer Experience
I meet a lot of people in this industry who entered their Voice of Customer and Customer Experience roles very suddenly and with minimal formal preparation:  A vacancy opened at the company; you were reassigned to build a new department; “someone’s got to do this” and that someone is YOU.  You wake up one morning and have “Customer Experience” in your title, and you may be a bit uncertain of what the future holds.  A lot of you are living “Baptism by Fire” as we speak. I cringe at the challenges you face, but I delight in watching the bold among you ignore the inner fear and outer naysayers and just jump in, do your best, and make this thing happen!

I know many of you are climbing your own Grand Teton with your Customer Experience programs: tall orders, difficult terrain, frightening conditions, unfamiliar skills requirements, long days, high expectations. At times you might feel scared, overwhelmed, in over your heads. I’ve been there. You can do it! Jump in with both feet, give it all you’ve got, and make a splash. Don’t just survive your Customer Experience and VoC program – learn to enjoy it and thrive.

It’s not such a bad thing if, nearly two decades later, you get to look back and shake your head at your own hubris – through the lens of success.

Sarah Simon is a career insights professional with 16 years of experience in the feedback industry. Specialties include VoC architecture, journey mapping, developing linkages to business performance, reduction of customer defection, results analysis and communication, with expert survey design skills.  She is the survivor of a botched early-generation "big data mining" operation and is happy to live to tell about it.


  1. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for your post. As a fellow rock-climber and mountaineer I've always fancied climbing in the Tetons and congratulate you on your summit.

    Personally, the thing that I know and think applies from climbing to any new initiative is two things:
    1. Know that there will be times that you will be scared and fearful but start small and learn how to manage it. If in doubt, hire a 'guide' to help you with your route finding; and
    2. Climbing a route is done in stages (pitches, in other words) and all of your focus should stay on the pitch ahead and not on the summit. If you spend too much time focusing on the summit you forget to pay attention to what is in front of you and that is where mistakes can happen.


    1. Adrian,

      I completely concur with the two lessons you summarize in your comment! Great assessment - yes, dealing with fear is "part of the game" in both climbing and business, and it is important to know when to hire a guide / consultant to get you over the rough pitches until you've gained more experience. And, yes, speaking of pitches - focus on one step at a time. We've got to keep the big picture - the summit! - in focus, but break the challenge into manageable parts.


  2. I really enjoyed the story. The things that one learns on The Grand stick with you for years. I did the 3am pitch dark start 20 years ago. Yet I can close my eyes and see my boots and hear my heavy breathing climbing up the steep trail. Everlasting lesson= One Foot in Front of the Other.

    1. Cheryl,

      It's great to connect with another veteran of the Grand. It's an amazing mountain, isn't it? I hope my post sent you on a little trip down memory lane. It sounds like we both have learned live-long lessons from this incredible peak!

      All the best,

  3. I enjoyed your post Sarah

    As they say, if you don't try you will never know. Though I have to admit wild horses wouldn't drag me up that particular mountain.

    It looks pretty from the bottom though.


    1. Never say never, James...The Grand is quite the peak! Yes, it is beautiful from the valley, but the grace and power of this peak is best appreciated up close and personal!