SELLING WITH METAPHORS…Communicating effectively with customers


“You’re my sunshine.”

“He is a walking Bible.”

“She has a heart of gold.”

The falling snowflakes danced to the rippling sound of the nearby stream.”

Metaphors. Those exciting and still yet confusing literary colours that we resort to when we want to add colour to our speech. Robert Frost, the great American poet, once said, “unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.”

The late American researcher, Julian Jaynes, insisted that “it is by metaphor that language grows.” Some have argued that metaphors are fundamental to learning and communication. Francesca Lia Block, American writer of adult and young-adult literature adds that “metaphors are an interesting example of creating magic in prose.” Without a doubt, metaphors enrich our language.

Not to be confused with similes, metaphors would normally not use “like” or “as”. Another close relative of the metaphor is the parable. Although both are employed to hide the meaning behind obvious statements and words and both resort to the use of concrete, perceptible phenomena to illustrate abstract ideas, parables come in the form of stories whereas metaphors would normally refer to just one subject.

One of the positives of metaphors is their ability to hold so much truth within very few words. American novelist, Orson Scott Card, put it succinctly when he said, “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” Metaphors have a way of getting the receiver to think a little more about what she just heard.

Some have argued that there is no need to use metaphors because what must be said should be said without disguising the meaning intended. Author Jose Raul Bernardo says it this way: “Metaphors are the weapons of cowards.” This is the view of those who do not buy into the idea of sugar-coating words. No matter how bitter or unpleasant a message is, these individuals believe, it must be given just as it is.

It has been proven that metaphors are found in all languages and in all cultures around the world. As a matter of fact, metaphors are even employed in sign languages. Metaphors are therefore a part of our daily lives, as we attempt to communicate effectively with each other. Some have even argued that we cannot avoid using metaphors.

James Geary, author of I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World says:

“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate, learn, discover and invent. But metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words.”

With their importance to our ability to communicate effectively, it is no wonder that metaphors find themselves in the language of front line employees as they deal with customers. Salespeople, the one subset of front line staff that are purposely tasked with the responsibility of going out to convince customers to buy something that an organization is selling, must necessarily ensure that they communicate effectively. Without getting their thoughts out well, sales professionals would not be able to convince customers to buy.

No matter how fantastic a product or service is, if the front line employee is unable to get the customer to see how that offering is going to change that customer’s life positively, there will be no purchase. It is widely-accepted truth that the way a message is couched goes a long way in how the message is received.

The framing of a message is as important, if not more, as the content of the message. One of the most effective ways that sales and service employees can use to sell effectively is to use metaphors.

This is according to a recent study published in the February 2020 edition of the Journal of Business Research.

According to the study, the use of metaphors is most effective when the product or service being sold is incrementally new.

However, metaphors are not very effective when the offering is something that is totally new. Titled “It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it! Effective message styles for promoting innovative new services”, the aforementioned study compared the two message styles—narratives and metaphors, both of which have been observed to be very effective ways of attempting to persuade customers to buy.

A narrative has been simply described as a “story”. Narratives have beginnings and endings or outcomes.

In other words, this involves the use of anecdotes or stories to sell to customers.

The use of narratives involves placing the customer and the product or service in a story. The happy ending of the story must involve the customer and the product or service on offer. It is common to observe the use of narratives in many TV commercials and other advertisements.

There is enough evidence to show that customers respond well to narratives, making narratives a very powerful way of selling to customers. Narratives have been found to be very persuasive as it has the potential of getting customers “lost” in the story.

It is however proven that the effectiveness of narratives is dependent on the capacity of the one hearing it to understand and appreciate what is being narrated.

The ability of the listener, in this case a customer, to understand the narrative is therefore crucial to success of the narrative sales approach.

In comparing the two ways of delivering the sales message, the researchers also made it a point to distinguish between two kinds of service innovations. These are incrementally new services (INSs) and really new services (RNSs). The former involves cases in which slight modifications are made to an existing service. An example could include an eatery that decides to add a new item to its menu. As the name implies, RNS are truly new offering, just like a new restaurant starting out in a neighbourhood.

With INSs, the customer, in the very least, has a basis on which to make a comparison. The challenge with RNSs is that customers have no prior knowledge of the offering. It is important for the customer to be able to place himself or herself in the situation where he or she is enjoying the said service. Therefore, it becomes a very difficult task for customers to be able to visual or recollect any experience. The recalling of a past experience is crucial for the correct prediction of a future experience and so with nothing to recollect, customers are at a lost. This is where the importance of metaphors comes to the fore.

As is so well defined by a couple of authors, “metaphors act as prefabricated building blocks of mental imagery.” By making use of existing and appropriate imagery, a professional sales person can be able to get a customer to as close to the new experience as possible.

Closely related the issue of trying something that one has absolutely no prior experience is the issue of risk. New things always come with an element of risk. The use of familiar objects in metaphors that the customer can easily understand and appreciate goes a long way to minimize, if not, eliminate the risk.

Another benefit of using metaphors in selling is that customers who are able to successfully decipher the metaphor feel good about themselves. By “cracking the code” behind the metaphor, customers see themselves as being smarter than the average person. This good feeling can easily translate to a more favourable disposition towards the product or service on offer. This is something that narratives do not offer customers.

Even with metaphors, the researchers differentiated between two types—low-figurativeness metaphors and high-figurativeness metaphors. The more a metaphor deviates from an individual’s expectation, the higher the figurativeness of that metaphor. The study showed that low-figurativeness metaphors were more effective in getting customers to adopt INSs than high-figurativeness metaphors. I believe this is reasonable enough. Low figurative metaphors are more easily understandable than high figurative metaphors. The latter requires a lot more thinking on the part of the customer. This is something that might make a customer reject the innovation on offer.

It is however important to note that the phenomenon of low-figurativeness metaphors being more effective than high-figurativeness metaphors in getting customers to adopt INSs does not apply to RNSs. With really new services, the customer has no basis to compare. Therefore, regardless of the level of figurativeness of the metaphor, the customer still has nothing to compare with. The quick advice for businesses from this thought is to ensure that innovation is given a base from which to be launched. A lot of thinking must go into the releasing of totally new products or services.

The survival of any business rests, among other things, on the business’ ability to innovate as well as the acceptance of the innovation by customers. By upgrading what it already offers or by coming up with products or services that have never been on the market, a business is able to put itself on a good ground to succeed. However, if customers fail to go along with the new, the organisation might suffer on the market.

As can be seen from the preceding discussions, the chances of adoption of innovation are higher when the sales professionals or advertiser communicate using more metaphors. It is however important to state—one last time—that metaphors work, only when they are understood. But in the end, selling with metaphors is not just a metaphor—it really works. Now, that is a metaphor.

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