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How to handle an under-tipping customer

Question:

Should I confront a guest who under-tipped a server? What would be the best way to approach the guest?

– Restaurant Manager, New York, NY

Answer:

Many restaurants have a policy that neither a server nor a manager is to question a guest’s tip.  Since tipping is voluntary, goes the rationale, guests will leave what they like and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

My advice is different—if a guest stiffs or significantly under-tips and a server brings it to management’s attention while the guest is still in the establishment, I recommend quietly asking the guest if everything was to his or her satisfaction.  If the guest responds in the negative, whether or not the server was to blame, the guest expressed her or his displeasure in the tip.  If the guest responds in the positive, you can point out that you just wanted to make sure everything was OK because the tip amount seemed inconsistent with satisfactory service.

There are a few reasons I recommend broaching the topic:

  • A guest may have a legitimate complaint and, rather than verbally complaining, is justifiably or inappropriately expressing her dissatisfaction through the low tip.  Having this discussion may allow you to correct the problem for this and future guests and prevent the complaint from coming out later in discussions, social networking or review sites. 
  • Some guests, especially foreign visitors and young diners, may simply not know norms for tipping and appreciate the lesson. 
  • It may have been a simple mistake.  I am not a math whiz at the best of times and after a few drinks the numbers get tricky. I once inadvertently under-tipped due to a calculation error and didn’t notice until I looked at the receipt the next morning.  I would have been thankful if a manager pointed out my error—and the server would have been thankful too.
  • Servers will feel some loyalty and satisfaction with you and the operation if you are at least willing to have the conversation with the guest.  The same cannot be said if you take the approach that the guest is always right.

The counter-argument, that intervening with the guest will anger him and alienate a guest is worth considering, but is outweighed by the points above. After all, if the guest is dissatisfied, he will not return anyway.

Kurt Sippel, Chef-Owner of Downtown Atlantic in Brooklyn, NY agrees, "Yes I do think it is acceptable to approach people that do not tip well if the service and the food were OK…. If everything was OK then I would question the small tip and explain the average tip rate of 15 to 20% is the rate in New York.  I find with Europeans the tip is usually low."

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