Choice Paralysis (or Analysis Paralysis or “The Paradox of Choice” as Barry Schwartz calls it) results when buyers are confronted with so many decisions that they end up walking away, too confused to reach a decision. Here I offer you one buying decision example where too many choices killed the sale, and another where skillful management of choice led to a close.
The “choice close” is a valuable tool in selling, except when it results in choice paralysis: I don’t know; I’ve got to think this over.”
Isn’t it wonderful when a vendor offers you many choices, so you can select a product having exactly the combination of features you want? Yes, and no.
Let me share this personal example of a minor purchase offering many choices:
Not very long ago, a major brand of whole wheat crackers came in one style. Today there are three different sizes, plus more or less salt, regular or reduced fat, and myriad herb and other flavorings. So, when you go to buy a box, you need to read all the labels to make sure you get the exact one you want – not easy because you have never tasted most of them.
I faced this exact choice recently. We were having friends over (properly distanced) and wanted to offer a few snacks on crackers. Confronted by what looked like 20 different choices in our favorite brand, and uncertain which was best, I glanced across the aisle and saw an unfamiliar, healthy looking brand of whole-grain crackers, and that’s the one I bought.
My preferred brand made my decision too difficult. So I went with a new brand that gave me one appealing choice.
OK, crackers are a rather silly example of a complex-choice purchase. But what about the salesperson who shows you board-after-board of carpet or tile samples, or one who jumps into describing all the advanced technology for this model of car, or another who describes the many types of office chair people that other like today?
Now let me give you another personal example, one also involving multiple choices:
After hearing that storms are expected to increase in intensity due to climate change, we decided to get window protection for our Florida home. There are many, many different approaches to accomplishing this. And decision factors include ease of use, cost, appearance when not in use, etc.
The company we ended up selecting offers all the choices that satisfy current hurricane codes. We know this from their website and documents given to us. But the man who spoke with us did not discuss all of them with us. Instead, he asked us questions about whether we go away for extended periods or travel during the summer, how we felt about the appearance of various systems visible on neighboring houses, and ultimately a general sense of our budget.
We ended up with a package consisting of three types of window covering, all of which would look very nice, and all easy for me to close and open if I could not get help.
He never asked us big multi-choice questions. Instead:
- He talked through the specific needs we should consider for each individual type of opening: ease of open and closing, whether access should be from inside or outside, which ones should be electric because they are hard to handle manually.
- Then he told us the specific type of protection he suggested to meet those needs for that type of window or door.
- For each, he recommended only two or three specific products or extra features, so we could easily select from only those choices that best fit our needs.
After all of these details had been worked out, he ended with two perfect choice-close questions:
When do we need to have everything installed?
He estimated four months for manufacturing the custom shutters, my HOA approvals, city permitting and installation. (We better order now to have the job done before hurricane season!)
What color (from their standard color chart) do you think would look best on your house?
We chose one that best complemented our main exterior paint color.
We had prudently planned to get proposals from three vendors for this project. We did talk with one other the day before, but he quickly disqualified himself by telling us what we “must” have and “what other people are doing”. We cancelled our appointment with the third company we had planned to speak with because we had just been properly sold by someone whom we felt we could trust; we didn’t need to look any further.
What Did I Learn About Choice Paralysis From These Purchases?
Don’t Offer Choices Until You Know the Buyers Needs and Preferences
If a culinary person had been present in the cracker aisle while I was shopping, she would have asked:
- How are you going to serve the crackers?
- What other foods are you going to serve with them?
- What spreads or other items will you put on the crackers?
Then she would have narrowed down my choices to just the best for the way we were going to use the crackers.
“For the foods you are serving, I suggest either the lite Herb or the Poppy Seed.”
Don’t Give the Customer Too Many Choices at Once
Especially early in the selling dialog, if you present too many options, you will likely confuse the buyer and raise too many issues that delay the sale.
This is particularly true for very large purchases, like window protection for an entire house. This is a costly purchase, and one we’d be living with for many years. We needed to be certain of making the best choices.
If the window expert had started out by describing all the storm-proofing options in depth, we might become overwhelmed by all the data and feel a need to investigate each of them more before deciding.
But his approach of going through one type of door/window opening at a time, and highlighting the one or two options that were most practical for each type, made our options easier to select from.
Verify Individual Decisions As They are Made
We concluded that the covering for the main entrance to the house should be an electric roll-down. It would be the largest shutter and the most difficult to open and close manually, so electric was best. And since the roll-down disappears neatly into a canister high overhead, it would also leave the main entry looking nice when not in use.
As soon as we agreed on this and each other item, the salesperson wrote this information on his contract form, verbally repeating it as he write. Since we did not stop him from writing it, that was our tacit approval of this decision.
Save Small Closing Choices for the End
“When You Need It” and “What Color” (or other small feature choice) are two of the most successful choice-closing questions for any product. They don’t muddy the water with technical details. They do communicate to the buyer that all the important decisions have been made, and it is time to wrap things up.
Choice Paralysis Summary
You can avoid buyer choice paralysis by conducting your selling process as a series of needs-analysis and information-presentation steps that make it easy for the buyer to remain in control and be satisfied with each increment of the buying decision.