With the DOL fiduciary rule, if you’re a retirement plan professional, it’s even more critical to undertake these 2 actions: document and discover. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Expert pollsters use icebreaker questions to motivate respondents to continue taking the survey. Among the favorite first questions is “If the presidential election were held today, who would you vote for?”

This question works because almost everyone has an opinion on the subject. It doesn’t matter if the survey has nothing to do with politics. It primes them. Market research mavens adore primed respondents.

There’s only one problem with this sure-fire icebreaker question: You can only use it every four years.

There’s another great icebreaker question pollsters like to use. It’s the “name the more important event in history” type of question. It usually produces suspect answers, but that’s not its point.

Its purpose is to inspire the survey taker to get excited about taking the survey. If someone asked you “Name the more important event in America from the past 50 years?” it gets your mental juices going. (And, if you’re relaxing in front of a refreshing beverage during happy hour, this is the kind of question that makes table talk exciting – and sometimes a bit tense, depending on the contents of the beverage.)

This is why the question is unreliable: During the 10th anniversary of 9/11, surveys showed respondents placed this terrorist attack as a “most important event” roughly 65% of the time. You might think that’s understandable because the media inundated the airwaves with stories on the subject. You also might think that, a mere two weeks before the anniversary and before the inundated airwaves, only about 30% of the respondents cited the attack as “most important.”

It’s what happened two weeks later that might surprise you.

Two weeks after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, after the incessant anniversary stories had stopped, the event was listed as “most important” by, again, only 30% of those taking the survey.

It’s true what they say: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

For a number of reasons (q.v., “Massachusetts”), no matter what happens with the DOL’s fiduciary rule, “fiduciary” will remain in the mindset for some time. As long as this is the case, “fiduciary” will not be “out of sight.” Ergo, it will not be “out of mind.”

As long as it’s in mind, it’s critical we separate the wheat from the chaff (see “Exclusive Interview: David Levine: 401k Plan Sponsors Must Separate These Fiduciary Rule Facts from Fiction,” FiduciaryNews.com, February 21, 2018).

If you’re a retirement plan professional, it’s even more critical to undertake these two actions in regards to the DOL fiduciary rule: document and discover.

This whole “Best Interest Contract” (“BIC”) concept isn’t unreasonable. It’s also not specifically defined. That means there are a lot of right answers. That’s the good news.

The bad news? If push comes to shove and you’re called out on the carpet to explain your “right” answer, you’ll need back-up. That support generally means documentation.

This documentation should answer the question “What were you thinking?” In other words, you adopted certain procedures, contract language, and systems in response to the BIC mandate. You obviously thought your decision met the basic ERISA standards of prudence, loyalty, and reasonable compensation. Simply write down your decision-making process. Be sure to include any supplemental materials referenced while making that decision.

This is the nature of documentation. It goes into a file, perhaps to be reviewed periodically for updating, perhaps never again seeing the light of day until the DOL (or a plaintiff attorney) comes calling.

As for the second action, once you’ve covered your own bases, it’s time to discover what everyone else is doing. No industry remains static. Changes occur all the time. You might not be taking a lead in these changes, but your competitors might be. Ultimately, you’ll need to adapt these changes to your business model to insure its sustainability.

Why reinvent the wheel? If some pioneer has already blazed a trail, take it. Don’t waste resources forging a new path to the same destination. Sure, you may want to alter some aspects, but what your competitor is doing represents a great starting point.

Now, how might you go about collecting that market research? You might want to ask the market.

May I suggest an icebreaker question?