Macro/Micro: Avoiding choice overloads

“Oh yeah. What we’re living in?/ Let me tell ya.” I don’t know if there are many readers who are big enough Jamiroquai fans to catch my reference, but those are the opening lyrics from the band’s 1997 song “Virtual Insanity.” The same year it came out, the cloned sheep Dolly was announced to the world, which is forever linked in my mind to Jamiroquai singing about a world where everything is customizable.

“And now every mother can choose the color/ Of her child/That’s not nature’s way/Well that’s what they said yesterday.” Maybe Jamiroquai saw the changes coming. Sure, the threat Dolly posed to human breeding selection was au courant in 1997, but we are all about choice in this day and age. Mothers may not be choosing the color of their children’s skin, but Jamiroquai had the right idea: the reality of today’s current situation is that selection of everything is happening on a much more finely tuned level.

Take online shopping, for example. As a remarkably tall child growing up in rural Kentucky, JCPenney and Sears were the only options I had for clothes. You either wore their pants or you wore a skirt. To this day, I still avoid capris because for years I was forced into high-waters. But now if stores don’t have pants that are long enough for a girl my height, I can go online to BlueFly or Zappos, not to mention buy from Nordstrom or Macy’s without ever stepping foot in a store. In fact, it’s overwhelming. I can spend hours looking at pants online without buying a thing. Trust me, I’m not indecisive. I know what I want and go for it. But to buy a pair of pants on BlueFly, I have to choose between casual and activewear, corduroy, cropped, dress/work, jumpsuits — seriously, jumpsuits aren’t even pants, but it’s on there — and leggings — which also aren’t pants, but I digress. I then have to select a designer. That’s right, a designer! Choosing a size and color, the next steps, makes sense, but then I have to name my price. And after that, I have to decide if I want to view results by popularity, availability or what’s new. I run a business. I make decisions all day long. But when it comes to buying pants, sometimes I just want a pair of pants. I don’t want to draft a business plan or call out the National Guard. 

“Future’s made of virtual insanity now/ Always seem to be govern’d by this love we have/ For useless, twisting, all our new technology.” Lately, the internet seems to get all the blame for this choice overload. After all, if the web didn’t make Bluefly and Zappos so accessible, I’d still be stuck buying high-waters at JCPenney. True, the accessibility that creates these choices wouldn’t exist were it not for the internet. But overall the internet is a good thing. Just because information is accessible doesn’t mean we have to digest it and allow it to force us into lockdown. There’s a difference between indecision and education.

In additional defense for the web, not all choice lockdown has its roots in technology. My best friend Lindsay and I went to brunch last week. When we got to the restaurant, the hostess stood in front of a principally empty dining room and asked us where we wanted to sit. We just looked at each other. We had no idea. In fact, the main reason I’d decided to go out to eat was because I didn’t want to have to figure out what to cook. I love to cook, don’t get me wrong, but I’d had a long work week, I was exhausted, and being the American that I am, I just wanted someone to bring me calories on a plate so I could subsequently shove them in my mouth. I didn’t want to decide; I wanted to be waited on. Add this to the fact that I’m not a morning person. Ask any non-morning person to decide anything — anything at all — while it’s still morning and the results won’t be good, people. The two of us just stood there in that restaurant staring blankly until Lindsay eventually just pointed. After finally being seated, we talked about how upset we were that the hostess forced us to make her decision. After all, seating people is pretty much the only thing a hostess in a restaurant does; it’s her main purpose for existing, part of what we as patrons pay the restaurant to do for us. 

What we need to learn in this industry is that there’s an important difference between customization and client education. In an industry where software marketed to language service providers (LSPs), be it in project management or content management, can be customized out the wazoo, sometimes what we really want as clients is for the hostess to just lead us to a table. Sometimes what we really want is not to spend an hour looking at pants in order to buy nothing. Sometimes what we want is part of what vendors are actually paid for — their knowledge and guidance. Standing in that restaurant with my friend, technology had nothing to do with it. What it does have to do with is meeting your clients where they are, with being the expert they trust you to be. Choice overload has everything to do with whether or not the seller does her job or thrusts her job back upon the clients, all in the name of customization.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ll be the first to admit, In Every Language seems guilty of offering a lot of customization. Taken directly from my own company’s website, we offer “[p]ersonalized solutions, on time and on budget” because “[c]lients deserve one-on-one attention and a customized course of action for their important projects.” But as the owner of an LSP, I have to ask myself, how much of our industry’s customization is truly for the client’s own good? And how much is trying to be all things to all people?

What are our industry’s clients not being told? Client education can run a very fine line over the course of a relationship. Some clients that initially came to us with a translation segregated through multiple departments are now moving to consolidated content management and, as a result, are taking advantage of translation memory leverage for the first time. Client education got them there, but not overnight. It takes true collaboration between vendor and client to know how much to grow, and when. As a child stuck in pants that were perpetually either too wide or too short, you learn that not even the perfect pair of pants is worth growing up for too quickly. In fact, if a child grows too much too quickly, he’ll have developmental issues that stem from his skeletal structure not being able to keep up with the change. A client’s translation infrastructure can be the same way. Customize everything all at once and you could break the deal. The important balance is one where the client shares control with the vendor but doesn’t have to do the vendor’s job for them. 

At this year’s Globalization and Localization Association conference in late March, Bob Donaldson of Carson Strategy said he doesn’t think that LSP should stand for language service provider anymore. He suggested language solution provider. I’d like to push it one step further and say language solution partner. If you think about what a partner is and how it’s different from being a provider, I think you’ll see what I mean.

1997 was a pivotal year socially for marking the rise of customization. But the choice overload leading up to 2012, technologically-driven or not, has placed us in a current swingback from this pattern. Somewhere in the middle, our industry must find the sweet spot. We must quit chasing 1997. Too much customization without education and guidance, and we risk forcing our clients to do our jobs. On the other end of the spectrum, we should provide enough education to push our clients to greatness, and not to breaking. It’s only through vendor-client partnership that we can achieve the right balance. If you think about it, that’s what a partnership is, really — doing what’s best for the other, and growing and learning together.