Why Offering Choices Can Kill a Sale

During a trip to Florida a while back, my wife sent me to a McDonald’s with a simple set of instructions: return to the hotel with three Egg McMuffins and three orders of hash browns.

Too many choices kills sales

Photo by Aleksandar Mijatovic/dpc

I walked up to the counter to place my order.

Me: Three Egg McMuffins and three orders of hash browns, please.

Woman at counter:  Egg McMuffins are $2.59 each or two for $3.00.

Me: In that case, give me four.

Woman: Hash browns are a dollar each or two for $1.50.

Me (struggling): Umm… okay, I’ll just take two.

A few minutes later, she beckoned me back to the counter.

Woman: We’re short one round egg, and cooking one will take a few minutes. Or you can have a folded egg now.

Me: I’ll take the folded egg.

When she brought out my food she told me she’d put a couple of apple turnovers in the bag for free… “for the inconvenience.”

Two thoughts occurred to me as I returned to the hotel:

1. I had just gotten a screamin’ deal: four Egg McMuffins, two orders of hash browns, and two apple turnovers for about nine bucks.

2. The next time I’m in Orlando, there’s no way I will go back to that particular McDonald’s.

The woman behind the counter probably believed that she was helping me by offering the discounts.

Instead, she was making my life difficult. I wanted a nice, simple transaction, and she gave me something complicated.

The experience was still fresh a few days later when an aesthetic medicine doctor asked me to evaluate her television commercial. The ad suggested two possible actions: call on the phone for an appointment, or log onto the practice’s web site.

I advised the doctor to simplify her message and give viewers a single call-to action — instruct them to call on the phone. Advertisers often find that just making this simple change significantly increases the response from the campaign.

The strategy seems counter-intuitive, but here’s why it works:

A viewer faced with a phone number and a web address in 30 seconds won’t have the time or mental bandwidth to write down both. Faced with a decision about which one to remember, many people wind up remembering neither.

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz described a series of studies in which car buyers were offered an array of choices:

Even though their decision was purely hypothetical, participants experienced substantial negative emotion when choosing between Cars A and B. And if the experimental procedure gave them the opportunity, they refused to make the decision at all. So the researchers concluded that being forced to confront trade-offs in making decisions makes people unhappy and indecisive.

Participants in these studies showed the pattern of reluctance to make trade-offs whether the stakes were high or low. Confronting any trade-off, it seems, is incredibly unsettling. And as the available alternatives increase, the extent to which choices will require trade-offs will increase as well.

What, then, do people do if virtually all decisions involve trade-offs and people resist making them? One option is to postpone or avoid the decision.

This also applies to in-person sales presentations. Many old-school  trainers advocated offering the client three choices. Early in my sales career, my presentations generally included a “Conservative” option, a “Moderate” option, and an “Aggressive” option. The hope was that the customer would choose the middle option.

Too often, I found, the client chose to do nothing. They just wanted the expert to tell them what to do.

The last thing you want  for your prospect to postpone or avoid a decision. Though it may seem paradoxical, offering a single choice will increase the likelihood that your prospect will actually take action.


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