Skip to main content

The Power Of No Choice: Why Giving Your Customers Fewer Options Is Better

By October 26, 2011February 1st, 2018Marketing Insights & Strategy
The Power Of No Choice: Why Giving Your Customers Fewer Options Is Better

I’m learning a few things in my old age. My parents aren’t always right. They aren’t always wrong, either. It’s true what they say about “any given Sunday” even for Buffalo Bills fans. And whether you’re talking about home décor, dinner menus or business processes, simpler is better.

One of the benefits of our digital age is that our options have increased exponentially, whether we’re looking for employment or a new hat. But that benefit comes with a down-side. An abundance of choices stalls our decision making process – and ultimately whatever choice we make, we end up with that teeny voice in the back of our heads that asks whether we should have made a different one.

So while choice is good, too much choice can be bad for everyone – the consumer, who can’t make a decision and isn’t happy with any – and the businessperson, who can never seem to come up with enough options to please everyone.

Let’s face it; there will always be something to add, remove, fix, improve, streamline, etc. But when we’re faced with an ever-increasing set of variations we realize we’ll never find the perfect thing and so not only do we hesitate to make a choice but we’re constantly dissatisfied with what we end up with.

This isn’t a lecture on overconsumption or finding your Zen space. It’s a bit of advice to businesses everywhere: if you want happier customers who cough up the cash quicker, keep it simple. Limit their options and watch your sales go up while your complaint calls go down.

Too Many Choices = Too Much Thinking, Less Buying

Do you remember the last time you took the kids out for ice cream? Or maybe the last time someone with kids was ahead of you in line ordering ice cream? As if choosing a flavor among 30 isn’t hard enough, there’s the option for sprinkles or no sprinkles – or about two dozen other toppings from cookies to caramels – whipped cream or no whipped cream, cup or cone – cone or waffle cone. Many an exasperated mother or perfect stranger has stood waiting for that single decision to be made.

Adults have no easier a time. We all stare at the menu and think…. Do I really want chocolate chip or am I in a peanut butter mood?

I wonder how many more sales the humble ice cream parlor would make if its customers weren’t forced to stop and ponder the menu board for minutes on end.

This applies to service as well as retail businesses. A laundry list of mix-and-match services just gives your customer a whole lot to think about and decide.

Unlike choosing ice cream flavors, which can be challenging enough in its deliciousness, choosing services presents a special challenge. Customers might not know enough to feel confident in their decision and spend a lot of time mixing, matching and weighing the endless sets of pros and cons. Or they might feel overwhelmed and delay a decision because they ran out of brain power in the process.

Here’s an example from my own business. When we design logos, we used to give customers a series of choices, sometimes as many as eight or ten. It may sound terrific to have so many choices but in the end we found that people were not just thinking, but over-thinking.

They’d want one piece of choice A and two pieces of choice B and the color from choice C and the font from choice D and that left us with a whole lot of revisions and required a whole lot of time and effort from our customers (and us!)

And in the end we always felt a nagging suspicion that they picked a logo not because they loved it but perhaps because they were exhausted. Sadly, they probably felt the same way.

Nowadays we’ve limited the choices substantially and found two things: one, our customers are happy. There haven’t been any complaints about lack of choice but there has been plenty of praise and declarations of satisfaction. And two, we turn projects around a whole lot faster. Good for our customers, good for our business.

Do this now: whatever your business, ask yourself how you can reduce or eliminate your customers’ choices and make the buying process simpler for them and more profitable for you.

Choice ≠ Quality

There’s a little restaurant near me that only has about a half dozen breakfast items on its menu, along with a half dozen each of sandwiches, salads and wraps. You cannot get a burger there. Or a single French fry. You cannot get chicken parm or pizza. But you can get some fantastic pancakes; the best I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant.

There’s also a diner near me. It’s got everything from burgers and chicken parm to Caesar salads and roast duck. But I wouldn’t touch their pancakes with a ten foot fork.

The point is that just because the diner offers more options it doesn’t mean their product is better than – or even on par with – the restaurant with few options. It’s the quality vs. quantity argument and I’d venture to say that quality wins every time.

Instead of trying to be all things to all people, focus on the short list of what you can do extremely well. Put all of your efforts into creating a quality product or service rather than a variety of products and services.

Let’s go back to the logo example. I once tested out an online logo creation service to see the results. I got 10 options for $100. Obviously this was designed to be an inexpensive service, but the quality was about what you’d expect. Low impact, generic logos. Sure, someone put together ten options for me, but I wouldn’t have been able to select a single one. Perhaps if I’d been offered 1 option for $100 the quality would have improved. Then the creator could have expended ten times the effort on my logo rather than producing ten less-than-mediocre choices.

Do this now: ask yourself if you’re offering a product or service just for the sake of providing “options”. Get rid of any offering that you can’t produce extremely well for a decent profit.

You’re The Expert. Why Are You Asking Customers To Make The Decisions?

One of the worst questions you can ask a customer is what they want. We all ask this with the best of intentions. We want to get to the heart of our customer’s needs and desires and craft our services around the perfect solution. But here’s a little secret for you: customers don’t know what they want. It’s not your job to figure it out. It’s your job to tell them what they want.

This is especially true for the service industry but can apply to retail as well. Unless your customers have a very specific need and come to your store for a very specific product (“I’m making an apple pie for dinner and my pie plate broke. I need a new 9” plate now!”) then part of your job as a retailer is to create the need.

You are the solution to a problem that people hardly knew existed until you came along.

For service professionals, your customers also have a need but they are even less likely to know the solution. That’s why they came to you. Instead of asking your customers what they want, tell them what you suggest.

When we build websites, we used to ask customers what they wanted in terms of color, style, content. We did this because we truly wanted to build a site that our customer would like. But there’s a tremendous flaw in that approach, which is that our customers may know what they like when they see a website but they are not experts in what works. They don’t understand concepts like web standards, usability, white space, eye tracking. Nor should they. That’s our job as web developers. So to ask what our customers want misses the point entirely. The question is “what works?” and that’s an answer that we, as the experts, must give.

Instead of grilling customers about what they want, focus on questions of goals (“I want a website that helps me grow my email list.”) Then provide what you decide, in your expert opinion, is the single perfect solution. It pays to be a little overconfident. Instead of asking what your customer wants, jump in and tell your customer, “This is exactly what you need.”

Do this now: Put together a set of goal-oriented questions. The next time you meet with a prospect or customer, use these questions to guide you toward developing the single perfect solution.

Forget What You Think You Know. Choice Is Bad.

Lest I haven’t convinced you to stop giving your customers too many choices, consider the short of it. Too many choices can:

  • Paralyze your customers and prevent them from choosing anything.
  • Indefinitely lengthen the decision-making process and cost you time and money.
  • Confuse your customer and send them off to do a lot of research, price shopping and service comparisons, perhaps driving them to a competitor.
  • Show your lack of confidence in a solution by forcing the customer to decide.
  • Foster a sense of regret and uncertainty as your customers consider whether they’ve made the right decision.
  • Provoke a sense of dissatisfaction because it creates the illusion of an unobtainable perfect combination of options.
  • Create the unrealistic expectation that a “perfect” solution actually exists, if only the proper combination of options could be discerned.

Next time you’re at the ice cream parlor, staring into a closet full of ties or frantically calculating the cost/benefit of paper towel rolls on your supermarket shelf, I want you to think about choice and how much easier your life would be with less of it. Some choice is good and empowering. Too much choice is debilitating. When it comes to your business, products and services, choose wisely.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Sonia says:

    Carol, did you post this on the group? This was awesome. I can relate and can see myself in all of those situations. Working with IT Firm, I remembered the many choices they offered because they partnered with so many vendors. The thinking was to not “pigeon-hole” themselves to only selling a particular brand and offer choices that customers were into. Eventually, they ended up focusing on one brand everyone wanted. 

    The ice cream part was me written all over it. I know when I go to Cold Stone Creamery (my favorite), I am presented with too many options. Not that I consider that a bad thing, but I only end up ordering the same thing each and every time anyway. I never really give the other flavors a thought and stick to what I know and want. I think if they only offered a few flavors I would be fine with that. 

    This also reminds me of a show I watch called, “Bar Rescue” and the huge changes he makes, but one thing you pointed out was the many choices on the food menu. He would walk in and see “too many” options for food that really had no impact or theme closely related to their bar. Once he changed the brand, name and shortened the menu, he helped customers “zone” in on the more expensive items and helped make their choices easier to make.  Carol this was an excellent post and I really enjoyed reading this! 

    • Thanks, Sonia, I’m really glad you enjoyed it. It’s very true – choice is a double edged sword. We want options but then get stuck because we can’t decide! Besides, I think most businesses can be flexible if a customer asks for something that’s “not on the menu” so to speak.

      I do the same thing you do when I buy ice cream… stand there, ponder all these awesome possibilities then get the same thing anyway!

      It’s all about focus!

  • Dee Ankary says:


    Fantastic post.  It’s the downfall of many a web designer too – giving the visitor too many things to do – all designed to actually *leave* the blog!

    Pillar post.


    • Thanks, Dee, I appreciate that! And you are very right – too much to do, too many ways to leave a site. Especially now with social media and we all want people to fan/follow/like us – somewhere else. Choice is good, but too much can definitely be overwhelming. Thanks for your input!