You may know what other waiters say, but what does science say about how a waiter can make the most tips? Of course, the first question is whether or not there is scientific evidence concerning this question at all. Yes, there is. So, what do we know, psychologically speaking, about how a waiter (server, waitperson) can maximize his or her tips?
Most of the research concerning customer tipping has centered on behaviors that cause tips to be increased, reduced, or withheld. You may think that it would be hard to “measure” what behaviors would garner to best tips. But, if you think about it, the tip IS the measure. A big tip signals customer satisfaction, much of the time. So, researchers have compared behaviors to other behaviors, including varying what behaviors were used at different times to see what resulted in the best tips. Michael Lynn, Ph.D., an associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration has written a highly informative article summarizing some of the research into tipping behavior. 1
Some of the effective behaviors are quite simple and pretty much fool-proof. A few, however, depend on the circumstances and even the sex of the customer. Keep in mind that some of these behaviors may only be fully applicable or effective in the U.S. Other countries have different tipping cultures and traditions. The same studies performed in America might have had completely different outcomes in Britain, for example.
The Seven Simple Habits That May Increase Your Tips
There are six simple behaviors that could increase your tips: smiling, greeting, touching, squatting, writing thank you, and drawing happy faces. It is up to you to decide which of these behaviors you are most comfortable with, but there are a couple that you cannot ignore.
There is no substitute for a good smile. Keeping a smile on your face at all times may be the easiest thing you can do to assure more regular and greater tips. I know, I know, it’s hard to smile some days! And, sometimes, you are suppose to fake it, right? But, the customer might realize that you are just faking it anyway, so why bother, and its hard to fake a smile for long. There comes a time when the mere act of smiling can actually change your mood, making a fake smile a real one! And, since it will positively affect the mood of the entire table-server interaction, everybody will become more smiley.
Sure, there are times when no amount of smiling will make a customer tip more. But compared with the alternative, feeling and acting miserable, you’d be making a huge mistake to smile when appropriate and see if the tips start rolling in. No news here. Restaurant managers have long instructed their wait-staff to SMILE! Among all the behaviors mentioned here, smiling has the most potential for affecting and increase in your tips, for both male and female waiters. And yes, a big smile is more effective than a small smile. Waiters are often instructed to “paint a one a smile.” Nobody continuously smiles and there is no reason to make your face muscles sore by trying to walk around with a big grin on your face all day long. Smile as often as seems natural. Smile when approaching a table, and smile when leaving. 2
Greeting Customer and Introducing Yourself by Name
We expect that greeting customers and introducing yourself by name should increase tips. One study 3, tested greeting customers and introducing yourself by name at a Charlie Brown’s Restaurant in Southern California.
Two-person parties coming into the restaurant were assigned to either an “name” group or a “no name” group. If a couple were in the name group, the waiter approached and said something like “Good Morning. My name is Kim, and I’ll be serving you this morning. Have you ever been to Charlie Brown’s for brunch before. If the couple was in the no-name group, the same basic greeting was used, except the waiter did not give her name. Greeting and introducing by name proved to cause much greater tips than in the no-name group, up to 23% opposed to 15%. Of course, the greeting must be genuine and friendly! It doesn’t matter what you say if you say it in a surly way.
Personally, I would leave out the “Have you ever been to…” part. Customer’s don’t want to be quizzed before they dine, as I’ve stated vehemently in 7 Dumb Things that Restaurants Do. However, if this is your restaurant’s policy, you may not have a choice.
This is a tricky one. Touching the customer? That could go South real quick! You’re right for thinking that. This is one of those behaviors that works, but you need to judge the situation. The results of research seems fairly clear-cut: touching works, for both male and female servers. A casual touch that lasts for maybe a second and a half, on the shoulder, or even on the palm, can work wonders. I would surmise that when dealing with male and female couples, or any couple for that matter, you may want to parcel out the touches evenly. However, the research suggests that touching the female member of a party is most effective.
Also, avoid making eye contact while doing it! If a male waiter looks deep into a female customer’s eyes while his hand lingers on her shoulder, she is going to become VERY uncomfortable, and if her boyfriend or husband is there, he may have to deal with more than her discomfort. So, be aware of the difference between a quick and casual friendly touch and outright creepy flirtation! I wouldn’t “touch” the palm-touching behavior if it were me, but according to the research, a quick palm-touch or two, such as while giving change, works even better than the shoulder.
Your manager may well discourage you from EVER touching a customer, fearing that they will be uncomfortable being touched. Refer them to the research but protect your job! When a touch is quick and casual, most people don’t even realize they have been touched. The positive response seems to be unconscious and primal. A friendly and gentle touch is a positive social signal.
Squatting Down at the Table
This may be a controversial one. Many restaurant managers may tell you that squatting down beside your guest’s table is always and completely unprofessional. On a restaurant makeover show (don’t remember the name of the show), for example, I remember the show’s host telling a waiter that their habit of squatting down at tables was unprofessional, slovenly, and lazy. The host did not know what he was talking about! Your manager may think it unprofessional and “too familiar” but your customers may have quite a different experience.
Now, I’ll admit that personally, I do not like it when waiters squat down at my table. I find it a bit “over-familiar” and invasive. Many people share this reaction. My subjective reaction, however, may not reflect the attitudes of most people. You can probably figure out why squatting may work. It puts you eye to eye with your guest. You’re not standing above them looking down on them! You are “on the same level” so to speak. But the atmosphere of the restaurant may be important. Squatting down at the table is a bit casual, and in a fine dining restaurant such casual behavior may not be appropriate. On the other hand, if you work at the local pub grill, squatting may be just the thing. This does not mean, however, that you’ll want to squat down every time you go over to the table. Squatting when you first go over, or when you’re taking the order, and then standing the rest of the time, is probably best. Otherwise, it would become intrusive quite quickly.
You’re best bet is to take the formality of your restaurant into account and them make an effort to “judge the table.” Some folks may just react differently and have different expectations. Despite many loud protestations to the contrary, for the most part, squatting is well-taken. According to Lynn 4, Outback Steakhouse seems to be encouraging their waiters to squat.
Writing “Thank You” On Checks
I have to say, a nice thank you on my check, and signed with the waiter’s name, makes all the difference to me. That few seconds of time taken to write anything on my check, will usually make me want to tip more! Not long ago, our wonderful female waiter, who was in training, but pulled everything off as if she was a seasoned veteran (which I pointed out to her trainer), wrote on our ticket “Thanks for being such a wonderful table to train on!” Yeah, she got a great big tip. She would have gotten a big tip regardless, but that personal note caused me to insist on an additional 5 bucks.
According to the research available, adding thank you to a check increases the tip by the same amount as writing thank you and signing your name. Personally, I find the extra touch of signing your name to make me feel a tad more happy, but you be the judge. You could try it both ways and see what happens. Why we tip more when a waiter writes thank you is uncertain. Perhaps we want to earn that gratitude with a bigger tip. Regardless, it works. If it were me, I’d write my own little personal variations of thank you, as long as it was appreciative and friendly. I remember a waiter at our usual steakhouse (who always remembers us, amazing) who wrote “I LOVED being your server tonight. Thank you!” Yes, she capitalized loved. I loved it.
Drawing a Happy Face on Checks
The happy face. This is a trick that many female waiters seem to know. Or, maybe women just like to draw happy faces. Whatever the case, lots of female waiters do it, and evidence suggest it increases tips. A happy face means happy. When you draw one, it tends to mean you were happy to serve your customers. It also makes the interaction a bit more personal. A happy face can make a grumpy customer smile.
Male waiters do not tend to draw happy faces on checks. Perhaps, drawing a happy face is seen as feminine. The question, then, is whether it works as well for males as for females. According to one experiment, it does not. In fact, the male waiter in the experiment received less tips from his happy face customers than he did for his non-happy face customers. What’s a guy to do?
Well, just as for squatting, drawing happy faces, in general, may be too informal for some fine dining restaurants, so both male and female waiters may want to avoid it unless they work in a casual enough atmosphere.1
As to why happy faces don’t work for men, well, there is still limited research, and one study does not prove anything.
If happy faces are indeed out for men, we still don’t know exactly why. This also does not mean that other kinds of drawings, like little cartoons, would not be effective. My suggestion to male waiters would be to draw something “happy” but masculine. Don’t ask me what that may be. Lynn mentions a picture of a lobster claw at an upscale seafood restaurant. Maybe at a sports themed restaurant you could draw a picture of a football or something. I suspect that this is one of those things that’s going to work better for females. Male’s may want to write a nice personal note. Alas, males are tipped less in general.
Should You Use All of These Behaviors, or Some of Them
There is no advantage to pulling out all the stops and using every single behavior on this list. You’ll just drive yourself crazy. Where one of two of these positive behaviors may increase your tips, piling them all on top of each other will not have any additive affects. Your customers may be willing to tip more, but they have an upper threshold for how much they can be influenced to add. Using too many of these techniques may backfire, becoming too overwhelming to your customers. Most customers would agree that there is a fine balance between professional warmth and friendliness and saccharin ingratiation.
Some of these behaviors are indispensable, as they are not only conducive to tipping but are simply the basics of being a professional waiter. Smiling is not really optional and most any restaurant manager will agree. As well, introducing yourself is usually considered a fundamental behavior. Both of these are effective. You may want to develop a habit of using both of these behaviors, and experimenting with one of the other behaviors. You could, of course, mix it up.
In general, the key is being warm, positive, friendly, and helpful. Keep yourself well-groomed (use plenty deodorant!), and keep your clothing neat and tidy. I don’t have to tell you that NONE of these behaviors will matter if you fall short on the basics. Speed and attentiveness (but not over-attentiveness) are just as important to the tip as all these techniques. Menu knowledge is essential as well.
Avoid thinking of this as a game where you are trying to trick your customer into tipping more. The problem with this type of attitude is that it will be much more difficult for you to make it natural and for you self-regulate the behavior so that it becomes an automatic (and genuine) extension of your professionalism.
Another way to increase tips, but which may be out of your control, has to do with credit cards in restaurants.
Bonus Tip: Become a Customer
If you are really committed to finding ways to increase your tips, then do your research. Go out to dinner and experience being a restaurant guest as often as possible at many different restaurants (depending on what you can afford). Try to take off your waiter hat and put on your customer hat. Try to be objective and pay attention to your own reactions to the service and the behavior of the waiter, both positive and negative. Chances are that how you feel is how most people would feel. Know that there may be factors beyond your control that influence tips. You don’t cook the food, you didn’t design the restaurant, etc. If you work at a bad restaurant, no matter how loyal you feel, the only way to increase your tips may be to find a better restaurant.
Another tip: Ask the veteran. Perhaps there is a friendly and knowledgeabke veteran waiter on the staff who could give you some hard-earned tips!
Not Everyone Agrees With These Methods
Be aware that many in the industry might question the validity of any or all of these methods. For example, one fellow named Steve DiGioia, who wrote a book called Earn More Tips on Your Very Next Shift: Even If You’re a Bad Waiter, says:
I won’t waste your time telling you to crouch down table-side when you take the orders. I won’t tell you to lightly touch the guest sometime during their meal, nor to give a mint or piece of candy to the guest when you present the check. This is the nonsense I read from other “experts” in the field of making bigger tips. This is insulting and demeans the professionalism of thousands of experienced waiters.
Now, I personally find it suspect that someone who says he can help even ‘bad waiters’ earn big tips immediately is suddenly concerned with professionalism. This also seems to assume that all waiters work in formal fine dining restaurants, or should behave as if they do, which is questionable at best. But, apparently, his book is about improving your customer service so perhaps it is about turning bad waiters into good waiters. Although this would mean the title of the book makes no sense, because it doesn’t really teach you how to be a bad waiter and still make more tips, the author has been in the hotel & restaurant business, “in one manner” for over 25 years, so we can ignore the irony of telling a bad waiter they will make bigger tips by becoming, essentially, a better waiter.
For myself, one glance at the beginning of this book, with its judgmental description of some of the waiters the author supposedly knew, was enough. The author also incorrectly states that federal law allows a tipped employee to be paid much less than the federal minimum wage, which it does not. This is a frequently stated myth and you can read more about it in the article Is It True That Waiters Do Not Make Minimum Wage?
As it stands, most people base their advice for bigger tips on personal experience, or what would be called “anecdotal evidence.” Although the experience of others is something that you should definitely consider, as I’ve already stated, do not consider personal experience more valid than the type of evidence I’ve presented here. The few studies that I have discussed are just the tip of the iceberg regarding investigating tipping behavior from a social psychology or sociological standpoint, and all of this should be considered more credible evidence for general application than any one person’s personal experience.
Given all this, some of the tips in the book are quite straight-forward and sensible, such as not calling everybody at a table “guys.” I couldn’t agree more. His reason for discounting the types of methods found here? Because he thinks they are dumb and because they were repeated on a bunch of blogs and other publications. Basically, the author dismisses these things based on his personal feelings, offers no counter-evidence against them, and absolutely fails to recognize that these ideas are commonplace because they are based on the results of experimental research. Dismissing all other ideas besides those that pertain to your personal belief system may make for an entertaining 94 page book, but certainly could not explore the only possible ways to increase your tips. He says it all when he states “I don’t need anyone’s help to write this book.” The common-sense advice given in the book is no-doubt helpful, but to state that all other advice is useless is a bit over-zealous, to say the least.
- Lynn, M. (1996). Seven ways to increase servers’ tips [Electronics version]. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 37(3), 24-29.
- Furnham, Adrian. Management and Myths: Challenging the Fads, Fallacies and Fashions. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
- Kimberly Garrity and Douglas Degelman (Kimberly Garrity and Douglas Degelman, “Effect of Server Introduction on Restaurant Tipping,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology; Vol. 20, No. 2 (1990), pp. 168-172.
- Lynn, M. (1996). Seven ways to increase servers’ tips [Electronics version]. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 37(3), 24-29.