Observations From a Tipless Restaurant, Postscript 3: Tips Mean That No One Is Listening

This is a postscript to a series detailing what I learned from operating our farm-to-table flagship restaurant, the Linkery, as a “no-tipping” restaurant that instead charged a fixed percentage for service, from 2006 to 2013. During the writing of the series, I received a lot of great comments and questions that I’m covering in a few postscripts. Click here to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

For a lot of folks, when they get bad service in a restaurant, they feel obliged to do something about it.

Now, if you get bad service from a sporting goods store clerk or the appliance service technician, and you want to take action, you’ll probably contact a manager. Maybe by email, maybe in person, maybe right then, maybe after the fact. You’ll let the manager know that there is a problem.

In a restaurant, however, the way we are taught to send that message, is by tipping less or not at all.

When you send a message via a low or nonexistent tip, one of three things happen:

1) The server thinks that you are cheap, and that’s the extent of it.

2) If the server knows that you were expressing particular dissatisfaction, and the issue was clearly someone else’s fault, they most likely will let that person know there was a problem. However, the server likely won’t tell a manager, because no one likes a tattletale. An exception to this is if one person is repeatedly making mistakes.

3) If the server knows that you were expressing particular dissatisfaction, and the issue was the server’s fault or if fault is unclear, the server won’t tell anyone about it. There no point in the server getting himself in trouble.

Basically, the end result of sending your message with a tip is that no one is listening to you.

As managers, one of the biggest benefits of our service charge policy was that because we were charging for a specific service, our guests were much more likely to let us know if there was a problem with it — just like customers do in other industries. Obviously, our goal was to not have problems at all, but given that mistakes do happen, we could fix them more quickly because we would hear about them more quickly.

Similarly, in a tipped restaurant if there’s a problem, and you say something to the server about it, their response is likely to be to worry about their tip. So the server will often give you something for free (which, depending on the restaurant’s system, might basically entail stealing it from the restaurant). In my observation this is much more about trying to create the obligation for payment in kind (with a tip) than it is about trying to solve the problem.

Sometimes comping an item is what will make a guest feel better about a bad situation. But it’s often ineffective. From my experience as a guest, what I want when there’s a problem is for a person (usually a manager) to listen to the issue, sympathize with my point of view, and take action to correct the problem. Free stuff isn’t really relevant.

In a no-tipping environment, when you the guest bring up a problem, the server is free to listen and address your problem.

At the Linkery, our policy was to remove the service charge if there was a significant problem with a guest’s experience. This happened rarely, and over the course of a pay period the financial effect wouldn’t be big, so the server didn’t really have to worry about the money. Instead, we asked the server to always bring a manager in to address any problem. The system wasn’t perfect, sometimes a server would be too slow to bring a manager in, but at least we didn’t have tip concerns getting in the way of a successful resolution. And we would know what we had to improve.

I’ve also noticed that people in general turn their ears off once the subject of tipping comes up.

My Rule #1 in life is “never read the comments”, but as this blog series has become popular I’ve read through a couple forum discussions about it. One thing that really strikes me is how many people are compelled to share their personal tipping policy. A key point of this blog series is that most people have their own policy, and the difference in tipping practices among individuals is so big that any given tip contains no information. But I think that the people who can’t wait to tell you how they tip, are missing that point. They’re not listening; and from what I can see, they’re also not being listened to.

That’s the thing about tipping: it embodies a lot of messages — and no one is listening to them.

Click here to proceed to Postscript 4.