The Tipping Scale: Customer Gratuity and Quality of Service

Guest Bloggers: Curtis Phillabaum and Ruth Whipple

Servers and wait staff deal with it all--heavy trays, plates with strangers’ food remains rude customers and neck-breathing management. A treasure trove of memes, Facebook posts, and popular articles chronicle the often grotesque conditions of serving strangers a meal and cleaning up after them. Many people (even some of our readers) likely waited tables in high school, college, or now as a career. If you haven’t, it’s not hard to imagine the horrors involved in the service industry (Kitchen Nightmares is a show for a reason). Often, former servers vehemently suggest “everyone should wait tables at least once in their life,” as it builds character, a tough armor against criticism, valuable social skills, and unique perspective-taking. And, quite frankly, all of that is true.

Stories of sexual harassment, verbal (and physical) aggressions, and other dehumanizing acts toward servers have led to the poignantly termed Waitmare experience. No doubt serving is one of the toughest and most undesirable jobs in America. If that weren’t enough, poor tipping lives in this vein and acts as a key player affecting the quality of service for an individual server and the restaurant as a whole. For servers, they’re operating under two sets of contingencies: customer-server as one, management-server as another.

So, in restaurants where things are going right--great service, happy employees, and satisfied customers--what contingencies are at play? Recent research has demonstrated improved customer service doesn’t necessarily lead to better tipping. If that’s the case, what are top-ranked restaurants doing to make it all work? The customer-server relationship is only one-half of the powerful contingency that promotes and maintains stellar customer service, and when tips aren’t reinforcing such behavior, it places strain on the management-server contingency. In other words, restaurant managers need sturdier and more reliable consequences than that of customer tipping. Science-based performance management tactics might just be the bon appétit of behavior to make it all happen.

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM)

Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), an applied arm of behavior analysis, offers strategies to precisely define and measure business outcomes and the employee behaviors that lead to those outcomes. OBM has a long history of improving employee performance when contingencies are at odds, like in the case of the restaurant server. For example, restaurants grip to customer satisfaction measures to predict retention and profit increases. If satisfaction is their primary goal, managers might begin with an OBM technique like reverse engineering to identify the front end behaviors that contribute to the larger outcome. OBM suggests that a focus on individual employee behavior is what helps meet more overarching objectives rather than fussing with other arbitrary metrics. Supervisors then have ammunition to shape and reinforce the critical behaviors that help achieve the company’s growing need and interest. Leaders can also clearly communicate expectations to everyone, enabling them to accurately measure the performance they’re reinforcing, determine if it’s working, and most importantly, know if it’s driving business results.

OBM and performance management research also favors this approach. Reetz, Whiting, and Dixon (2016) recently demonstrated success in developing and implementing a task list of critical server behaviors to produce optimal customer service. The team pinpointed and tracked the following server behaviors in a Midwest dine-in restaurant:

  1. Welcomes customers to the restaurant and table
  2. States their name to the customer
  3. Immediately takes drink orders
  4. Suggests specific appetizers to order
  5. Refills drinks before they are empty
  6. Suggests a specific dessert to order
  7. Says “Thank you for coming in.”
  8. Says “We hope to see you again soon!”

In this study, a manager selected three low performing waitresses who engaged, on average, in only 36% of the critical behaviors. Items 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8 were most commonly missed and the one's researchers targeted during training.

Interventions Served Just Right!

Reetz and colleagues used a packaged intervention that included task clarification and feedback to improve the server’s performance. Prior to each shift, researchers would brief servers on the targeted task, share examples of how to incorporate it into their routine, and offer opportunities to role-play. Participants were given a blank copy of the task completion datasheet to reference whenever necessary. After customers departed, participants received task-specific feedback. Researchers reviewed the completed data sheet with the server, highlighted examples of tasks completed correctly and incorrectly, and delivered intermittent verbal praise.

waitress counting tipsEach participant’s task performance was observed across 15 tables or approximately 3 to 5 workdays, and the results indicated an average increase of 50 percent. That’s ~85.1% completion. Good stuff! This study adds to the growing literature on using task clarification and feedback as an intervention in the service industry (Austin, Weatherly, & Gravina, 2005; LaFleur & Hyten, 1995).

Reetz and colleagues further explored the relationship between improved staff performance and the size of customer gratuities. Unfortunately, they found no significant difference, concluding “a happy customer is a customer who might not leave a better tip!” Restaurants are customer-service driven businesses and without contingent gratuities that reinforce behavior and reflect the improved experience, it’s not likely to stick. “Dine and dash” and getting “stiffed” will continue to happen to even the best of servers.

Lesson Learned?

Restaurant owners and managers are the backbones of high-quality service. They shouldn’t solely rely on customer tips as the main source of consequences; they, too, have an obligation of being present and shaping server behavior to keep staff happy and motivated. If not, they’re likely to fall short and end with unhappy customers and even unhappier employees. Again, there’s not one but two (or more) sets of contingencies in action, and if not thoughtfully managed, managers might find more than their customers out to lunch.

Make Managers the Entrée: Directions for Future Research

Reetz, Whiting, and Dixon looked at server-customer behaviors. Future research might explore how managers can be the primary source of reinforcement, measuring their own behavior with wait staff providing them feedback on efforts to observe and reinforce employee behavior consistently. Input from wait staff and recognition toward that end can keep the art of good service happening everywhere.

Next Steps:

Learn more about OBM through Florida Tech/ABA Technologies’ OBM Applied! courses.

OBM Applied! guides students in designing, implementing, and evaluating an organizational behavior management project in conjunction with a sponsoring organization. The course includes reading assignments, exercises, and online sessions to support the development and implementation of an OBM project.

Continuing Education (CE) courses are another way to learn more about some of the concepts inspired by this post:

Behavioral Approaches for Designing Instruction Course Pic


Wisdom Factor Course Pic


Behavioral Systems Analysis Course Pic


Behavior Based Safety Course Pic


Oops! Time Management course info


Curtis Phillabaum headshotCurtis Phillabaum is a second-year Master’s student at Florida Tech studying both Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Organizational Behavior Management (OBM). He received his Bachelor’s degree in Biology (Animal Behavior concentration) from Florida Atlantic University. Curtis comes to Behavior Analysis and OBM following a career in training and caring for exotic animals, interested in turnover, employee satisfaction, and performance management. His current research is focused on employee task completion related to using checklists and feedback mechanisms in animal care facilities. Curtis was a TA for OBM Applied, April 2018!

Ruth WhippleRuth Whipple is a second-year Master’s student at Florida Tech studying both Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Organizational Behavior Management (OBM). In 2013, she received a B.A. in Speech Pathology and Audiology from the University of North Texas. Ruth has worked in the field of ABA and OBM for the last five years. She previously interned with ABA Technologies, Inc. and worked in clinical settings with individuals with autism. In the future, Ruth hopes to apply OBM to issues found in healthcare and human-service settings.



Austin, J., Weatherly, N.L., & Gravina, N.E. (2005). Using task clarification, graphic feedback, and verbal feedback to increase closing-task competition in a privately owned restaurant. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 38, 117-120.

LaFleur, T., & Hyten, C. (1995). Improving the quality of hotel banquet staff performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 15, 69–93.

Reetz, N.K., Whiting, S.W., & Dixon, M. R. (2006). The impact of a task clarification and feedback intervention on restaurant service quality. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 36, 322-331.

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