I recently had one of the most enjoyable restaurant experiences I can remember. It was at an authentic Italian restaurant that is normally only open for lunch because the chef and her husband have a young family with whom they like to share their evenings. But once a month, on the day of the month that marks the anniversary of the restaurant opening, they open for dinner. The exceptional quality and authentic flavours of the dishes on offer would be recommendation enough. Many of the menu items use the chef’s grandmother’s recipes, so diners are typically unfamiliar with many of the dishes.
However, the menu has another magic ingredient that made the evening so delightful. It is a set menu. The food just arrives and with so many courses it matters not at all if some are more or less to your liking than others.
Instead of extended conversations with waiters about what you will order—and “is the sauce on the side?” discussions—the owner and his team wander around the tables ensuring everyone is happy. And for those deep in conversation at their table, when the food arrives there are none of the normal interruptions, “who was having the steak medium rare?”
We didn’t even get to decide what time we’d eat, it’s a set menu at a set time. On arrival the staff played the role of hosts instead of being order takers and the chef had time to talk to guests about her dishes between courses as the preparation was done and she was not on the receiving end of a flow of different orders.
Not having to make decisions had an extraordinary affect on the diners. Freed from the tyranny of choice they made conversation with adjacent tables. Trips to the bathroom became a meander through the tables sharing a comment here and there. At one point another diner sat at our table and chatted for the duration of the gap between courses. Being English by birth, we are a little reticent about talking to people we haven’t been formally introduced to (watch Downton Abbey if you don’t get that) but in this environment it seemed like the most natural thing to do.
You might think eliminating the time it takes to make menu decisions would speed up the process, but in fact the opposite was true. When you have poured over a menu and thus invested time and energy in making decisions you sit impatiently waiting for your reward for all that effort. Not so when the only decision you have made is to pick up the phone a week earlier to make a reservation. Instead, you hand your evening over to those who are in control and sit back and relax as time gently drifts by.
Companies can learn a lot from the reward that freedom from choice can give customers. There is a bigger advantage to be gained than simply making choices easier (although there is a lot to be said for that too). There is an opportunity to add emotional value, because when companies change the customer experience they will also change their role in the customer’s experience – just like our waiters who became hosts and connectors between guests when relieved of the role of order taking.
Customer experience online appears to becoming more personalised with algorithms as a proxy for making choice easier, but they often just make it seem sterile and formulaic and do little to enhance people’s perceptions of the role of the company. Either people feel processed by a faceless computer or they believe the company is trying to sell them stuff with little or no imagination invested in the process.
By comparison, our lovely Italian restaurant experience felt imbued with imagination and an element of adventure and uncertainty. The challenge to companies is to take away the pain of decision making and reward people with not just tailored individual products and services, but with the joy that freedom from choice brings when it is coupled with a dash of the unknown and unexpected. Our brains may be lazy decision makers but nothing lights up the brain like an adventure. Man would never have evolved without an inbuilt desire to balance safe choices with some experimentation and risk taking.
I’d love to give the restaurant a plug but it has limited capacity and I want to be sure I can get a reservation next month. Because the event is driven by a date of the month, it occurs on a different day of the week each time round. Even that feels a bit daring. A big night out on a Monday—when did you last do that?
Imagine what you’d achieve if you got your customers to buy outside of their regular pattern, or how much more they might spend if they were confident in and rewarded by handing over the decisions to you. It’ll take more imagination from companies than “would you like to add fries/a rental car/cover for your spouse to that?” because these options simply add another decision to people’s cognitive overload.
Meanwhile, I am so looking forward to my decision-free 18th of the month. I might even close my eyes and choose my outfit randomly from my wardrobe – or perhaps that’s a risk too far.
Colleen Ryan is the head of strategy at TRA.