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If Brexit Is the Answer, What Was the Question?

Lessons in Customer Communications

Regardless of where your views lie on the political spectrum, whether you think that the United Kingdom leaving or remaining in the European Union is a good or bad thing, you will no doubt agree that the Brexit outcome is hugely significant for the UK, the EU, the rest of Europe and the world in general. If the outcome had been Remain, it would have been equally significant.

So let’s unpick the myriad strands and decipher the business messages hidden within this momentous occurrence.

To underscore the very wide range of opinion, there are people convinced that Brexit is a bad outcome and would have preferred Remain. There are also others who even now long after the referendum still can’t make up their minds, or think Brexit is neither good nor bad, or can perhaps see both good and bad in equal measure in Brexit.

Given the importance of the referendum and its outcome, it is logical to expect, perhaps even assume, that the question that was asked on the ballot paper was the one answered by voters and which resulted in Brexit. But a closer look does not necessarily validate this premise.

The following was on the ballot paper:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

– Remain a member of the European Union           

– Leave the European Union

At first glance, the question as well as the two allowed mutually exclusive answers appear fine. Many commentators have, however, wondered whether the binary nature (i.e. black/white, yes/no, male/female, etc.) of the question was the best way of expressing this most consequential of choices. And I agree with them; there seems to be a fundamental limitation in the ability of the question as expressed to connect with the nuances of general human thinking.

The well-known saying that if you ask the wrong question, you’re unlikely to get the right answer, is certainly very apt in this context.

Your customers and clients will also have their own interpretations of the questions your company poses to them.

The referendum question presupposes that the thought processes of the UK population are so homogenous that there would be a uniform understanding of, and agreement with, not only the question and its premise, but also the mutually exclusive choices made available on the ballot paper. In the same way the UK population is not homogeneous in their thinking, your customers and clients will also have their own interpretations of the questions your company poses to them.

I really like what am seeing here and…

Human experience over the ages and behavioural research suggest, however, that as soon as people are faced with two opposing or stark choices, they consciously or unconsciously rate them hierarchically and may well make choices based on what they believe is likely to be the dominant option.

This opinion of the dominant option is not simply the “winning side”, but can also encompass an idealistic view of oneself that often defies the ordinary logic of self-interest. Many people voted one way or the other based not on what would give them the most material or political advantages, but on the view they have of themselves and their aspirations.

For example,

  • Some people appeared to vote Remain in order to look liberal or sophisticated, as well avoid being tarred with the brush of some of the more strident xenophobic utterances of the Leave campaign;
  • While others voted Leave to appear more patriotic.

In both these cases, the decision was not necessarily based on the assumption that people were making a decision that was best for them (i.e. what meets or is best for their needs).

When faced with a binary choice in a democratic setting and under pressure to respond, especially coupled with a perceived lack of (real, truthful) information, this effect is greatly amplified! The opportunity or possibly of being less objective and more subjective increases dramatically.

A big part of the reason for this is that when faced with the need to choose, the human psyche defaults to a pattern depending on the number of choices available. In its simplified form, it looks like this:

Random quote:

“If you’re not failing now and again, it’s a sign you’re playing it safe.”

— Woody Allen
  1. One choice – interpreted as a command and people feel an overwhelming compulsion to follow the “directive” given. This is why it is not a good idea to back people into a corner or leave them “with no other choice” as they can easily resort to extreme measures like suicide or homicide.
    Example business lesson: In a sales situation, always allow the prospect or customer to see more than one choice (even if the other choice is to decline), otherwise they may feel that you’re bullying or even blackmailing them into making a purchase. And they will more than likely exercise the right to cancel as soon as they can escape from you!

  2. Two choices (binary scenario) – interpreted as a confrontational, fight or flight scenario; and since “fleeing” in the context of the referendum vote is deemed unacceptable and even an abdication of civic responsibility, people stay to “fight” by becoming adversarial in their dealings with the other people and the system. This is the primary reason for the extreme polarisation of the campaigns, bringing out the baser instincts on each side.
    Example business lesson: In a sales situation, where the financial outlay is significant and the customer is forced to choose between only two mutually exclusive feature sets, this can often result in undue transactional stress (for the buyer as well as the seller) and can result in unintended, unforeseen or downright undesirable outcomes.

  3. Three choices – interpreted as a comfortable middle ground in which compromise and negotiation are accepted as the default. This is the least stressful scenario as the mind doesn’t feel trapped in a command or binary situation. There is, therefore, a much more convivial, maybe even festive atmosphere as people feel that whatever they choose, their peers would be more forgiving of them “since there are in any case many valid options”.
    Example business lesson: In a sales situation, this is the optimum scenario and can be achieved for example by having two main options and a large bucket of relevant add-ons. By the way, this also gives you the best opportunity to create value differentiation and therefore charge an acceptable premium for some of the packages.

  4. Four or more choices – interpreted as “too much choice”, especially with five choices or more. The intellectual overhead of evaluating the different choices may be too high for many people and they may then simply “choose not to choose” by avoiding participation in the decision-making process altogether.
    Example business lesson: In a sales situation, you want to avoid too many choices as your buyer can spiral into “analysis paralysis” and quickly become incapable of making a buying decision! It is extremely difficult to get buyers out of this mode without losing credibility or appearing dishonest. So it’s best to avoid getting into it in the first place.

Going back to the EU referendum vote, the inherently flawed logic of the ballot paper ensured that both the Leave and Remain campaigns were extremely divisive, with each side competing to be “good” while at the same time portraying the other side as “evil”.

Had the choices been less stark (in keeping with how people psychologically settle on complex issues), the campaigns would have been much more nuanced and less fractious. Another example of how the question determines the answer!

A third or even fourth choice would have been more consistent with the way the human mind works. For example, there were many people who voted one way or the other, but wished there was yet another choice (e.g. Partial Brexit in which the UK leaves the EU but specifically negotiates access to the single market modelled after a combination of the Canadian and Norwegian systems) that better captured and reflected their desires or intentions.

All this is extremely relevant to how your business is marketed. If you ask your customers binary questions or force them to choose between two stark or opposing alternatives, better be prepared for unforeseen or undesirable outcomes!

Feedback forms should strike a balance between conciseness and the need to avoid yes or no responses.

This is the underlying reason why, for example, it is better to ask your customers or prospects open-ended questions during the sales process or during after-care, so that they can express themselves in well-rounded prose. In addition, your design of feedback forms should strike a balance between conciseness and the need to avoid yes or no responses. There is no doubt that within reason, more customer choice is normally better than less.

What do you think? Do your experiences bear these points out? Please comment below.



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