If you’re a restaurant server, you know how important tips are to your personal bottom line. According to PayScale.com, the average hourly wage for servers is $5.30.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is lower than that for workers in other kinds of positions. In almost half of all U.S. states, that wage is below $3 an hour. So it’s not surprising that tips make up a big percentage of total income for restaurant servers — as much as 70%, according to one survey.


donut graph showing 70%
is how much tips can make up of restaurant servers’ total income

In the U.S., the standard tipping rate at sit-down restaurants is about 15%-20% (although there are definitely regional differences). You’re probably always looking for ways to nudge your customers to leave bigger tips. However, it isn’t as simple as resolving to provide great service every time. You have to first understand what customers really value in their interactions with you. And it helps to know a few other strategies for getting them in a generous frame of mind. Here’s how to master the psychology of tipping:


1. Establish reciprocity

To start off, take a few minutes to watch this video on earning better tips. It may be short on production values, but it’s long on wisdom. The speaker, Patrick, seems to be an experienced and savvy server. The video is filled with great advice throughout, but we especially like the overarching theme: When you’re generous in providing value to customers, they’ll be generous when they’re tipping. Patrick is hitting on an important concept in psychology: reciprocity. We all have a natural tendency to want to repay someone for a gift or a favor. Your “gift” to the customer doesn’t have to be something elaborate or time-consuming. Even drawing a smiley face on the receipt can lead to bigger tips.

A relaxed customer talking to friendly waiter2. Learn how to read your customers

Will you get better tips if you’re chatty and friendly or if you focus on being super-efficient? It depends on the customer. Size up how a customer is feeling and then determine your approach based on your perceptions. It’s worth your time to learn some common body language cues. For example, a customer who’s fidgeting or tapping his feet might be in a hurry. Showing that you’re expediting his order might help you land a better tip. On the other hand, a customer who’s showing more relaxed body language – like leaning back on his side of the booth — is probably more open to being charmed by conversation.

3. Send the right signals

Managing your own body language is also important. One key thing to convey is that you’re paying attention to what your customers are saying. Show that you’re listening by leaning slightly forward, nodding and smiling. Should your body language with customers ever include physical contact? This is contentious territory, but Psychology Today reports this: “Female servers who touch customers lightly on the shoulder, hand, or arm receive higher tips.” (By the way, this is true whether the customer is male or female.)

4. Show some individuality

Judging from research findings, you’ll get better tips if you can work in some reminders to your customers that you’re a real, unique person. According to the BBC’s Future website, servers who tell customers their names get better tips than those who do not. Want to take it a step further? Develop a signature personal style. That’s according to Michael Lynn of the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, who’s a leading expert on tipping. For example, wear a special pin. (Although we’d never recommend that you load yourself down with as much “flair” as Jennifer Aniston’s character is told to sport in the movie “Office Space.”)


5. Don’t forget to smile

It’s familiar advice, but another strategy from Dr. Lynn of Cornell is to never underestimate the power of a smile to inspire tips. Not in the mood to crack a smile? If you have to resort to faking, remember that your smile will look more real if your eyes are smiling, too – aka “smizing.” Luckily, smizing expert Tyra Banks has some tips for the rest of us on mastering this art.

6. Finish strong

Even if there have been a few glitches during the meal, you still have the chance to come away with a decent tip. That’s because of a scientific principle called the recency effect. This is a fancy way of saying that the last part of an experience is what we recall the most. The takeaway here is that finding a way to show your appreciation right before the customer decides on a tip amount can really pay off. Maybe this is another reason that simple little smiley face on the receipt is so powerful!


The overall themes here? Paying attention, customizing your approach with customers and showing warmth in your own genuine way should all help you take home bigger tips.


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