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When Consumers Delegate

Managers learn to delegate, and so do consumers. New research reveals that it can create better satisfaction.

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When we lived in the same city, my best friend Hap and I made a habit of having breakfast together every Friday. The venue was usually the same, but as we both considered breakfast the most important and underrated meal of the day, we enjoyed trying new restaurants as often as we could. It is in this context that I recall a pet peeve, and also a hook to some new research on consumer behavior.

Whenever we found ourselves staring at a new menu, abundant with unfamiliar dishes and potentially mouthwatering delights, we would ask our server for a recommendation. Our pet peeve was when the server would say, “I don’t know,” or “Well, everything is good.” As soon as that server walked away Hap and I would begin our critique like a couple of old men bantering about the way things used to be.

On the flip side were the times when the server said, “I love the short rib hash,” or “If you like pancakes, go with the Johnny corn cakes.” When that server left the table, we’d start yammering on about how much we appreciated a point of view. We also discovered a lot of food we might not otherwise have tried.

A new study in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Research corroborates the informal findings of my breakfasts with Hap (which should be the name of a memoir, I think). The study specifically explores the contexts in which consumers choose to delegate their decisions to someone else. The findings are important and interesting because there is a significant body of extant research that has found consumers prefer more choices and more control, not less. So, what are the conditions that would make a consumer willing to relinquish control completely?

In “Delegating Decisions: Recruiting Others to Make Choices We Might Regret,” researchers Mary Steffel of Northeastern University and Elanor F. Williams of Indiana University conducted eight experiments to unpack the answers. They explored situations in which there were too many choices and situations that were concerned with very important/high-risk outcomes. They explored the impact of perceived expertise. They even considered situations in which a consumer might opt out altogether and choose to not decide rather than delegate. Despite these many contexts that affect decision-making, they found that consumers often prefer to delegate to others, and the reason for delegation was nearly always the same: the consumer did not want to regret their choice.

There is an important distinction embedded in their findings. Delegation was tied to the potential for regret, not disappointment. Consider that for a moment because we can easily confuse the two emotional states. Yet there is a subtle distinction that makes them very different, and that is responsibility. I might be dissatisfied with the choice you made for me, but that’s different than being dissatisfied with the choice I made on my own. I am responsible for my bad choice, and when I am contemplating that possibility I find comfort in backing away and letting someone else choose. Even if I end up dissatisfied, I will have no regret because the #fail is not on me.

These findings have numerous implications for marketers, particularly those in service industries or for those who have product portfolios with a wide range of options and configurations. In both contexts, it can be profitable to invest in delegates, whether human or virtual. Indeed, many direct-to-consumer brands have invested in human advisors that help customers make digital choices. Take Trunk Club and Bombfell for example. Both of these “box fashion” services connect with customers through a stylist who uses information provided by the customer to select articles of clothing and even complete looks for them to purchase. Both services ship the clothing to the customer risk-free, meaning that the clothes can be shipped back free of charge. Not surprisingly, the return rate is low. Delegation is driving the profitability of these business models by reducing the risk of regret.


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