What snowboard instructing taught me about business

by Louise Blakely in Business Chat
November 29, 2019 0 comments

The first time I ever left New Zealand, I was 21. I hopped on the big flight from Auckland to LA to work at a ski resort in California.

That winter was spent snowboarding for hours every day. I'd only just learnt the winter before in NZ, so I was very green to it all. The amount of progression I had in the season was immense, and I completely fell in love with it.

So much so, I decided it was going to be my thing. I went back to NZ after 5 months in the USA to do my certification to become a snowboard instructor. And I'd managed to get an instructing job secured at that same resort for the following year.

Back in NZ, I just didn't really love the snow. It was hard and icy, with the cold chill of NZ to boot. I really missed those Californian bluebird days with plenty of snow.

The course I had signed up to was predominantly an avalanche course, with the snowboard certification tacked on the end of it.

We were doing a lot of backcountry work, learning about avalanches and how to perform rescues (and save ourselves) in those conditions. It was all snow science and weather patterns. Let's just say this wasn't really my passion. I loved riding the corduroy or powder depending on the conditions, heading to the park and playing around on little features around the mountain.

Long story short, I passed the avalanche certificate by a fluke. But I failed the snowboard instructing certification! I really needed this since I already had a job lined up based on getting this qualification. The exam was incredibly challenging, and I struggled to get the perfect technique. I'd also lost interest mid-season because of all the backcountry work that I didn't enjoy.

Luckily, I was able to do a bit of pleading and keep my position as snowboard instructor at the resort in the USA despite not getting the qualification. So after a month away sea kayaking with tourists around Fiordland, I was off on the plane again.

And what happened that season taught me a lot that I have now translated into business.

1. Always ask for the next step

I ended up topping the charts that season for in-demand snowboard instructors, beating some very experienced and qualified snowboard instructors. One of those was actually my coach from NZ who had failed me in the exam!

You see, there was a priority system in the snowboard school. The order of the priority system was based on the number of requests you got by name. And then the higher you up the list you were, the more private lessons you got. So being high on that list meant lots of private lessons, no big groups of kids, and a really nice time instructing!

The private lessons paid significantly more per hour, the work was much more enjoyable, and you were likely to get a nice healthy tip at the end of the day! These people were also more likely to want another private lesson, this time requesting you by name. Therefore bumping you up the list even further. You see how this works!

It was virtually impossible for a newbie like me, with no experience or qualifications, to get into the top 10, let alone the top 20. As a new instructor, I was destined to spend that first season teaching kids. They were fearless and a lot of work to look after!

But that's not what happened!

Within my first week, I took a group lesson with some adults. I was speaking to one of them on the lift about their goals and how much more snowboarding they'd like to do. She mentioned that she was keen to do more but didn't really like being in such a big group.

I said to her, “how about you go back to the ski school, ask for a private lesson tomorrow, and specifically ask for me by name”. I told her that I already knew where she was at, so it was going to be much more time efficient to stay with the same instructor.

And she did it! Because it made total sense to her and her goals. The next morning I rocked up to work to find I had my first request within my first week on the job! I was stunned, as were the supervisors and the other instructors.

At this point, I didn't really have any idea on the influence this would have on the rest of the season. But for her, it was the logical next step. I simply told her the path of least resistance to take.

She ended up hiring me for two days of one-on-on instructing.

What happened next was that this one booking put me into the top 10! It was so early in the season and all the instructors (new or experienced) were just settling in, so it had a big impact. I was about 15 spots ahead of my snowboarding coach from NZ – let's be fair, there were some people who weren't happy about it.

With this strategy of simply recognising where someone was at and putting the pathway in front of them (gotta love those chairlift rides for this) I was able to keep that top position and go on to spend the majority of my first season on private lessons.

And when I did do group lessons, I wasn't afraid to mention to those who were especially keen that their learning curve would be halved if they invested in private lessons with me.

The other new instructors were dumbfounded…literally asking me how I had pulled it all off. I still remember an American guy asking me “what's your secret Louise? How do you do that?”. Every time I saw him, he had about 10 kids traipsing behind him.

I wish I had some kind of secret to share, but the reality was all I did was recognise where that first girl was at, and put the pathway in front of her.

This experience taught me everything you need to know about sales. Have the right product for the right people at the right time. Tell them about it, and who it's for and not for.

Since this time I have done a huge amount of sales training. I have learnt sales at university, I have worked in a sales role, and I have done the sales training with Google. But the tried and true technique that always works for me the best is the one I learnt on the chairlift in California.

2. Embrace your differences

There's no denying that foreigners love a good accent. While ‘down under' we definitely don't consider ourselves anything unique, I quickly realised that Americans found the New Zealand accent a total novelty!

It started conversations and it was endearing to them so I decided to use it to my advantage. I didn't try to fit in with the American's, it was never going to work anyway. I was different to them.

The ability to be myself built instant trust and rapport, which helped with my chairlift sales strategy! When I suggested to people that they book a private lesson with me, they usually did. My conversion rate was extremely high!

Towards the end of the season, I taught a family privately for almost a week. They loved my kiwi ways and found it such a novelty. And then they invited me to come and stay with them in their home in Manhattan Beach! I ended up staying with them and housesitting for them for nearly three weeks at the end of the season. This was a dream come true for a young 22 year old travelling by herself.

In the online business world, there's a lot of us dumbing ourselves down to fit in.¬† We tend to compare ourselves to people who are “more successful” (go away, imposter syndrome), and resist just showing up as ourselves. We think we're ‘too boring', ‘not funny enough', or not a good enough writer.

But the truth is, it's these differences in us that make us unique and that people admire. Without these little quirks, it's hard to attract a following because there's nothing special. And if you think you're too boring, I bet that's not the case! People might follow you because of the value and expertise you have, as they can find humour somewhere else.

There are always going to be people out there that connect with your unique brand and you-ness!

3. Create a system to guide your clients through

Snowboard instructing was really my first job as a teacher or coach. I had completed an Outdoor Education course before this, where I had learnt to guide people in the outdoors. But this was the first JOB where I was doing it every single day.

And I had to learn quickly on the job! As you know already, I started getting requests for private lessons within the first week. I knew I had to provide a quality experience, and that they were going to expect results.

How was I going to do this?

After settling a few butterflies, I had to focus.

The first thing I started to do was observe everyone who came into my lessons, whether it was a group or a private one. I looked for signals on where they were at, what they were getting frustrated with, and how they were responding to my instructions.

I quickly learnt that for them to enjoy snowboarding and feel like they'd progressed in leaps and bounds, they needed to master the ever elusive turn. (Because it's no fun snowboarding if you can only do the falling leaf!)

It became my goal to get them up to and through this learning curve as fast as possible. Once they got this, we were all away. No more stepping back up the mountain with one foot clipped into my snowboard to save them. Instead we were all over the mountain and riding to our hearts content.

I started to develop a way of giving instructions to them. It couldn't include any technical jargon. So my instructions became dead simple, and they could all understand it – whether they were kids or adults. Instead of talking about the sides of the boards, I just talked about heels and toes. Simple! And the crazy thing was, it worked. Some people did a turn first go with this simple instruction.

Once they got this, there were lots of high fives, congratulations and big grins, and we were off. The mountain was literally their oyster and the level of progression they could now achieve had gone up exponentially.

One of the skills I developed this season was turning the complex into a simple set of instructions. Prior to this, I could see the confused looks on someones face if I used any slightly technical terms. It wasn't because they weren't smart, it was because I was using what I now like to call ‘techno-babble'!

Applying the lessons learnt to business 

One area I have really put these learning into action is with the digital products, online courses and group coaching programs I have created, such as my Launch + Thrive Mastermind.

My goal is always to get my clients over the hump and into a space of exponential growth as fast as possible.

The ultimate lesson in all of this is to have a pathway available to a client, understand their problem, then create a system to get them to the one thing that will make the biggest difference.

After that, it's just about being there beside them guiding them in the right direction as they kick butt!

The lessons I learnt from that one season of snowboard instructing were profound. Not to mention that anything can happen, if you have passion and dedication to a topic. The same can happen in business, and it can happen fast!

I never went back for a second season…life changed dramatically after this and I ended up back in NZ with a child by the age of 24. I quite often wonder what would have been if I'd continued on my journey as a snowboard instructor. But for now, I get to translate the many lessons learnt into building a successful marketing coaching business.

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