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

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.

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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:

 This post originally appeared on the Inside Customer Service Blog website and is republished here with permission.
Jeff Toister
Jeff Toister

Jeff is the author of "The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed with Customer Service. " He is also a nationally recognized employee training expert and a sought after speaker with more than 20 years of experience.

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