Maximize Your Profits by Maximizing Choice

Every company, every industry, and every culture has habits -- assumptions we make about the way things work. Indeed, as much as 45 percent of what we do every day may be habitual. But a recent trip to Venice highlighted for me the benefits of deconstructing those assumptions and asking what customers really need -- not just what we expect them to want.

Mealtime in America is pretty straightforward -- lunch sometime between 12 and 1:30pm, and dinner sometime between 6:00 -- 9:00 p.m., depending how urban/hip/workaholic you are. Take out or eat in, same price. Want lunch at 4 p.m.? Maybe at McDonald's, but the nice places are closed. In Venice, however, the formula is cracked open -- it's a cornucopia of customer choice.

You can choose:
• How much to eat (some of the best food is offered as tapas-style nibbles at wine shops).
• When to eat (the wine bars and takeout pizza joints are open most of the day).
• Whether to sit down (and pay more -- sometimes double) or save money by carting your food off to eat by a canal.

Of course, Venice also has its customer service hangups. Popular restaurants and bakeries are often closed on Sundays, even during prime tourist season -- a wanton rejection of dollars that would make American entrepreneurs queasy. Almost no one seems to accept credit cards. And -- tying in to a common "business as lifestyle" mentality -- some proprietors feel perfectly comfortable setting their own arbitrary dictates. (At one wine bar, after filling up a plate with bruschetta and snacks for my girlfriend, the woman behind the counter scolded me for attempting to request a second plate for myself. One plate was clearly enough -- a principle she felt was worth standing up for, regardless of lost sales.)

But in both its strengths and limitations, Venice shows the importance of customer choice. If you want your business to thrive, you need to provide options, not dictate the terms "Soup Nazi" style. Consulting expert Alan Weiss describes the concept as providing a "choice of yeses." It's essential to identify the core values of your business and stand up for them. But it's also essential to weed out false assumptions and bad business habits (Really, you want me to stop ordering food for my party because one plate is full?). Think broadly about how you can best serve your customers -- and do it.

What are your strategies for providing optimal customer choice? Are there instances where it's not a good idea?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.