Customer-centricity is a lifestyle. You choose for it. And when you decide to do it, it’s good to have some powerful way to communicate that choice to all the employees. To have an inspirational story. And a compelling metaphor.

Photo by Aga Szóstek

There is this story from a book, which title and author I, unfortunately, can’t recall. An Australian decided to go through an organizational transformation. In order to do so they chose a metaphor. They decided to see a as if it was a city. The financial department was the banking and insurance system. The sales were the merchants. PR was design. And so on.

There was also a controlling department. Their metaphorical choice was, obviously, to become the police. They were there to keep order and to punish those who misbehave. But this department just got a new boss who had a slightly different approach to the role his team could take up. He asked: — What would happen if, instead of seeing ourselves as a police force, we would define our team as life-guards? What would change then? Imagine: instead of controlling others, you train them how to behave in the safest way. Instead of punishing them, you warn them. And if someone gets in trouble, your job is to help.

Customer Experience is something that can only function well if it becomes an inherent part of the company . But today majority of companies don’t see it that way. They see CX is programs, departments, trainings, projects, measurements. Not as a company lifestyle. Not as a new . A where “people like us do things like this” — as Seth Godin says. A culture that could be former and then run through a metaphor.

What is a metaphor?

The simplest explanation of a metaphor is provided by an American literary theorist Kenneth Burke in his book “A grammar of motives”:

It is a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of that or the thatness of a this” (1945).

A metaphor is something that we, as humans, live with an by since the dawn of humanity. are extremely common in our daily lives, with thousands of domains being “mapped” to other domains. What is actually pretty funny is that we are unable to talk about metaphor without employing a metaphor. As Reddy said: — “metaphors help us to conceptualize the world around us”. To reason with it. To act. To reflect and to associate.

In antiquity, Aristotle began to see metaphors as a teaching tool. He argued that to understand a metaphor we have to find commonalities between the metaphor and its subject and in that way describe some aspects of this subject in a new way. It is from metaphor, Aristotle says, that: — “we can best get hold of something fresh.” (Rhetoric, III.10, 1410b14f ).

Metaphors give us the to change the perspective on a given subject. Like changing the perspective of a role of the controlling department. But it can be taken even further: through a metaphor we can be empowered to establish a possible character of our act. For instance, archetypes are a great examples of metaphors. Imagine that the customer service department at your company chooses to become a metaphorical angel with respect to anyone who calls. What are the qualities of an archetypical angel? Infinite compassion. Performing miracles. Honesty. Humility. Providing aid and comfort. Sounds like a perfect job description for such a department, doesn’t it?

Metaphors enable us to map meaning across different domains. To understand things in terms of other things we already know. To reframe familiar concepts into an unfamiliar ground while holding on to the intended meaning. Metaphors become natural models that allow us to take familiar, concrete objects and experiences and re-cast them onto unknown or abstract concepts or things, giving them new structure and meaning.

Types of metaphors

Although metaphors were originally associated with the field of linguistics, today they are seen as valuable also in other fields. For example, cognitive psychologists call them: — tools for imaginative rationality. Metaphors give us a means to dig through tons of data we are surrounded with by applying metaphorical patterns that make it easier for us to take decisions and make choices. Actually, George Lakoff (a guy who is probably most known today for his work on metaphors) in the book “More than cool reason” says that:

“Human thought processes are largely metaphorical”.

But also the field of design doesn’t shy away from metaphors particularly with respect to digital products. We may not even see it anymore but the old-school floppy disk is still a metaphor for saving (the metaphor might be slowly fading away there as fewer and fewer people have ever encountered floppy disks on their paths). The hamburger menu is a metaphor too and a pretty direct one. Or a shopping cart. Or a waste basket in the left-hand bottom corner of our screens. Meg Robichaud in her article “Using Metaphor in Product Illustration” differentiated among three types of metaphors typically used in design:

pure metaphors: this thing, for right now, is that thing

fused metaphors: this thing plus that thing makes our thing

analogue metaphors: this thing but, like, if it wasn’t what it is today

As a designer, I use all three types on a daily basis. I take an object in my hand thinking, which of its properties can be used for my solution. Or I combine two different things to see how it sparkles my imagination to generate new ideas. Or I take something analog and make it digital (or the other way around). Because metaphorical thinking enables me to notice new ways to use old products (like the famous story of creating sticky notes at 3M) and to empathize with others.

But above all metaphors determine the stories we live by. They offer us an explanation of meaning. Bringing Lakoff’s words once more from the book “Metaphors we live”:

“A large part of self-understaning is the search for the appropriate personal metaphors that make sense of our lives.”

The power of metaphors

When we are at work we tell ourselves a story of who we are, what we do and why we act the way we act. A job can be seen as a calling, career or a way to get money. We can see ourselves as a replaceable cog in the machine or a valuable element of a bigger whole. The department can be seen as police or rescue. The company can be seen as greedy or generous, focused on its own gain or on creating the value to customers, society or the world. Greedy like a stray dog. Generous like Mother Theresa. Here lays the metaphor.

Metaphors have the power to be inspirational and aspirational. They are able to evoke and capture the positive emotions and motivate for action. Imagine yourself as a part of the controlling department that is seen as a rescue team. You will act differently than if you saw your role as a police force.

Metaphors are intuitive. If you define your role in the team as an innovator or as a warrior, you don’t need an elaborate manual to tell you what is the way you need to act. You know it because you understand the chosen metaphor. You know what it means. You know how to get creative around it.

Metaphors are easy to remember. They are also short to recall. In a way they have the power to become a shortcut for the company principles. Like the question: — “isn’t it evil?” from the early days at Google. I remember meetings being stopped and we would spend significant amount of time reconsidering a given idea if someone ever threw this magical question. A question that is metaphorical in its core.

William A. Stubblefield argues that once a team buys in on a metaphor, it begins to act as a connection between its members. It helps to define the social behaviors, boundaries, creates team identity and enhances communication. A shared metaphor has the power to form a basis for the design vision and to maintain a common understanding of a project. It also makes it easier to negotiate compromises as the pressures of users, customers, technology, schedules, budget, and organization increase.

Metaphor as a story

We all know that changing behavior is hard, cumbersome and takes a lot of time. When a company truly desires to become customer centric, it needs all the guns pulled to change the default behavior (do you see the metaphor right in that sentence?🙂 This is why the right metaphor is so crucial. Not product metaphors: like seeing Windows as a virtual home setting. The company needs a strategic metaphor. A metaphor that has the power to encapsulate the vision and to bring focus. A metaphor that tell a compelling story. A story that is relatable. That makes it easy for employees to interpret it and figure out how to act accordingly.

When you look at companies that are known for their customer-centricity and focus on experiential design, they are all telling metaphorical stories. Zappos talks about delivering happiness. Disney about creating your best childhood memories. Lego about empowering the builders of tomorrow. These are all stories. And these are all metaphors. Powerful ones too. Because they give the power for action. In the right direction. With amazing focus. So, if you were to choose the metaphor for your company today — what would be be?

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