Fight Decision Fatigue by Limiting Choices

Lots of choices.
Lots of choices.

You’ve seen it, probably several times today. It’s the opportunity to take in more information and wait before deciding. It could be simple, like “what should I have for lunch?” Or it could be more complicated, like “Where should I live, given all the factors that I know.” Research suggests that decision fatigue is real, and that if you limit the choices for a decision, you’ll be happier. Many retailers disagree, suggesting that more choice is always better. I believe that consciously limiting your choices will help you to make decisions faster and ultimately, will help you to make better decisions.

Can I prove that limiting choices help you make better decisions? Not immediately, but consider the following. If you take the hypothesis that many decisions are equal in value (no, I’m not suggesting all decisions are equal), making these decisions faster gives you information about the result faster. And if you use an evaluation model to allow you to assess, decide, and react (what should I be doing, what are the choices, and what was the result), you’ll know pretty quickly where or not your decision was good. If the decision is higher in value (risk of making a bad decision is higher), then try to break down the big decision into a series of small decisions that will help you avoid not deciding.

Decisions will give you results. Because evaluating whether a decision is “good” is subjective, it helps to make sure that you’re not just picking blindly, or by having a model uninformed by events. Nate Silver’s new book examines both political pundits (they are not accurate very much of the time, it turns out) and groups that offer precise but inaccurate results (ratings agencies managing collateralized securities). Silver points out that the best way to make correct and precise decisions is to test your assumptions, to continue making decisions over time, and to get more data points. Also, if your decisions about big events are very different from the crowd, you might be wrong. Or you might be right only once in a while.

In my experience, lining up the available decisions and knocking them down (adopting the practices popularized by David Allen in his GTD or Getting Things Done method) helps me to make these decisions faster. By spending less time making decisions on small choices, I have more mental energy available to approach bigger questions. What do you think?

A Customer Service Time Warp (remember 2007?)

Shopping Cart, Circa 2007
photo by

A recent discussion with my kids made me think about how much has changed in the customer service world (and in the expectations of customers) in the last five years. Let’s take an example – picture yourself in 2007. You’re at a retail store (perhaps BestBuy) in search of an item (a new computer monitor or an interesting accessory.) Upon arriving to the store, you find an associate, who tells you that the item is out of stock; suggests an alternative; and waits while you make a decision. If the service experience is good or bad, you might not remember to write it down, blog about it, or offer praise or complain to the retailer later.

Compare that to your experience today when you can use Decide to determine whether or not to buy the item you’re seeking; Amazon to purchase the item, and any one of a million services to share directly with the manufacturer of the item how you’re feeling and whether you like what you bought. So, what happened to the retailer? They were cut out of the loop by the creative destruction of the market they used to inhabit. And what happened to you? You gained speed, utility, and choice, and the ability to find the right item for you at the time that you wanted it. And you’ve also lost the tactile ability to touch and review the item; the social interaction of actually paying for the thing in the store, and the opportunity to interact with an expert in real time who can help improve your choice.

(No, I’m not suggesting that going to the retail store was better, but that it’s very different from the retail shopping experience we have today.) What’s a retailer to do to stay relevant to the customers that want more information; the customers that would prefer to buy whenever and wherever they are, and the customer who’s just not sure?

One way that retailers can provide superior service is to engage in conversations with people who care about the products they’re trying to sell. (Yeah, you say to yourself, what does “engaging” mean in this situation and why does it matter anyway?) Having real conversations with real people – via Skype, Twitter, Facebook, or pick your medium – builds empathy and brand loyalty. You’re never going to be able to compete with Amazon or NewEgg or on price. And you can compete with them by being the best source of information and conversation around a specialized topic (making coffee, being gluten free, what are the best stereo speakers, etc.) and by taking a cut of affiliate revenue (either directly by selling goods or indirectly by driving targeted, quantified business elsewhere).

Another way retailers can provide superior service is to put people on the front lines who care and who are able to fix problems (either through a flexible policy or a fixed dollar amount in budget) so that the inevitable breaks in service don’t cause your customers to think that one bad experience defines your company for them. If you don’t trust that front-line employee, do it yourself or find someone you can trust to implement the idea, quantify and qualify the results, and share them with you regularly.

Finally, retailers (including Best Buy, who led beautifully in providing social media contacts through its Blue Shirt initiative and had trouble following up and providing a similar positive experience in-store) can just ask themselves a really simple question: “if I came to this store, would I want to shop here instead of at one of our competitors?” If you don’t have at least 3 reasons that make your shopping experience 10x better than your competitors, your customer isn’t going to want to shop there either.

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