Understand How Options Overwhelm and How to Help the Customer Make a Decision


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Choice is usually regarded as the ultimate expression of freedom. In many ways it is. Being able to decide every facet of your lifestyle, from food to clothing, is an inherent piece of American culture.

In business, however, choice may entail a shadow. In 1995, Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar conducted a study to see whether choice could de-motivate people.

On the first day, a tasting booth was set up at a local grocery store which featured six different jams. Forty percent of customers stopped to try a sample, and 30% who tasted bought some jam.

The next week, the same tasting booth was set up, but this time with twenty-four flavors of jam. This attracted 60% of the customers to taste the jams, but only 3% of them made a purchase. Both groups tried an average of 1.5 jams.

After describing the jam experiment, Derek Sivers, creator of CDBaby, discusses another survey that rendered similar results. Surgeon Atul Gawande found that 65% of survey participants said they’d want to choose their own treatment if they were diagnosed with cancer.

Only 12% of survey participants who actually had it said they’d want to choose their treatment. Sivers explains: “… if you ask your customers if they want extensive choice, they will say they do — but they really don’t.”

People love the idea of choice, but many choices raise the difficulty of committing to a purchase. Business owners have to guide customers toward choices, and that may often require you to restrict their options.

The customer journey is a series of decisions

An effective marketing strategy moves potential leads closer to making the purchase, one step at a time. This process is often referred to as the customer journey.

At each step, the prospective customer must make a decision. Sometimes it’s a yes-or-no decision (such as whether to sign up for your email list). Other decisions can be made only after examining multiple options: for instance, choosing between a red, purple, or blue fleece blanket in an online store.

The number of options, not just the quality of them, influences a customer’s decision. Say you’re the one who’s selling blankets. A customer might not love any of your color options, but if he or she truly needs a blanket, the person might settle for blue because it’s fairly neutral.

Many customers regard the prices as options: “Do I want the thirty-dollar blanket or the twenty-dollar blanket?” Some customers might come to your operation in search of a red blanket, but might settle for green if it’s the twenty-dollar option.

You may also influence purchase decisions by providing several undesirable options to make your main product seem more appealing. Cell-phone carriers use this marketing trick with their plans.

The lowest plans often consist of limited minutes and data, which makes the more expensive plans look like a better deal.

More options equal less profit for your business

Limited options produce quicker decisions to buy. When you’ve got just three options to choose from, it’s not hard for you as a customer to decide in the moment. If there are too many options, you’ll overwhelm shoppers and forfeit the sale.

Some products require customers to select from a multitude of options, and that’s okay. The key is to communicate the options in a way that doesn’t overwhelm people.

For instance, web-hosting companies often have multiple packages to choose from, but they’re typically presented side by side. If you’re not showing your product or service variations side by side, you could be losing sales.

The feature comparison format used by Top10 is an excellent template for communicating the differences between products that have varied options. Instead of forcing customers to view the variations individually, present a one-page overview and highlight the essential differences at a glance.

Customers don’t want unnecessary choices

The number of options you provide customers should be based on whether those options are useful or necessary. For example, it’s worthwhile to offer blankets that have different linings such as polar fleece and Sherpa. It’s also appropriate to offer each blanket design as an electric blanket.

However, you don’t need to give customers 200 designs to choose from. Shoppers will get tired of browsing the options before they get to all of them. They’ll collect multiple favorites over the course of fifteen pages of product thumbnails, won’t be able to settle on one, and they’re apt to bounce.

Use options with intention

You want leads to make choices that keep them in the game and on that customer journey. You don’t want them to unsubscribe from your mailing list because your emails advertise 50 different cat sweater designs. You don’t want folks to abandon their shopping cart because they aren’t sure whether they’ve seen every possible combination of product option.

In general, options should improve the customer’s experience of your product. They should also be limited in number so they’re less likely to hinder the customer’s commitment to making a purchase.

Larry Alton
Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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