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The paradox of choice in a customer support context 🤯

Updated: May 8, 2022

Having lots of choices can be overwhelming.

So much so that an abundance of choices can often lead to non-action (e.g. not buying anything when presented with too many options). This phenomenon is referred to as the paradox of choice.

Psychologists, Iyengar and Lepper, investigated this concept experimentally. In their famous 2000 study, they set up their own jam stall at a local food market. To test their hypothesis, the stall had 24 types of jam on display on some days and just 6 on others.

The results supported the paradox of choice hypothesis; out of those that came to check out the stall, 30% went ahead and bought jam on the 6 jar stall compared to only 3% at the 24 jam stall.

This experiment is widely referred to when discussing the paradox of choice. The main takeaway being that a simple change from 24 to 6 products led to a 10 fold increase in sales.

Reducing ranges leads to more sales 📈

Some well-known brands have taken this on board. Back in 2012, yoghurt brand Danone decided to cut their product range by 40%. As a result, their sales increased by 20%. Similarly, when Procter & Gamble offered 15 varieties of shampoo instead of 26, their sales shot up by 10%.

"By offering too much choice, the range becomes invisible through complexity. By reducing the range, options have the chance to become visible” - Consumer analyst

Lots of choice overloads our brains 🤯

In terms of the psychology behind this, lots of choices means more cognitive load (how much work our brains are doing). There’s more weighing up involved and this affects our decision making. The overload means that we’re more likely to not act at all. And even if we do make a decision in a high load context, studies have shown that we experience lower satisfaction and more regret with our choice - after all, we’ve put more time and effort into it, so the stakes are higher (“All those other flavours of jam I could have picked…”).

Choice is captivating but confusing 🤷🏻‍♀️

So less is more? If only it was that simple.

When it comes to choice, there’s a general discrepancy between what people think they want and what actually leads to a more positive choice experience.

In the famous jam study described at the start, as well as sales, the researchers also measured how many shoppers approached the stall. At the 24 jar stall, 60% of passersby came over to check out the goods. Whereas, in the 6 jar condition, under half (40%) of the total shoppers came over to sample the jams.

The same researchers looked into this a little further. 134 students took part in what they thought was a market research session for a chocolate brand. Participants reported enjoying the process of choosing a chocolate more from a display of 30 than from a display of 6. But, in the end, those choosing from a range of 30 were less confident in their decision and less satisfied with their choice compared to those in the limited choice condition.

Some choice is better than none, but there’s a balance ⚖️

It seems that we’re attracted to choice but the experience of choosing is a negative one. Sure, some variety is better than none. In fact, as the number of available choices increases, the control and liberation this brings is initially powerful and positive (see smiley face on high-tech graph).

But, as we’ve previously discussed, there’s a tipping point where lots of choice becomes debilitating. And people don’t seem to be aware that choice abundance is the problem. 'Less' certainly does seem to be 'more' when the ‘more’ we’re talking about is following through with an action and being satisfied with your decision.

Some quick stats using metrics from the jam study 🧮

Ultimately, depending on your goal, you could argue that the cost of non-action outweighs the potential to entice new customers.

  • 100 people at the market in total

  • 24 jam stall: 60 people came over to stall = 2 sales 💰💰

  • 6 jam stall: 40 people came over to stall = 12 sales 💰💰💰💰💰💰💰💰💰💰💰💰

Engagement and decision making are important in customer support

But how does all of this relate to support? Engagement and decision making are extremely relevant factors when it comes to helping customers. The paradox of choice can affect things like CSat response rates, engagement with self-service content, and website views.

In an article by Inc, entrepreneur Pat Flynn explains that when content was cut down and simplified, he tripled his website traffic and observed more time spent on his site per customer. The article goes on to label cutting down as a win-win strategy; it’s a better customer experience and gives businesses more time to focus on the remaining products (a classic quality over quantity scenario).

Self-service, CSat, and channel of choice ⭐️

Here’s some quick customer support related implications based on the choice research so far:

Self service - the goal behaviour is for customers to engage with the content - first, to find the content they’re looking for and then read it.

It’s okay to have a lot of articles if you need them. It’s important that the customer doesn’t feel overwhelmed - clear categories, sub-sections, and search functions are a great way to provide simplicity to complexity. If your customers are getting lost in a sea of hundreds of articles, they’re not going to stay for long, let alone read them.

CSat - the goal behaviour is for customers to complete and submit a response to the survey (“How would you rate the support that you received?”)

Research has shown that the scale used to collect survey responses affects accuracy and response rate.

In a comparison study (Garrat, Helgeland, Gulbrandsen, 2011), collecting patient satisfaction at a hospital, 5-point scales led to a higher response rate, where scores were more evenly distributed compared to a 10-point scale. The findings are consistent with the paradox of choice hypothesis. Perhaps the 10-point scale was overwhelming, causing participants to second guess themselves and either make poorer decisions (highly skewed scores) or not engage at all (lower response rate).

Medallia are experts in creating simple, effective and engaging customer surveys (Stella Connect). In fact, they’re one of our partners! The gamified 5 star scale yields response rates up to 10 x higher than industry averages and we love using them.

Channel of choice - the goal is for customers to choose how they want to get in touch and then to follow through by raising a ticket.

It’s no surprise that customers “want to have the freedom to communicate over whatever channel they choose” (Zendesk CX trends report, 2022).

It’s important to meet personal preferences - it’s convenient, personalised and empowers customers. The key is to find the balance between providing options and overloading the customer with choices. It’s more thoughtful (and cost-effective and efficient) to know the top 3-5 contact options than present every option possible just because you can - not that companies are largely doing this - but it’s interesting to understand the vast reach of the paradox of choice.

Keep it simple and easy

In a range of situations, fewer choices can paradoxically lead to more positive outcomes - whether that’s more sales for businesses or more engagement and satisfaction from customers.

Although there’s a discrepancy between what we think we want (more choice) and what makes us happier (less choice), there seems to be a win-win balance that can be struck - providing enough choice for customers to feel empowered, understood and have their personal preferences fulfilled, whilst also condensed enough to allow businesses to develop and perfect each option. And, importantly, for customers not to feel overloaded and put off by the process, leading them to not engage at all. In consumer culture with an abundance of choice, the key is really to keep it simple 🙌

References 📚

Here are the studies we’ve referenced throughout. Ironically aware that it’s quite a long list so, if you’re going to pick 1, read the classic Iyenger and Lepper jam study!

  1. The original jam study: Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995-1006.

  2. The likert scale research: Garratt, A. M., Helgeland, J., & Gulbrandsen, P. (2011). Five-point scales outperform 10-point scales in a randomized comparison of item scaling for the Patient Experiences Questionnaire. Journal of clinical epidemiology, 64(2), 200-207.

  3. Article with Consumer Analyst quote and Danone story:

  4. Procter & Gamble + Pat Flynn article:

  5. An interesting article with simple Vs. complex marketing examples:

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