Less choice please

Some people believe the bigger the choice the better, but Matthew Harrison is not one of them. Rather than face a baffling number of slight variations on a theme, Matt argues that less is more when it comes to offering a varied product range to meet customer needs.

I remember fondly our first day of business at B2B International USA. The calls to potential customers, the unveiling of our new marketing materials, the half-hourly calls from a confused Costa Rican wondering why his Dad wouldn’t answer our fax machine… everywhere around me the seeds of new business were being sown and I could sense the optimism and determination in the air. This was a special day.

Even on special days, however, I am getting seriously hungry by 11.45 and with this in mind I ventured down to the cafeteria shared by our company and others on the business park.

I could see immediately that this place was determined to meet the needs of diners of every persuasion, profession, shape and size. A svelte lady in her 40s was making her way to the cashier with a Greek Salad. Her friend was staring expectantly at his rather larger salad, which was to accompany a hunk of lasagne. And a gentleman whose blue overalls stretched over his significant girth was tucking into the second of three – I repeat three – plates of fries. I salivated at the choice on offer, and made my way over to the counter with a timeless wooden tray.

As I arrived at the sandwich station I started to sense that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the environment, which was sparkling clean. It wasn’t my fellow diners, who were lined up obediently waiting for their orders to be taken. And, whilst I was slightly taken aback by Blue Overall Man, who was now smothering mustard AND ketchup on his third plate of fries, even that wasn’t enough to distract me. (I did, after all, once see a friend devour eight donuts in one sitting for a bet.)

No, what was making me uneasy, I realised, was the choice. In front of me was a board listing 25 different fillings, ranging from ‘Club’ to ‘Greek’ to ‘Ham and cheese’ to (inexplicably) ‘Pinocchio’. Next to that was another board listing 8 different types of bread and wrap. I then had to contend with a list of 6 sauces and another list of 6 types of cheese. And finally, I had to decide whether I wanted my still hypothetical sandwich/wrap hot or cold, with or without salad, and – the final conundrum – with or without a pickle!

I took a step back and surveyed this scene, taking time to calculate that I had 9,600 choices of sandwich! 9,600! A one in 9,600 chance that I would choose the right sandwich! I had more chance of winning the Lottery Scratchcard jackpot! In fact, my chances of success would probably have been improved if the chef had thrown me head-first and open-mouthed into a barrel of bread and sandwich fillings, and given me 5 minutes’ chewing time.

It struck me as I pondered this daft lunchtime brain-teaser that the chef in this restaurant was doing exactly the opposite to what he set out to do. I am sure that he thought (and no doubt still thinks) that he was being considerate in offering his customers an almost infinite choice of lunches – a range of perfectly bespoke products, each aimed at a segment of one person, and therefore, by definition, the product range that perfectly meets customer needs. I disagree, and this is why:

You see, I am a market researcher, not a sandwich expert. Lunchtime should detract from the stresses of designing questionnaires and reports, not add to them. When my clients need a questionnaire, I will certainly take their requirements into account, but it is my professional duty to guide them in their choices, rather than baffle them with an infinite list of survey questions.

Similarly when I buy a sandwich I want the chef to do much of the work for me. I want him to have used his culinary expertise to decide which sauces go with which fillings and which bread. I want him to use his understanding of customer needs in order to provide me with a finite number of choices (a maximum of 20, and probably nearer 10), from which I, as a non-sandwich-expert, can make an informed decision. In failing to do this, the chef who thinks he is empowering me is in fact abdicating his professional responsibility, and disempowering me by making it impossible for me to make a meaningful choice.

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