What Mark Zuckerberg's clothes can teach you about avoiding customers' 'decision fatigue'

Faced with too many complex choices, a lot of potential buyers will just opt out.

By Donal Cronin Director, Carr Communications

FACEBOOK CEO MARK Zuckerberg must have a very large wardrobe filled with grey T-shirts, all of them exactly the same size and shade of grey.

He was asked about this once, and his response was that he hated wasting time every day on decisions that didn’t really matter. He wanted to save his attention for the important stuff and choosing what to wear didn’t really qualify.

Barack Obama did a version of the very same thing – navy suit, white shirt, grey suit, white shirt. These are simply examples of really busy people avoiding decision fatigue.

You may do your own version when you go out to eat. Sometimes, you want to look at the wine list and spend a bit of time making a considered choice. But sometimes you say, “Oh, just give me the house white.”

Why? Not because you want to be cheap, but because you’ve had a long day with too many demands on your limited attention, and this is simply one decision too many.

SMEs need to keep this lesson in mind when describing their offerings. A really tricky challenge for any business is how to describe the company’s product offerings and services in a way that does them justice, and then how to price them appropriately.

There isn’t a simple answer to doing this right, but there are some really powerful principles from behavioural economics at play that are worth keeping in mind.

And if your current descriptions and pricing policy are based on your experience, instinct and what seems like rational common sense, then it may be worth having another look at them.

Some key concepts to keep in mind in this context are ‘framing’ and ‘attention’. Essentially, people have more limited attention than you might imagine, and how you frame the choices to them is crucial.

Have you ever found yourself standing completely immobilised in the aisle in the supermarket because you can’t decide which jam to put in your basket, or which shampoo?

Studies have shown that too much choice can actually cause people to not make any choice at all. As the author of The Smarter Screen, Shlomo Benartzi, says, “We don’t want to spend hours picking out a shampoo, we just want clean hair.”

Logic would tell you that surely it makes sense to give someone all of the options in order to better inform them and help them to arrive at the right decision. The research says different.

Confronted with too much information and too much choice, as consumers, we simply stall. According to one study, the average consumer will consider fewer than five options when making the choice.

While it won’t make that much difference to our lives which jam we eventually throw in our supermarket basket, in other situations, where the products or services are more complex and expensive, where we’re faced with a situation of too much choice, no decision will seem to be a far better outcome than the wrong decision.

You may have decided to solve this problem and help people choose by framing your offerings as ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘bronze’. But even this isn’t as simple as it sounds.

You might logically assume that people will study the attributes of each offer, compare them and decide which is most appropriate for their needs.

However another study, which examined the use of these terms with people choosing a health-care plan, tested this theory by moving the labels around. What was described as ‘silver’ in one case was now described as ‘gold’ and vice versa.

The results were not what you might expect. They found that people focused more on the colour of the metal than they did on the attributes of the plan.

In other words, people’s final selections were not, as you might imagine, always driven by a careful evaluation of the attributes of one over another – they simply picked ‘gold’ or ‘silver’.

So, how do you help your customers to avoid decision fatigue and make the right choice?

1. State what the service or the product is in the simplest possible terms

If it’s complex, you need to simplify. This is not about dumbing it down, it’s about you taking the time to make it as effortless as possible for someone to understand your product.

The more effort it takes someone to understand what the offering is or what it does, the more likely they are to stall.

2. Use short sentences and simple, first-degree words

‘Boat’ is a first-degree word. ‘Sea-going vessel’ isn’t. A man named Robert Gunning invented what is known as the ‘fog index’ – a readability formula.

Depending on the length of the sentence and the number of complex words and ideas, his formula measured how ‘foggy’ the sentence becomes. Google search will throw up any number of such calculators to tell you how fog-bound your writing is.

If it’s foggy, people don’t persevere – they simply give up.

3. Help people to make an easy comparison

When people compare two similar products, the ways in which one differs from one another stands out more than if they were to look at one product in isolation. This is known as distinction bias.

Is there some way that you can contrast your offer with another so that your customers can see very clearly what makes it different and better?

4. In your description, focus on the product’s benefits – not its features

In what way will this help your customer? What does it do more quickly for them, or how does it save them effort?

They don’t need all of the data on what’s under the hood. If they want that, it’s there. But in the early stages of choosing, they simply need to know why this one is better for them than another.

5. Signpost clearly how people can engage with you

Make the whole process of engagement as easy as possible so that people come along on the journey with you. You need to identify (and remove) potential pain points in the process.

This could be something as simple as a confusing website, or a page where the next steps aren’t clear. If it is too difficult and people don’t feel like they’re achieving anything, people will simply not bother following through.

6. Create an emotional connection

Stories, anecdotes, emotions – these linger far longer in the memory than statistics and numbers. Make people feel something with your product, your service, or your brand and they will stay with you for longer.

7. And finally, personalise

Where possible, don’t send standard mailings. Of if you do, add a note. Personalise it. We are social animals and care about other people.

The simple act of including someone’s name in a communication instantly makes it relevant to them as an individual and more likely to act. Taking it as far as handwritten communication has been proven to be even more effective at getting people to engage.

Donal Cronin is a director at Carr Communications, which recently launched a behavioural economics and sciences unit.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, email opinion@fora.ie.