How the Paradox of Choice Affects Support


We like to think that the more choices we have, the happier we are. More choices equals more freedom, right? Who doesn’t like freedom? This is the fundamental concept that brought us food courts and Amazon.

Barry Schwartz the paradox of choice

Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More, argues that this isn’t actually the case. More choices make us less happy, he says.

In the TED talk below, he introduces the concept of The Paradox of Choice to illustrate how having more choices actually leads to two negative consequences: paralysis and regret.

Too much choice leads to analysis paralysis

Why is it that the more options we have, the harder it is to make a decision? Schwartz has found that choice makes us feel unsettled. The more choice we have, the harder it is to make an initial decision and stick to it. We start to doubt our own ability to choose the “best” option. Instead of feeling liberated, we become anxious.

This happens even when those choices are designed to benefit us. Schwartz found that companies that offer their employees more generous investment plans actually see overall participation decline. For every ten additional investment opportunities an employee is given, he says,  participation in the company investment plan goes down by two percent.

The anxiety of making (and sticking to) a decision becomes so acute that people hold off, and often make no decision at all.

Regret results in lower satisfaction

If you do manage to make a decision in the face of a multitude of options, you are less likely to be satisfied with that decision. The reason for this is two-fold. First, freedom of choice leads customers to look wistfully back at all the other choices they didn’t choose. It’s not difficult to imagine how a different decision might have made them happier.

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Secondly, by choosing one option, you have (by definition) NOT chosen all of the other options. You’re stuck with the choice you made. This unsettling phenomenon is termed “opportunity cost” by economists. The benefits of your particular choice are discounted by the potential benefits you could have, if you’d only selected one of the other options available to you. What a bummer.

This means that the more options you have, the easier it is to regret the one you made. Even if it was the best choice for you, this regret and the accumulated opportunity cost makes you feel less satisfied.

So if more choice doesn’t lead to high satisfaction, what does?

Here are 5 ways the Paradox of Choice can affect your customer’s support experience:

They look to you for a solution

Barry describes the typical doctor’s visit where patients are given two options and the pros and cons of each. Since the doctor won’t decide for them, the responsibility of making a decision shifts to the patient, who doesn’t have nearly the same level of knowledge that a medical professional does. This makes it incredibly difficult for them to reach a decision.

This happens in support interactions too, when support agents provide multiple solutions to a customer inquiry. For example, a support agent could suggest a re-installation, or changing some advanced settings. Both options will probably work, but which one is best?

It’s reasonable to provide all available solutions, but best to tell customers which option they’re better off starting with. Users are very likely to follow your suggestion – after all, you’re the expert here! When you tell customers what to do next they are less likely to get distracted by other solutions and progress to a resolution more easily. Prescribing a solution saves time, avoids analysis paralysis, and leaves customers more satisfied with the resolution.

They don’t contact you at all

Providing customers with a multitude of ways to contact you can increase the chance that they won’t contact you at all. Barry has shown us that customers faced with multiple options become paralyzed by choice. If it’s not explicitly stated that billing questions are answered best on the phone, and simple inquiries are better by email, your customer won’t have a clear path to help.  By making things more difficult, you cause friction in their support experience.

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Instead, guide your customer to one or two choices that will be best for them. They won’t mind if you tell them what to do, as long as it results in a quick solution. By reducing the number of options they have, customers will know right away the best way to contact you.

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They don’t know how to get help

Have you ever opened up a help center and been faced with 20 categories to choose from? Ever been tempted to just click the “HELP” button and email support with your question directly? Yep, makes sense when you apply the Paradox of Choice.

If you can add an additional level of hierarchy into your knowledge base and present fewer initial options, customers will have an easier time finding their way to an answer.

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They become preoccupied with choices

Although we don’t like to admit it, we have more choices than we know what to do with. Access to technology means that at any minute,even on the go, we could be working on 100 different tasks. No wonder we have the attention span of a monkey.

Western society is time-poor. We want to do everything, but our time is limited. This causes people to constantly assess available time and prioritize tasks above others. Every moment we’re making a choice to be doing one thing over something else.

When you’re discussing options with a customer, there’s a whole slew of other choices they’ve already made that day. In fact, they’ve made a choice just to be talking with you right now. Respect the limited time and focus they have, and make resolutions as easy as possible.

They have higher expectations

Customers aren’t just limited to local companies anymore. They can choose from an unlimited number of places to purchase their goods and services. Expectations are much higher because your product isn’t just being compared to the shop next door, it’s being compared to every product review they can find online.

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Because customers have all of these choices, the expectation is that at least one of them should be perfect. This means that any product they do purchase tends to fall short against the expectation of perfection. That gap between perception and reality creates dissatisfaction.

The final word

In short, it’s okay to limit the number of choices that your customers are given. Barry states that everyone needs a fishbowl to limit the amount of freedom they see. I think of this as “framing.”

While customers do have an infinite number of options (in theory), setting a more reasonable frame of expectations makes it easier for the customer to be happy with the choice they make. They will find it easier to do business with you, and they will be more satisfied with the choices they make. Close the gap between expectations and reality with fewer choices, and guide your customers to success.

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