Sunday, April 19, 2015

To tip or not to tip

Tipping is expected in restaurants, cabs, and a variety of other service industries.  At its most basic, the concept is simple -- the customer is in the best position to judge service quality, so why not have an incentive scheme where the voice of the customer speaks loudly?

Once you think more deeply about the motives associated with tipping, it starts to sound less appealing.  In many cases a customer will be at a particular establishment only once, so there is no financial penalty if the customer is a cheapskate and leaves no tip at all.  Also, service depends on a number of factors beyond the control of the person being tipped; the waiter cannot control backups in the kitchen and cabbies cannot control crosstown traffic.  Customers do not know that and penalize waiters unjustly.

A recent WP article reports that more restaurants are moving to a flat 20% service charge, and some are using this revenue stream to raise wages.  The benefit to employees is quite clear -- a steadier and larger stream of income.  Also most customers tip the same percentage (around 20% actually) all the time, so this process is not such a radical departure.

But what do customers get?  Now instead of voting with their tip dollars, customers would have to communicate directly with management about good and not so good service.  If they speak up, this would actually help management make more informed personnel decisions.  However, a customer might just as easily keep quiet about poor service and simply take his business elsewhere.

Shared tips or a flat fee also create incentives for waiters to cooperate, something management should encourage.  Finally, regardless of whether the waits get paid by tips or a percentage fee, I will still usually hear "Dr. Allen would you like to see the dessert menu?"  Restaurant owners will still have an incentive to get you to buy more.

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