Tipping Points – Five Lessons in Persuasion From Food Servers.

Posted by Eily | Dec 13, 2013 2:01:51 AM

By Steve Martin, CMCTiStock_000015667980Medium

The humble restaurant has a number of features that make it a great place to better understand human decision making and study persuasion. Crowds of diners ensure that large numbers of homogeneous transactions take place. The menus, wine lists and daily specials board serve up endless opportunities for choice architecture. And then there’s the army of food servers, keen to deploy a variety of strategies all designed with one primary purpose in mind—to persuade us to leave a bigger tip.

Even though many will claim to be immune to such influences, numerous studies have demonstrated an array of tactics that food servers can use to persuade diners to part with a few extra bucks. In the last INSIDE INFLUENCE REPORT of 2013 here are five such strategies, together with a brief explanation of how you can use the same insight to improve your own powers of persuasion whether you are in sales, marketing, communications or management. And please feel free to use the comments section to highlight other strategies that you have witnessed being used (either on you or by you).

1. Repeating back the order – word for word

Ever been left sitting at your table wondering whether the cheeseburger you ordered will be transformed into a chicken sandwich because the person taking your order replied “OK” or, worse still, didn’t acknowledge your order at all? Research by Rick van Baaren found that food servers who exactly repeated back their customers’ order increased their tip size by almost 70% compared to saying “OK!” or “coming right up!” The researchers believe that exactly matching the words of others creates feelings of liking and strengthens relationships. You can strengthen relationships and your subsequent influence attempts too by listening carefully, taking notes and repeating back the exact same words spoken to you to demonstrate that you understand—a process known as ‘parrot-phrasing’ rather than paraphrasing.

2. It’s not the candy but how it is given

iStock_000003980701SmallResearcher David Strohmetz found that food servers who placed a candy for each diner alongside the bill typically increased their tips by 3%. When they left two candies, tips went up by 14.1%. But it was a third strategy that led to the most impressive result. After leaving a single candy for each diner at the table, if the server returned with a second candy a few moments later—as if to say “for you nice people here’s an extra candy”—the unexpectedness of this extra ‘gift’ led to an impressive 21% increase in tips. The lesson when persuading others is clear. Be sure to provide service, information and help that is significant and unexpected because doing so obligates people to you more.

3. Present the bill on a tray with a credit card insignia

Patrons will often be persuaded to leave a larger gratuity if the bill comes on a tray embossed with the logo of a credit card company although they are unlikely to realize it at the time. According to Michael Lynn from the School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University the increase can be as much as 25%. It’s not just credit card logos that can have this unconscious priming effect on behavior. People eat less from a buffet if they are given smaller plates and vote more conservatively if the voting booth is located in a church rather than a school. The implications for those in the business of persuading others is clear; paying attention to the subtle, but important environmental factors in which a request is made, can be just as important as the request itself.

iStock_000013155156Large4. Wear red

Waitresses who wore red shirts or applied red lipstick garnered significantly higher tips from male patrons compared to when they wore black, white or blue shirts or pink, brown or no lipstick. Researcher Nicolas Guéguen, who carried out the studies, suggests that the positive perceptions associated with the color, such as arousal and health, might explain why men gave more tips to the waitresses wearing red. Although a red shirt or lipstick appeared to make no difference in how female patrons tipped, other research has found that women find men who wear red generally more attractive and desirable.

So color really does matters chaps! [Look out for more on the influence of color in future IIRs. Ed]

5. Place the bill on a heart shaped tray

When diners received their check on a heart shaped plate the amount of tip they left was 17% higher than if the check came on a round plate and 15% higher than when it came on the square plate. What’s going on? The researchers believe that when people are exposed to a sign that is synonymous with love it activates other behaviors associated with love, which in this case were the helping and giving behaviors connected to tipping. So make sure your kids draw a big red heart on the top of their sponsorship sheet before next week’s swimming gala.


But what if the establishment automatically includes the tip?

If you can’t influence the percentage of the check then the only option left is to increase the amount spent. How? A study by Sybil Yang and her colleagues showed that guests can be persuaded to spend more when menu prices are presented without dollar signs. One potential explanation for this finding is that references to dollars, either through words or symbols, can remind people of the pain of paying.

However, whether that means that big proposal you’ve been working on will get the green light simply because you’ve removed the $ in front of all those zeros remains to be seen.

Happy Holidays!


What strategies have you seen (or even used) to persuade customers to leave a bigger gratuity?

How could you use some of these strategies to increase the effectiveness of your persuasion attempts?


van Baaren. R. B., Holland , R. W., Steenaert, B., & van Knippenberg, A. (2003). Mimicry for money. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 393-398.


Strohmetz, D. B., Rind, B., Fisher, R., & Lynn, M. (2002). The Use of Candy to Increase Restaurant Tipping. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(2), 300-309.

Richard A. Feinberg, “Credit Cards as Spending Facilitating Stimuli. Journal of Consumer Research, 13 (1986), pp. 348-356.


Guéguen, Nicolas, and Céline Jacob. (2012). "Clothing color and tipping. Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research


Guéguen, N. (2013). The effect of cardioid dishes on tipping behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(8), 1745–1749.

Yang, Sybil S., Sheryl E. Kimes, and Mauro M. Sessarego. (2009) Menu price presentation International Journal of Hospitality Management

Topics: Inside Influence Report