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Sales Metaphors & Promoting Win-Win

Furniture World Magazine


Using metaphors, especially those having to do with sports and war help convey that every disagreement needs to be hostile.

In this issue we'll discuss the role metaphors play in disagreeing with someone without being disagreeable. If after reading this article you find it intriguing enough to dig more deeply into this matter you might want to study what Suzette Haden Elgin has to say about this in her book, "How To Disagree Without Being Disagreeable."

For many years I have been fascinated by metaphors, especially ever since I learned the ancient Greek dictum that "All metaphors limp," some of them more noticeably than others, the worst of them crawling on all fours. An interesting word, metaphor, made up of meta (beyond) and phor (carry). We might say that all metaphors carry us beyond the literal definition of a word. In the sentence, "The animal in the zoo is a polar bear, the word bear is used literally. In the sentence, "Dick Butkus was a Chicago Bear," the word Bear is used metaphorically.

In her chapter on metaphors, Suzette Haden Elgin presents her case for the importance of becoming aware of the role metaphors can play in statements like "Disagreement is combat." In that example, disagreement is likened to combat. Such a metaphor, she writes, helps convey the idea that every disagreement needs to be hostile. The real danger, she insists, lies in the fact that when we choose a hostile metaphor, we are also choosing its rules. That's the bad news. The good news is that when we choose a non-hostile metaphor, we are also choosing its rules, that is, rules that help prepare us how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Doctor Elgin also comments on the fact that until now, male's significantly more than their female counterparts, tend to use metaphors based on aggressively competitive sports, it follows that male managers tend to use that same kind of metaphor to express the way they ought to go about achieving their managerial goals. For example, more men than women tend to use metaphors like the following to motivate their workers: ''The way we're going to win this game is to keep on fighting till the final buzzer." The problem with metaphors based on warfare and aggressive sports, Doctor Elgin observes, is that such metaphors tend to obscure the fact that even warfare and aggressive sports have their rules of fairness. I'd like to take Dr. Elgin's observations one step further. The final problem with such metaphors is that they also tend to eliminate the practice of the philosophy of win-win in the workplace since in warfare and in competitive sports one side emerges the winner, the other the loser. The solution ought to be obvious. Managers and others who would like to motivate their people to achieve their goals in the workplace would be well advised to change their win-lose metaphors to win-win ones. For some time now I have advocated that all selling systems drop the wording "overcoming objections" on the ground that the word "overcome" stems from a metaphor of aggression and fighting in which one side wins and the other loses. To date, not one of the selling systems I have urged to do so has taken my suggestion, to my knowledge. Customers are neither the enemy nor the opponent. Our customers' objections are always implied needs of one kind or another which ought to be inferred as needs and therefore supported. It was the Dale Carnegie sales training which came closest to grasping this when they very early taught the skill of cushioning, that is, of winning agreement. My book, "Winning Bragging Rights," was inspired mainly with that thought in mind as was likely that of Michael Le Boeuf, "How to Win Customers and Keep Them for Life."

The customer who raises the objection, "I'd like to think about this" should not be told, "Why do you want to shop another store? You won't learn anything I haven't already told you." These are the very words I recently heard a salesperson use. How much wiser to win agreement by saying something like the following: "I can certainly understand why you want to give this more thought. An investment like this deserves your thinking. Tell me, what question is there that you feel I haven't answered yet?" You see, while I agree with Brian Tracy that most customers who say "I'd like to think about it" are stalling and have done all the thinking about it they'll ever do, the important thing is not to hurt them for saying that.

Nor do I believe that the ill-chosen metaphors of win-lose are limited to managers and salespeople. It is those same win-lose metaphors that continue to drive the worst of our marketing, the worst of our ads, and the worst of our service policies. Take the matter of customer service. Too many owners are convinced that one can take customer service too far. What they fail to realize is that at the point that one goes too far it is no longer customer service that is being taken too far. Customer service can be compared to love. No one has ever received too much love, only too much of the things that destroy love. So too, we can never give our customers too much service. We can only give them too much of the things that destroy service, like giving away the proverbial kitchen sink because we lack the skills to conduct customer service professionally. The fault in our applying the words "too much" to customer service is that we are misled by the metaphor that causes us to look upon service the way we do upon eating and drinking to excess. The great John Wanamaker understood the point I am making when he wrote more than a century ago; "Productivity is merely the by-product of service." Only those owners who realize that even the slightest tainting of the principles of customer service with even the tiniest drops of such false metaphors contaminates the entire mixture.

In light of what we have discussed in this article, how refreshing the title of Michael Le Boeuf's book, "How to Win Customers and Keep Them for Life." I have known owners, managers, buyers, salespeople and other coworkers who think and live win-win. The pity is there aren't more. For it is within the philosophy of win-lose that both sides end up losing, sooner or later, and often sooner.

Win-win doesn't merely mean that both sides win; more importantly, it means that both sides win at a significantly higher level. I am reminded of a pianist who performed at Carnegie Hall in the forties. He walked to the middle of the stage, bowed to the audience, then proceeded to play a brief sequence of cacophonous notes. He suddenly stopped, looked nervous, fidgeted, and then played another equally cacophonous sequence. The audience stirred in their seats, their tension highlighted by the psychological implications of the social fact that he was "black." The pianist then rose, walked to the middle of the stage and facing his audience said: "My friends, what you heard me play the first time were the white keys alone, what you heard me play the second time were the black keys alone. Allow me now to show you what happens when we put the two together." He went on to give the greatest piano recital they had ever heard. The metaphor needs no further comment. In the next issue, we'll take a look at how presuppositions affect the managing of differences.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.