In last month's article I discussed the great increase in choices we as an industry have grown to offer our clientele, and what impact that may be having on customers. The article's impetus was a lecture by psychologist Barry Schwartz, "The Paradox of Choice," in which he explains why too many choices, beyond the obvious benefits, also carry a negative implication for consumers.
If there are negatives to consumers, then by extension, there must be negatives to our businesses.
So what exactly are the negatives of too many choices, and how do they affect consumers?
Paralysis: When consumers are overwhelmed by options, they may choose none at all (defaulting say, to the corner coffee shop where they have been satisfied with the choice they made long ago).
A study of employees who were offered different mutual funds found that the greater the number of fund choices offered, the fewer the number of employees who actually enrolled in the program at all, even when presented with matching funds by the employer! Even with the obvious reward of financial matching, the prospect of choosing incorrectly, and therefore failing, was too daunting for employees to do what was in their best interest.
Extrapolate this knowledge and use it in our day-to-day operations, and we may suggest to those prospects looking at several competitors that they narrow the search to only a few as with too many, they may, more often than not, stick with the incumbent. As the band Rush sang, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."
Expectation of perfection: When consumers make choices among so many alternatives, their perceptions are that their choices should be perfect -- or they must have made the wrong one. The customer's perception that he or she made the wrong choice can lead to anxiety and resentment toward the offerings as it should have been more clear what option was the best for their satisfaction.
With an increase in options, our expectation of improvement in quality and satisfaction rises, allowing for a greater chance that those expectations will not be met. This can translate into a greater number of dissatisfied clients, regardless of the great effort we put forth we are presenting every possible option with the goal of complete customer satisfaction.
Second, as Schwartz points out, is the loss of the "pleasant surprise." Our expectations have been so greatly increased in modern society that we have come to expect perfection in every aspect of our lives and therefore, even when we make the perfect choice, we only feel accommodated and perfect becomes our expectation. Anything less and we are far harder on ourselves, and the product/service in question, leaving us with a greater sense that we should and could do better.
It is far harder today to "blow the minds" of our clients with our product offerings. Two decades ago, just adding a hazelnut and creme to your demo brought oohs and aahs from the prospect.
Nowadays the choices have moved away from the coffees -- where it is expected that the OCS operator carries a dark-roasted Sumatra, as well as a Kona blend, a doughnut blend and more -- and on to the equipment, we are now capable of presenting a dozen or more options, just in single-cup brewers.
The angst on the part of operators in making correct choices about what brewers to run can be a painful enough process, and may suggest to you how much more difficult the decision-making has become on the part of the OCS client.
So is Dr. Schwartz right? Have we gone too far in offering so many options that we risk freezing all commerce as we know it? Will we be stuck in a world of discontent, with accolades forever tapering off in the face of perceived mediocrity?
I do not believe the situation is quite that dire. What Schwartz neglects to point out is that choices themselves may not be the problem. The likely culprit is communicating what each choice represents in benefit and gain, as well as drawbacks and pitfalls, to the buyer. The better we educate, the better informed the final decisions become on the part of customers; and with proper follow-through on meeting expectations promised, greater will be the satisfaction derived.
Consumers are demanding choice, and it is up to us to deliver on this request while at the same time communicating what the end result of that choice will mean so we can best maximize satisfaction through the sales process.
KEVIN DAW is president of Heritage Coffee Co. (London, ON, Canada), a leading private-label roaster serving the breaktime management industries in North America. He is in charge of coffee buying for Heritage. A 30-year veteran of the workplace service business, Daw has served as a commission coffee service salesman, a principal of a vending operation and president of a bottled water company. Since 1990, he has concentrated on coffee roasting. Active in industry affairs, Daw is a Specialty Coffee Association of America Certified Brewing Technician, a member of the National Beverage and Products Association Hall of Fame, a recipient of the National Automatic Merchandising Association Supplier of the Year Award and a NAMA Coffee Service Committee member.