The Backfire Effect — How you can persuade even your toughest customers (or two year olds)

Here at Highrise, we hope our customers are incredibly happy. But every now and then we run into a tough case. For example, we now have Broadcast, a bulk email service.

We keep it under tight control. If spam complaints or bounces go over our stringent limits, the ability to use Broadcast is paused. We do that to make sure our delivery rates are sky high.

That doesn’t always make people happy. It’s actually a very delicate issue. When someone is paused they feel like we’ve labeled them a “spammer”. A “spammer” in their eyes is sending some illegal email about drugs, sex, and who knows what else. How can they be in the same club?

But when you send something you think people will love, even if they’ve opted in, some people may still mark it as spam. They have the option to mark anything they want as spam. Or if you email an old list, stuff is going to bounce. And it makes receiving mail servers like Gmail unhappy, because that’s also a tell-tale sign of people who are spamming random purchased lists of emails with offers of Viagra and casinos. We have to take all that into account, and occasionally we have to say to someone “Look you can’t send Broadcasts right now, because you aren’t following our sending practices.” And we’ve lost customers. Even folks who’ve been with us for years (and this is a brand new feature at no additional cost). Because they didn’t like what they heard about their ability to use Broadcast.

What do we do?

I was having breakfast with my two year old recently. We were reading the Wall Street Journal and eating a salad together, with her broccoli and spinach being dipped in her yogurt. Sounds pretty healthy right?

Then she drops: “I want a jellybean.” 🙂

Well at our house, we aren’t the epitome of strict eaters, but we pretty much have a “no candy for breakfast” policy. So we told her “No jellybeans for breakfast, honey.”

She melted down.

Crying. Yelling “I want a jellybean” — our good morning crumbling.

But the concept of persuasion has been on my mind a lot. Especially with the current political climate. And something I keep reading about is the “backfire effect.”

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, who gave the effect its name, have done quite a bit of research on what it’s like to correct people. For example, in one study they presented a group of conservatives with a fake news report that stated “Iraq had weapons of mass destruction prior to the US invasion”. Then some of those conservatives were presented with a correction: Iraq didn’t have WMDs before the invasion.

Conservatives who were presented with the correction were found now EVEN MORE likely than they were before to believe Iraq had WMDs.

Not only do folks try to confirm preexisting beliefs with evidence known as the confirmation-bias. But when supplied with contradictory evidence, those preexisting beliefs can become irrationally even stronger.

In other words, people don’t enjoy being contradicted. It changes us. We get heated. We become illogical. Irrational. How often have you been told “No”, now to want it even more?

So how can we deal with this situation? We still need meaningful dialog in cases like this. I still need to get my 2 year old back to breakfast.

I tried to stop contradicting her.

Instead of saying “No jellybeans for breakfast.” I tried empathy. I tried just confirming her feelings.

I told her, “You know, I want jellybeans for breakfast too. In fact I want ice cream.”

Her eyes lit up. Crying stopped. Now she said, “Daddy, the ice cream is in the freezer. I’ll get it.”

🙂 Oops. Was this a new problem I created?

But I continued, “Hold on. So I’d love all those things for breakfast, especially ice cream, but I know they aren’t good for me.”

Now she asked, “Why?”

And so I went on. “Well it’s important for me to get a great breakfast to start my day. Healthy foods. Even salads. So that’s why we avoid eating things like candy in the morning.”

And she was done with the tantrum. She listened, and moved on.

Woah, what just happened. I can’t believe I just stopped this meltdown. Was it a fluke?

Nope, the next morning it happened again. This time she “wanted a treat.” Again I said “I totally get it. I want a treat too. But because breakfast is important to be healthy, I wait to get treats until later in the day.” The whining stopped.

I was floored.

It dawned on me someone actually treated me recently like this too — a company I do business with called Indinero.

I use Indinero for all my bookkeeping and taxes on my side project Draft. Been using them for years. Well something came up that I wasn’t happy with and I emailed them some negative feedback. The response really caught me:

Good Morning Nate,
Thanks so much for the feedback, I would be incredibly frustrated in your situation as well. That is definitely not how we want you to feel and this not the experience we aim to provide our clients.
When it comes down to it, you’re right...

They agreed with me!? I’m right!?

They felt the same way as me. My customer support person even went on to say how things would be corrected. I was cooled down in a hurry.

This was one of the most pleasant customer support experiences I’ve ever had, and really nothing had actually been resolved. There was only a promise they’d improve something. And how many times have you gotten a “Sorry we’ll try to do better note” from a company with little or no dent on your dissatisfaction.

I didn’t feel like that at all. And they really followed up too. They’ve definitely won more loyalty from me.

And so these 2 events are changing how we answer certain requests. Recently a customer thought onboarding was too hard if he had to watch 3 ten minute long videos just to get started with Highrise. He tweeted this to all his followers. 🙁

But, instead of replying an empty: “Sorry you feel that way”, I confirmed what he felt. “Yep, you’re right, I wouldn’t watch them either to get started. We created them for customers who really need in-depth starts, but Highrise is straightforward enough to skip the manual all together.” I also explained that he raised a great point that I should address when these videos are presented that they aren’t “required reading.” He deleted the original tweet.

Those bulk email shutdowns? I’ve been there in my past.

Many years ago, managing newsletters to a huge list of emails, I was shut down multiple times by another email provider for too many bounces and too many spam complaints. It doesn’t feel good. I’ve come away the same way, feeling like “They shouldn’t have shut me down. I’m in the right.”

So I moved over to a competitor because they had lower standards and wouldn’t shut me down, but then I just found no one was opening my mail anymore. Most of it was in spam folders.

In the end, I returned back to the original provider who had shut me down, and I got better about my own practices of who I sent mail to.

Maybe this sort of message will resonate much better with our customers.

I realize my persuasion Jedi techniques won’t always work. But having that breakfast with my two year old, opened my eyes to the “backfire effect” and how it feels better when someone confirms it’s ok to feel the way I do. And even better, when they feel the same way. Now instead of heated and angry, I’m listening again. And maybe I become a little more open minded.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us make better decisions. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while organizing your own small business or customer feedback, check out how Highrise can help!