A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

The Psychology of Tipping

A range of factors influence a seemingly simple transaction.

Tipping is not a trivial matter. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of restaurant diners tip their servers, to the tune of about 10 percent of each check. If you include part-timers, there may be as many as 1 million people employed in the serving business, and a substantial portion of their income is based on tips.

So it pays for servers to learn how to maximize their tips—and many have.

Social scientists have indeed researched tipping interactions, with results published in such august journals as the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly. Researchers have concentrated in large part on behaviors that maximize customers' tips. The research is rigorous, and potentially important in understanding customer service in general. Certainly it presents a clear way to measure consumer satisfaction—hard cash. Further, experiments can systematically vary particular server behaviors to ensure that each relevant scenario and its outcome is examined.

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What the research has shown is that some strategies systematically work and others do not. And these results have implications for all service business. Why do we tip waiters, hairdressers, and taxi drivers but not nurses, shop assistants, and tradespeople is unclear—and much debated. Nevertheless, the findings from server studies are equally applicable to these other service careers.

Three classes of variables seem to predict tipping:

1. Smile, and Cash In

The first is a class of interactional behaviors including a whole range of server behaviors that have been demonstrated to have a modest but noticeably positive effect on tips because they personalize of the service:

  • Touching the customer discretely, lightly, and in a neutral part (such as the forearm while laying down a napkin).
  • Squatting during initial contact at the table to ensure that eye contact is at the same level, or preferably in a position where the (all-)powerful customer is higher than the server.
  • Making additional "non-task" visits, but discretely and in moderation, just to check that all is well and nothing extra is required.
  • Smiling warmly and genuinely when greeting the customer and remaining pleasant and optimistic.
  • Introducing themselves by name—which personalizes service much better than wearing a name badge.
  • Even factors like writing "Thank You!" or drawing a cartoon on the bill works (at least in the U.S.).

We now know that appearing helpful, positive, warm and friendly makes a big difference in terms of tips. The question is: Why are so many servers surly and eye-contact avoidant, when they can presumably control these factors? Have they not read the literature? Have they never been a restaurant customer themselves? Perhaps not.

2. The Fast and the Well-Compensated

The second class is easy to predict but absolutely crucial, although not always within the control of the server. It is speed. At three points in the dining experience, speed of response is particularly important—delivery of drinks and menu, and taking of the order; delivery of the food; and delivery of the bill. The latter may be the most important as it most closely impacts the customer's mood as he or she considers the tip.

At each juncture, it's more about optimal speed than maximum speed. Waiters who are too eager to turn you out through lightning-quick service, and who continually fill your wine glass can be as unpleasant as those who disappear, dither, or delay. The trick is to understand what the customer wants—and the clues are not difficult to read. Get the timing right and the tip increases.

3. Give and You Shall Receive

Finally, there is the free gift approach—the complimentary, mouthful full-size aperitif as one sips one's drink; the truffle proffered with the bill. If a server believes in the primary effect (first impressions count most) he or she would place the gift early on; if a server believes in the recency effect (that which came most recently has the strongest effect) he or she would provide the gift at the end.

The idea is that gifts tend to be reciprocated. Most people feel obliged to reciprocate acts of generosity—even if those acts were neither requested nor anticipated. That is how wine tasting works: When customers in a wine shop get a small "free" taste of wine, they're suddenly more prepared to pay for a full bottle, even if it ends up costing more than they'd pay elsewhere.

X Factors

There are other factors beyond the control of the server or even restaurant management:

  • Tips have been shown in studies to be, at least in part, a function of the weather: Sunny days lead to happier moods and more generous diners, for example.
  • Tipping can also be a function of whether and how much guests drink: More alcohol, in many cases, leads to less rational judgement and bigger tips.
  • Tipping can be a function of the size of a party. in this case, more people tends to lead to proportionately lower tips.
  • And tips are also about whether expectations about the quality and quantity of food, the ambience of the restaurant, and the cost of the evening have been fulfilled, all of which is largely beyond the control of serving staff.

Tips are sometimes about chemistry: If a customer really fancies a charming or attractive server, he or she may tip higher to impress them. Occasionally, servers observe that that (likely insecure) men try to impress others, especially a date, with a munificent tip.

Of course, excellent food helps servers considerably—and higher-end restaurants typically attract more "high roller" diners with more money to spread about.

The moral of the story: Studies on tipping provide useful tips for managers on what customers value and desire, and therefore, important guidance for training and rewarding service staff in a range of  industries.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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