Are you a good customer? pt.2

Your newborn child was seriously injured at birth. You must decide whether to take him or her off life support knowing that in the unlikely case it survives, it will be in a persistent vegetative state for the few short hours to months he or she may live. In the US, parents make the choice; in France, the doctor’s do. A study found that US parents remained far more distressed and depressed a year later than did French parents. Said one US mother “I feel as if I’ve played a role in an execution.”

This being but a circuitous introduction to a follow up to Are you a good customer, I watched a TED talk by Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing. By way of introduction, she’s the Psycho-economist who proved that consumers buy less stuff if given too many choices (the famous jam experiment). Fewer people browse booths with more limited selections but they buy more resulting in a net gain over their more broadly stocked competitor.

In the talk (transcript), Sheena explains that the concept of freedom to choose is culturally determined and varies widely. In the US:

First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It’s called “being true to yourself.”

I doubt many disagree with that; she continues:

The second assumption [of] the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice.

Research doesn’t bear this out, quite the opposite. The more choices one has, the poorer decisions they make.

But let’s move on to what inspired this entry; whether you should even want to make all of your decisions and why some people stubbornly insist on getting in your way if you do because they are trying to keep you from becoming a “bad customer” (meaning, you either are doing something you should not or you’re doing something that makes things difficult for someone else). She uses a funny example of trying to order sugar to accompany her green tea in Japan. Her request was politely refused, twice; the manager finally said they had no sugar. So she ordered coffee -which came with two little sugar packets on the side.

Point is, the Japanese server was trying to prevent her from making a “bad” decision; they don’t put sugar in green tea in Japan. It was a conflict between norms of two cultures and we (here) probably agree her wishes should have prevailed because it really didn’t matter, sugar wasn’t going to undermine the customer, the restaurant or civilization as we know it. But what if it did? Not sugar of course, but something else. Sheena continues -this should be bronzed:

The assumption then that we do best when the individual self chooses only holds when that self is clearly divided from others. When …two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act. To insist that they choose independently, might actually compromise both their performance and their relationships. Yet that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People that have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating. But it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.

Redux: You want to make decisions that only affect you, have at it. But, if your decision impacts other people, they’re going to feel entitled to say something about it. Everyone can relate to that.

What makes it difficult for some people to progress in their ventures are two core problems related to decision making. The first is that they take for granted that they must make the decision independently in accordance with the cultural norms to which they’ve become accustomed. That’s what entrepreneurs do. What kind of business person are you if you can’t make decisions? That’s what we tell ourselves. But who says? You have the freedom to decide to let someone else help you sort it out. CEOs do it every day. They’re better than you because they have better advisers.

A second block to good decision making is rooted in consumer culture, the concept of consumer “rights”.  This is the assumption that because one has some money to spend and can make a decision where to put it, that they are a customer and they are empowered to make the best choice for themselves. The reality is, no shirt, no shoes, no service; no one becomes a customer until the vendor agrees to accept the transaction and perhaps, its negotiated conditions of sale. It is a matter of debate as to whether the customer is always right but it is indisputable that you’ll never be right if you’re not a customer. The kind of person or service you want to hire is often the person who won’t blithely do as you ask because if you fail, they look bad for letting you do it. The one thing you can be very sure of is that a person who will do whatever you want, is never going to be a good adviser to you. They’ll settle for which ever way the wind blows and bail at the first sign of trouble.

Try letting go a little. Here’s an easy one: when I go to a restaurant and order a salad, the server rattles off a list of salad dressing choices, most of them sound equally appealing. I usually ask the server which is their favorite. If they grin a bit shyly when they tell me, that’s the one I order. It’s never not worked out -and it establishes trust and rapport with the server. Allowing others to help you make decisions is empowering. A server is going to feel terrible if you don’t like the dressing and bring you another salad. They will feel responsible if they had any hand in leading you astray. I do this all the time (such as asking a carpenter how he’d do it if this were his home) and because it often throws the other party off guard, you get a good answer. The other party won’t hit the mark 100% all of the time but it’s rarely fatal either. It really is quite liberating and leaves you time to worry about more important things.

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20 comments

  1. Interesting cultural difference… if in Germany the carpenter starts explaining you, that he would do it like that if it was his house odds are about 70% that you get the most expensive solution, not necessary the one that fits your needs best. :)

    (But in general asking for advice is a good advice.)

  2. Renee says:

    Brings to mind the old Henry Ford quote; “Any colour – so long as it’s black.” Such simplicity in that.

    I know for sure that when I find myself faced with too many choices I will quite often stall out and make no decision at all, or spend what even I would consider to be an inordinate amount of time selecting the “right” choice when honestly it doesn’t really matter whether my daughter’s car seat has a cow print or the fancy dot print.

  3. Corinnea says:

    I do not live in the states at this time but an over whelming amount of choices are one of the things I dread when I return.

    I will also do the same thing in restaurants and other places where I am not the expert. Most of the time it does make the other person feel more responsible for you.

    Then there was the time I strongly suggested a customer not purchase an item because I knew that they would be dissatisfied and in turn take it out on the shop. I was trying to prevent them from being a really bad customer….

  4. LizPf says:

    I agree, limiting choice is good — to a point.

    When I buy clothing, however, I find myself eliminating broad swaths of the choices. Let’s say I want a new summer knit top. I don’t wear sleeveless, I also don’t wear very short sleeves. [The joy of middle aged arms.] These two decisions on my part eliminate almost all my choices. Finally, after several years of shopping, I found a store that sells “elbow” sleeved shirts — about 65% of which are too low cut. So, out of all the tens of thousands of choices, I’m left with less than a dozen items to choose from. And half of those are in unflattering colors.

    I admit, I am not the usual consumer because I won’t settle for something I don’t like. With clothing, I will make my own rather than buy something that doesn’t meet my criteria. Or do without. Choice isn’t bad fo discerning consumers … though it is bad for consumers who don’t care to research their options and form opinions.

  5. kathleen says:

    Nowaks, that’s a good point and I knew that coming in; I can’t catch it all in a blog post.

    When I get the German response to anything (that’s a compliment), I often have to reiterate the context to get a better solution. Not that it always works but ya gotta try. For example, we’re trying to get a quote to have our house painted in Las Cruces before we put it on the market. We want to spend as little as possible and get a decent but commensurate to price job. We don’t want the German Job that will last 30 years because we won’t be there. The new buyers will probably want to repaint within a few years so why invest? Problem is, all we can get are either crap quotes (2 homeless guys and a paintbrush) or German Job quotes (he is hispanic btw). Don’t know what we’re going to do… some people can’t be compelled to do a less than stellar job no matter the circumstance. Not that *I* am ever guilty of that. Perish the thought…

  6. Kathleen, I understand the painting problem perfectly well… that is usually the moment when my DH freaks out, takes the paintbrush and does it himself. (And for my clothes… my problem is, that I know what I want, just to find out that fashion this year doesn’t allow that. Or at least not in my size. Or not in my proportions. That is why I am sewing myself.)

    Here the point is, to find someone who is able to deliver the quality you want for the price you want. Somewhere in the middle… here at least many companies offer a cheaper but still good option, when they understand that they wont get the job if they only deliver “haute couture” while I want RTW. But I don’t know whether that works in all countries. If the companies have enough work for “haute couture” conditions they wont do it. (Besides… I do not want to deliver bad work, because it’s signed with my name… )

    Another thought appeared to me… I think the people in the US are more obsessed with choice than European people, at least in Germany and France. When Subway opened in Germany many customers were simply overstrained with the possibility to choose every ingredient. So very soon they started offering “fixed combinations” (at least in some of the places) where people got most of the ingredients in one combination and could only choose the sauces and some of the condiments. The rest would have been to much. (Same for Starbucks… People go somewhere else, because they just want a coffee, not a choice of 20 ingredients, hoping that the result will be coffee..)

    And France is even worse… French believe strongly in “experts”, if an expert decides that is what you need, then you will take it or not, but you will not question his decision.

    (I love those cultural differences…)

  7. Jasonda says:

    This is one of the reasons I’m going to be offering only a 6 prints for my holiday 2010 fabric collection. My current collection has 16 prints. Since it’s digitally printed, I don’t lose any money by offering more prints (and I certainly don’t have any trouble coming up with new ones), but I think it may be overwhelming for people who are used a typical amount of 4 to 8 prints in a collection.

  8. Lisa Bloodgood says:

    Sometimes there are too few choices. Specifically, my friends and I who are into Steampunk stuff haven’t seen many fabrics, either printed or woven design, that could fall into that genre, at least broadly. There are more fabrics that fall broadly or specifically into Victorian, which overlaps with Steampunk. I have 2 bolts of (very nice) quilt cotton in different prints from In the Beginning Fabrics that have motifs from both genres. (now if someone would make some with gears…)

    Or when you go to a fast food place and you can’t drink soda and all the iced tea is sweetened…too few choices.

    I love those cultural differences above.

  9. LizPf says:

    I suppose that depends on what kind of steampunk … my first attempt at design was a steampunk-inspired lady mechanic’s apron, with a bustier type bodice and lots of pockets. I used a thin striped denim that reminds me of old railroad engineer’s overalls.

    {Sorry for being quite far off topic}

  10. Ruth says:

    Ah, nowaks, find a Turk! I have lived in Turkey for five years and have worked for Turkish people for almost twenty years. They have the concept of “value for money”, that means they will do it at the price you want and slightly (but not a lot) better than you might expect at the price (they cut their margins a lot). And fast. Their principle is that faster turnover will make up their profits. And it really works. They are really GOOD at staying in business in recessions etc. Honestly, when I first started working for them I really didn’t like it (yes, salaries are not high, but you keep your job while all around you companies go bust in recessions) but once I “got” what they were doing, I really appreciated it. I find English people’s attitudes to work really rigid and foolish now! And you’ve got to be able to find a Turkish carpenter in Germany!

  11. Eric H says:

    Educated people point out that there is much wrong with that Paradox of Choice empirically. The results can’t be replicated, and there are other indicators that the effect does not exist at all.

  12. kathleen says:

    {Sorry for being quite far off topic}

    Step spryly Liz, I’ll be gunning for you -right after I get that chick who is asking whether she should get a mule to plow her garden in the thread about fitting robots.

  13. kathleen says:

    Educated people point out that there is much wrong with that Paradox of Choice empirically.

    So spake the man who has to do all of the grocery shopping because his wife finds the choices in the grocery store to be overwhelming.

    This is the same man who was delighted (and told all his friends and family) when he perchance discovered the secret code words he needed to order a regular cup of coffee at any Starbucks (ask for a “red eye”).

  14. Marie-Christine says:

    I agree with Eric, the sacrosanct paradox of choice seems very overdone to me. In fact, I think the problem with buying stuff is often that you get choice about a very limited range of things, but not about essential ones. Two hundred pairs of socks in many textures and colors, not a single one without the horrible serged seam across the toes. Three floors of shirts, none of them your size. I think manufacturers often like to give customers the -illusion- of choice, not the real thing. And when it comes down to brass tacks, like how their phone really works, all you get is vague hot air, no real information, so making a decision turns into an exercise in industrial espionage. I too freeze in supermarkets, but mostly because I’m overwhelmed by how little real food is in there, I don’t freeze at a real market in front of real vegetables.

    I have myself had tussles in fast food outlets when trying to order ‘a hamburger’ and being battered into asking for it by the chain’s chosen marketing 3-word euphemism. Still, when that was sorted out what came was just a plain old hamburger.

    Some people want lots of choices, like tea flavored with hay from Mongolia or donuts with pink sprinkles. Sometimes one feels purist about something, and just wants plain dark chocolate. Even a place devoted to giving choices should not lose track of the obvious options. Starbucks would do well to have a default choice ‘coffee’ for the ones who don’t want to play the game. After all, even an ice-cream place with 80 flavors usually has ‘vanilla’ tucked in somewhere.

    That said, in France I miss horribly the choices available in the US. I don’t care what The Experts say (and that stereotype is soooo true nowasks..). I want what I want, or at least I want to be able to test the options myself, not have some jerk decide what my demographics ought to want. Result: much online ordering. The Internet is bliss. Meanwhile, the local merchants (the ones who don’t stock sensible shoes over a size 9, because proper women have small feet, for instance) complain bitterly about unfair competition. Eh.

  15. Teijo says:

    Green tea with sugar. Yes, I confess I’ve tried it…

    I’m quite curious whether the tea Sheena ordered at the restaurant was an independent menu item with a price. That would be unusual, as most serve water and green tea with a meal as a matter of course. Coffee usually has to be separately paid for.

    She’s right in that if she did order something to eat she was a paying customer. However, if the tea was gratis the situation resembled requesting an American restaurant for some sugar to mix in a glass of tap water. (I assume American restaurants serve tap water for free?)

    Coffee/tea shops that serve beverages and sweets do charge for green tea – at least if that is the only item ordered. I rather suspect that in such an establishment the waiter might also bring a sugar on request without much comment.

  16. I wish I’d known much sooner that TED existed. Isn’t it wonderful to hear intelligent discussions and lectures about nearly everything of one’s choosing. This is one example of more choices being better. I am not purchasing the TED discussions, but I definitely consume them.
    Having not studied the famous jam experiment, but being aware of its results – that consumers buy less stuff if given too many choices – I am wondering about the controlled studies…was there aggravating music playing during the jam-hunting, did the consumers really love jam? These things make a difference. I personally could shop for fabrics, sewing patterns, clothing for hours on end…and even browse aisles of food for that matter. If there is discomfort involved though…of shoes, assaulted ears, affronted wallet…then my desire to shop is squelched. Also, my desire is squelched if I have no real preference.
    The related green tea story was very interesting. The limitations were psychological.
    Thank you for sparking these thoughts.

  17. Eric H says:

    Starbucks, burgers, tea, national cultural differences, TED presentations, so many individual preferences on these subjects. Aren’t you all glad that there are so many **choices** available to you — including not going to Starbucks at all! — and that you don’t have to settle for mine?

  18. Barb Taylorr says:

    If you ask your waiter to suggest their favorite, you better be willing to accept that they may be a vegatarian working in a steakhouse. (That was me in college.) You may be better off asking which items the place is known for, or which are most popular.

  19. kathleen says:

    Barb, that’d be perfect. I’m a vegetarian. That’s the first thing you tell any waiter, second you make sure you share the same definition (some people think they’re vegetarians because they only eat chicken) but you’re right about asking what is most popular. That is what I always recommended when I was a waitress as do most vegetarian servers if you haven’t had the conversation.

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