How Confirmation Bias Influences Your Customers

Imagine taking a train from San Diego to Santa Barbara, California.

Beautiful, right? You can probably picture the amazing views of the ocean and the charming beach towns you pass along the way.

That's how I describe it. I took that trip recently when I traveled to Santa Barbara to film my latest training videos at It was peaceful and relaxing.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

But, what did I really see along the way? 

Watch this short video for just one minute to see my view from the train. For more than half the trip, my view was much closer to this one.


What is Confirmation Bias?

Here's a great definition from psychology expert Kendra Cherry:

A confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias that involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases.

In other words, once we believe something, we tend to stick to that belief. We naturally filter information based on whether or not it supports our opinion.

Here's an example of how it can influence your customers.

A friend and I were talking about Zappos. She told me she thought that Zappos customer service was amazing. She emphasized the word "amazing" as she shared this with me.

Intrigued, I asked her about her own experiences. Her answer surprised me.

She told me she had ordered from them a couple of times, but there were mistakes made each time. Neither experience was good. She also mentioned another friend who had a bad experience with them too.

I asked my friend why she thinks Zappos has amazing customer service if she's only had bad experiences. Her reply was, "Because that's what everybody says."

There's no doubt that Zappos has a reputation for outstanding customer service. My intent here isn't to refute that. 

It's just astonishing that a customer who can only remember bad experiences would still believe the company had amazing service.

That's confirmation bias.

You can try this exercise on your own. Think of a few companies that deliver amazing service and a few that are poor. Now, list specific facts that back up your impression. See if you can really make an objective argument.

For example, I've professed my love for In-N-Out many times on this blog. What's my real argument for their awesomeness?

  • They rank high on customer service and taste test lists.
  • I consistently have good experiences.
  • It's my favorite fast food burger.

Those are all commendable attributes. But, at the end of the day, In-N-Out is a fast food hamburger joint. That's it. No more, no less.

It's not a magic customer service unicorn that will make all your dreams come true.


How Confirmation Bias Affects Your Reputation

Most companies don't have a reputation for customer service that's as strong as Zappos's. Or, as strong as Comcast's for that matter.

These biases can be either positive or negative.

Your customers can still develop a bias about your company. Once customers form a belief about your company, confirmation bias makes it hard to change their mind.

Here are a few examples:

  • A customer's first impression can anchor how they feel about your business.
  • Online reviews can convince customers that you're awesome (or not).
  • How quickly and how well you handle problems can cement a reputation.
  • Making personal connections with customers can strengthen their positive bias.
  • One prickly employee can convince customers you suck.

Sometimes, your business can develop a strong reputation with someone before they ever become your customer. 

That's why local businesses push so hard to land on those "Best Of" lists found in many communities. It's validation that they're fantastic.

It's also why companies worry about a service failure somehow going viral. In one extreme example, the owners of a gourmet marshmallow company appeared on the show The Profit. 

Viewers were so disgusted by the owners' boorish behavior that they quickly voted the company's Yelp and Google ratings down to one star, even though the overwhelming majority of reviewers had never done business with them.

Would you do business with a company that had a one star rating?


Developing a Positive Bias

Customers are going to develop biases whether you want them to or not. So, the best strategy is to help your customers have positive biases.

Here are a few things you can try:

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