Tipping your waiter after eating at a restaurant is considered common courtesy. Traditionally, restaurants, diners, and other eating establishments usually allow the customer to decide how much they would like to tip. However, in recent years many eateries have rolled out an “automatic gratuity” policy in which the tip is involuntarily added to the bill.
How do restaurant customers feel about this new way of tipping? According to a new study from Washington State University, the vast majority aren’t fans. Surprisingly, researchers found this was the case even when the food and service had been excellent. In short, mandatory preset tips take away the customer’s ability to provide personalized monetary feedback.
Regardless of whether a meal was amazing or awful, studied customers didn’t appreciate receiving an automatic gratuity added to their bill. If it had been a great meal, patrons wanted to tip their waiters more, while patrons who had a less than stellar culinary experience wanted to tip less, or nothing at all.
Interestingly, customers who had a positive experience and wanted to tip their waiters extra actually reported feeling even more annoyed by an automatic tip than those who had a disappointing meal.
“We thought if service quality was high, people wouldn’t care if an automatic service charge was added to their bill,” says study co-author Jeff Joireman, professor and chair of the Department of Marketing and International Business at the Carson College of Business, in a release.
“People think non-voluntary tipping systems are unpopular because customers can’t punish servers for poor quality service,” he adds. But when the service was high, “we found that customers were equally frustrated by non-voluntary tipping – this time because they couldn’t reward their servers.”
Perhaps most importantly for restaurants to consider, across both scenarios (great/poor dining experience) customers who were given a mandatory tip to pay said they probably wouldn’t return for another meal.
They say it’s better to give than to get, and lead study author Ismail Karabas, assistant professor of marketing at Murray State University, believes that rewarding a waiter after a great meal is a much bigger part of the “restaurant experience” than many may realize.
“Being able to reward the server makes customers feel good,” he explains. “That’s part of the restaurant experience.”
Robbing this feeling from patrons ultimately devalues the entire dining out experience, and can even encourage a sense of resentment toward the restaurant in general. A frustrated customer may find themselves thinking something along the lines of: “If the owner of this place won’t let me properly tip their waiters, why should I give them my business at all?”
“Their ability to show their gratitude has been blocked,” Karabas continues. “They have fewer positive feelings about the restaurant experience, and they’re less likely to eat there again.”
So, it’s clear from this research that restaurant customers value a sense of control while patronizing an eating establishment. How can eateries provide that while still maintaining an automatic gratuity policy? The study’s authors have some ideas.
“Based on what we know about blocked gratitude, I would look for ways to give customers the feeling they are still the ones leaving the tip, even though it’s added automatically,” Karabas speculates. “It could be as simple as saying, ‘You tipped your server 18% today. Thank you.'”
Besides that idea, researchers also suggest providing feedback cards for customers to fill out for their servers. This may help re-establish a sense of rewarding (or admonishing) waiters for their service. Another idea is to add an additional line for an “extra tip” on top of the automatic gratuity.
Automatic tips are intended to make life easier for customers by simplifying the payment process, while simultaneously facilitating a more even distribution of tip money to all employees (waiters, cooks, busboys). But, this study effectively confirms that there are disadvantages to consider as well – even if the service and food are impeccable.
“High-quality service does not compensate for the negative customer response to a non-voluntary tipping system,” Karabas concludes. “Managers may think ‘We’re fine as long as we provide good service,’ but we found that’s just not true.”
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Services Marketing.