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Seth Wenig/SETH WENIG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Consumer choice is a constant source of debate with my clients. As is the idea of customization.

A myth I often deal with is: "Our customers want lots of choices, and the ability to customize."

As I discussed in an earlier column, in most cases, we find that customers want fewer and better choices. They also want the ability to personalize – which is an entirely different orientation.

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Consumers want to personalize, not customize. They may just be using the wrong word

Big consumer myth No. 2 relates to customization, specifically to companies believing that customers want to customize products. This myth is tied directly back to the logic around consumer choice limitation as a good thing.

Customization, by definition, refers to "making (something) according to a customer's individual requirements." It implies a level of expertise and technological or functional know-how, that is, it implies that the consumer knows enough about the product or service, and the context in which it will be used, to truly specify its requirements, components and design.

Customization also implies an abundance of time, and the patience to choose. For most consumers, disposable time is at a premium these days. And, as we discussed in relation to the consumer choice myth, consumers – at least subconsciously – are seeking fewer choices, not more choices.

When Subway first came to market, the process was largely customized – choose a bread and choose from among a hundred toppings.

Its menu is now largely driven by pre-set options, as the company learned that customers didn't truly want to customize their submarine sandwiches.

So, customization is a real and desirable product or service attribute – but only for niche segments (for instance, computers for the bleeding-edge-of-technology crowd, or cars for true gearheads).

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What most consumers want, even if they use the word "customize" to describe it, is to "personalize" a product, service or experience.

We think of personalization as guided and choice-limited customization.

Personalization implies no prior product or context-specific expertise. Personalization gives a consumer a comfortable starting point, and a few clear choices to tweak the product or service to his or her needs.

If we go back to the Subway example, a customer still typically chooses the bread, toppings and sauce, but the "Italian BMT" serves as the starting point.

Another world-class example of personalization is Dell. Again, the consumer is not left to build a laptop from scratch, but instead picks a platform that meets his or her needs ("gamer," "home office," etc.) and then follows a directed process across a (limited) series of component decisions to either stay with the default or upgrade or downgrade the component, until the design is finished.

Again, less is more.

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Key takeaway

Offering your customers more choices, whether in products or features, and the ability to customize will likely not do them, or you, any favours. Having the courage to limit choice, and taking the time to create a personalization path, can create a more favourable customer experience, and may just increase your sales.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark's focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

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