Confirmation Bias and The Power of First Impressions

 First impressions set the tone. 

First impressions set the tone. 

We all know that great first impressions are important in customer service. But exactly how do first impressions influence customers’ perceptions of service quality?

One factor is a powerful force called confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias occurs when people have strongly held opinions. There’s a natural tendency to selectively filter new information, facts, and experiences based upon whether it confirms our opinion. We conveniently hang on to anything that supports our point of view while ignoring or dismissing any evidence to the contrary.

If you want to see confirmation bias in action, all you have to do is strike up a conversation with someone about politics, religion, or sports. Find out where they stand and then try to change their mind. Good luck.

In customer service, a strong first impression can form the basis for future confirmation bias. This can work in your favor if the impression is good or against you if the impression is bad.

Here are two examples from recent hotel visits:


Good example – Sheraton JFK

Evette greeted me as I arrived at the hotel shuttle pick-up area at New York’s JFK airport. I was tired from a long flight but her cheerful greeting immediately lifted my spirits.

“Hi! My name is Evette. I’m your greeter.”

The shuttle came on demand, so she radioed the hotel to request a shuttle to pick me up. Evette kept me company while I waited by giving me some additional information about the hotel and transportation options in the area. I was also impressed to see her helping people headed to other hotels find their shuttles.

Evette told me, “I work for the Sheraton, but it doesn’t cost me anything to help people going to other hotels since I’m already out here.” She was a great example of what Steve Curtin talks about in his book, Delight Your Customers. The spirit of service is separate from your job function, it’s voluntary, and it’s often free.

When the shuttle arrived she introduced me by name to the driver, Mike. It was a short ride over to the hotel where a friendly front desk associate named Livingstone checked me in. 

The positive first impression created by these associates did more than just start my stay off on a good note. It helped me form the opinion that this hotel offered good service. Once that opinion was formed, I became biased towards observing and remembering positive aspects of their service while dismissing or ignoring any minor occurrence that didn’t confirm that opinion.


Bad example – budget hotel

I recently stayed at a different hotel that created a less than stellar first impression. 

There was only one associate at the front desk to check in a long line of guests. I was tired from a long day of travel and the line felt like one more obstacle between me and relaxation. When I finally got to the front of the line, the associate seemed as tired as I felt while she plodded through the check in process.

To make matters worse, my key didn’t work when I got to my room so I had to go back to the front desk. Ugh.

This negative first impression left me irritated and tired by the time I got to the room. It gave me the opinion that this hotel provided poor service and it was all too easy to find additional examples throughout my stay. Each new service failure compounded my disappointment until I decided to document the problems on a short video.



The reality is I probably experienced a mixture of service at both hotels. The Sheraton JFK certainly provided better overall service but there were a few things they could have done better. I likely would have noticed more, or have been more bothered by what I did notice, if the first impression they created hadn’t been so good.

That other hotel also had some positive aspects too. There’s a very good chance I would have noticed more of them if the initial impression hadn’t been so poor. 

Most of perceptions about a company are really comprised of several experiences over time. This makes the first impression so important since it can serve as a reference for future experiences. I illustrated an example of this continuum in a post about Verizon that described how good service I had received was really a combination of good, outstanding, and poor experiences.


How to make a good first impression

Making a good first impression is usually easy if you follow a few steps.

Step 1: Observe first impressions from your customers’ perspective. This can quickly show you what’s working and what’s not. For example if you manage a call center, you could call to see how long it takes to reach a live agent, how easy it is to navigate the phone menu, what it feels like to be on hold, and what type of greeting you receive when you finally do reach a live person. You can use this same approach with many other types of businesses simply by tracing the same steps a customer would.

Step 2: Ensure you have adequate staffing to make a good first impression. Customers hate to wait, so immediately putting them in a long line isn’t the right way to get things started. If a wait is unavoidable, you can still employ a few jedi mind tricks to make the wait seem shorter.

Step 3: Learn and use customer names. Calling customers by name is a great way to make a customer feel welcome by personalizing the service they receive. Don’t forget that names are a two way street. Customers are much more likely to give service high marks if they remember your employees’ names.

Additional resources: Here are some other blog posts that also focus on positive first impressions:

You lost me at hello

How hotels can generate loyalty on the first visit

Five question technique