How Too Many Choices Can Hurt Your Customer Service

Chances are, if you’re in or manage customer service, you’ve managed a complete service disaster at some point.  I’m not talking about a simple easy-to-fix misunderstanding; I’m talking about legitimate, day-ruining problems.  It could be a canceled flight that your front desk and call center employees are handling or it could be an oversold hotel at midnight; not uncommon, but difficult nonetheless.  Here is a tip that will help prevent complete customer service meltdowns:  Provide 2 or 3 specific choices as solutions and no more.

I recently read an outstanding book by Barry Schwartz called The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.  He explores the psychology of choice and specifically the number of choices we have and the subsequent effect on our happiness with the selection.  His research indicates that in general, we are less satisfied with more choices.  In one example he describes an experiment where 2 or 3 jellies are offered as a free sample in a grocery store as compared to the same study where more like 10 were offered.  The customers were more engaged in the study with fewer choices and more jellies were sold.  In the study with triple the choices, they not only sold fewer, but the customers seemed overwhelmed and uninterested in even sampling the product.  It was too intimidating to choose from so many options, and the pressure of making the right choice wasn’t worth the pleasure of even trying them – and I get it.  What if you choose the wrong one and you never know it?  You’ll always be dissatisfied wondering if you could have chosen better.  I couldn’t help but see how valuable his research was to the customer service community.

When a customer meltdown is afoot, the best solution is to have a predetermined few choices that are mindful of the misstep and that your organization can live with.  Controlling the situation is the greatest service you can do your customer and your organization.

I realize that every business will have a different set of problems and solutions, so to illustrate my point I’ll use a non-business scenario to demonstrate.  Some of you may have extensive experience on this topic, but imagine you have just asked a 3 year old child what she wants for dessert.  Her eyes get big and she asks for a cookie, ice cream, and a brownie.  Then she realizes she knows of other desserts and begins desperately demanding popsicles, cake, and a candy bar until the worry of not thinking of or asking for the “best” option brings her to tears.  Now imagine that you have simply offered her a piece of cake or a cookie.  Chances are she would easily choose her favorite of the moment and enjoy eating it tremendously without even a second thought.

I don’t mean to insult anyone by comparing adults to children, but in difficult situations the meltdowns can have a resemblance.  If you ask a customer open-endedly how you can fix something, you’ll invite a string of both reasonable and unreasonable demands.  If instead, you provide 2 or 3 viable options you will be helping them feel in control of the situation and they will be able to choose without the concern of wondering if they are leaving something better on the table.

Do you have an example of how this has worked for you?  I’m curious how many of us are teaching our employees this technique.  Please share!