When consumers get confused during the purchase process, they opt for the simplest choice.

If you want to keep your customers, keep it simple. They don’t want a relationship with you, nor do they want to be overwhelmed with information and get bogged down in their own research. They just want you, their supplier or favourite brand, to help them make good choices easily and quickly.

Information overload has become a phenomenon – and a curse – of modern-day life, thanks to the vast amount of data we can glean from the Internet. However, when our brain is overloaded we start over-thinking trivial decisions and second-guessing ourselves. To make matters worse, companies often completely misjudge what information their customers really want.

This is the finding of a recent survey by CEB of over 7,000 consumers in the US, UK and Australia about their attitudes and purchase experiences across a number of categories including services, cars and luxury goods. Two hundred marketing managers were also interviewed to compare their strategies and beliefs about drivers of consumer ‘stickiness’.

“Companies try to drive interaction with consumers by ‘engaging’ them with millions of marketing messages, but they actually overwhelm them and drive them away rather than winning their loyalty and building a relationship,” says Anna Bird, consultant at CEB, who coordinated the three-month survey.

“When consumers get confused during the purchase process, they opt for the simplest choice.” 

Customers follow one of three purchase paths. In the traditional ‘funnel’ purchase model, a customer considers several options before filtering down to one. Customers in the ‘spindle’ purchase process are open to anything and research their options before over-analysing and ending up confused, changing their mind several times during their research. The third purchase model is a ‘tunnel’ purchase process where the ‘sticky’ customer knows what brand he or she wants and buys it, without doing any research.  

Consumer purchase patterns started to change during the recession with more searching for discounts and good deals and less follow-through from consideration through to conversion. However Bird says that even when we move out of recession, consumer behaviour will have changed permanently. 

“During the recession consumers had to put more effort into their research, but now new technology like mobile apps and social buying make it easier for them to search for discounts. Today’s consumers are more empowered and often know more than the salesperson,” she says. 

Yet the more consumers read, the more confused and indecisive they become and the less satisfied they are when they finally purchase a service or product. For companies, there’s an easy way out of this: keep things simple.

Marketers are somewhat to blame for this confusion, overestimating how much consumers want to interact with their company or brand online.

“Many companies told us they believed that the more they engaged their customers online and tried to form relationships with them, the more consumers would ‘stick’ with their brand or service,” says Bird. “What we saw is that too much Facebook, Twitter etc just adds to product or service information overload and heightens the problem.” 

What really makes customers ‘stick’ to a brand or company is ‘decision simplicity’ - making a consumer’s decision easier by providing simple information.  

“In reality, only 20 percent of consumers are really in love with your brand and shout about it on social media,” says Bird. “The other 80 percent just want help in making a simple purchase decision.”

According to the CEB survey, it’s important for customers to trust the information they receive about a product or service before placing their order. This information must be easy to find and digest. 

Bird recommends that companies provide service or product guides to enable consumers to weigh up their options. “Your brand should have some clear benefits but sometimes another brand or service might be better for your customer. By offering honest and trustworthy advice to customers, you can build up credibility.

”Customer-savvy marketers are slowly coming to grips with this. Instead of focusing on brand advocates to promote their company or brand, they are targeting advisers who offer more neutral, credible and trustworthy advice to consumers. “Even though these people might be less positive, they provide extra context, simplify the consumer’s decisions and make them trust your brand or service even more,” says Bird.

So what is the lesson for suppliers and brand owners?
“Simplify the purchase process for your customers. Instead of making them think constantly about your brand or service, it’s better to make them think less about the purchase process so they don’t get swamped in research.” 

5 key findings 

Customers want trustworthy information that is easy to find and digest, and that they can use to weigh up their purchasing options.

Product or service information overload causes confusion and leads to indecisiveness and angst-ridden decisions.

When weighing up their purchase options, customers often pick the simplest choice; decision simplicity also makes customers stick with a supplier or brand.

Companies that try to engage too much with customers risk driving them away.

Use outside experts to convey information about your services or products in a credible, trustworthy and neutral way. 

Anna Bird
Job title: Consultant

Based: London
Age: 29
Background: Bachelors Degree in Modern Languages from Oxford University, Masters in Organizational Psychology from the London School of Economics.  Worked for the European Union before joining CEB five and a half years ago. Has held several research roles at CEB in London and Washington D.C. exploring different aspects of marketing best practice. 

Favourite quote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” - L. P. Hartley.
Hobbies: Cinema, eating out, eating in, yoga. 

3 book suggestions
1. The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz: Interesting analysis of why more options make us less satisfied, not more.  Our initial hypotheses for the decision simplicity study were based on this book. 

2. Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman: Fascinating and very amusing insights into the irrational side of human decision-making, based on 40 years of research. 

3. Save the Cat, Blake Snyder: Although this is technically a how-to guide for aspiring screenwriters, it’s also a fun look at the conventions of modern blockbusters as well as the universal rules of storytelling.