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Do you need to provide staff with a rationale for a lower tip?

Let's say that you normally tip at least 20%, and you receive poor service in a restaurant and want to tip 10% instead. Are you ethically obligated to let the waiter or manager know that you were dissatisfied with the service, or does the tip speak for itself? There are times when I want to tip less, but I don't want to have a big confrontation with the staff (either because I know if would ruin the whole experience for my dining companions, or because I am in a hurry and simply do not have time to track down elusive staff and then deal with the issue). But then I wonder how the waiter will interpret a lower tip--will he realize that the service was subpar? Or will he just assume I am cheap? And even if he assumes the worst (of me, not his service), does that really matter, since I am entitled to tip accordingly if the service is bad? My problem is, there have been situations in which I have been reluctant to confront the waiter or management about problems, and also reluctant to be misperceived as cheap, so I pretty much always end up leaving at least 15% even if the service is terrible, simply because I don't want to deal with the situation. Any thoughts about this issue?

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  1. You will be perceived as cheap. This doesn't have to matter to you by any means, but why not turn it into an opportunity? A good solution is to pay by credit card and leave a note for the server on the charge slip... although then the management might see it, and that could have bad results (especially if the server is unaware of his/her shortcoming and genuinely wants to improve). So I guess the better idea might be to leave a note on a separate piece of paper, kindly (emphasis on kindly) explaining what your issue was. On the flip side, a note of praise is never a bad idea, when deserved. I got a note -- along with a very generous tip -- from a customer maybe 13 years ago now. It said, "Excellent service! You should open up a school for servers!" I still have it, and it still makes me happy.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ctscorp

      It depends. There are nights when I just got completely weeded and KNEW my guests were mad about something but it was just one of those nights where everything was wrong - some my fault and some just "circumstances" (such as running out of teaspoons. What IS IT with restaurants and not ordering enough teaspoons. I would love to work some place on a Saturday night that doesn't involve the server selling dessert and/or coffee which results in a mad hunt for teaspoons while ALL my tables wait, usually ending with hastily grabbing some out of the dish area, hand washing them myself, drying them and running them out to the dining room, by which time EVERYONE is annoyed. But I digress).

      People screw up. When I screwed up, I tried to make up for it and be nice but once people are mad it's hard to get them back on your side even if you do everything right. At one restaurant where I worked it was SUCH a particular issue of when to place the entree order. If they order apps you have to wait, and time and time again I would get so busy I would all of a sudden look over and see my table has finished their app and oh no, I forgot to send their entree order! So you order it on the fly, run back and get salads and try to come up with a decent sounding excuse such as the kitchen being backed up (which it usually is). Now the kitchen hates you along with your guests for asking for something on the fly, and no matter what you do you know they're going to leave a lousy tip. And probably so will all your other tables as they've all suffered because of a problem with ONE, be it the teaspoon problem or a new silverware request or forgetting to send the entree order or whatever.

      when I've given less than great service I am not surprised if the tip is low. But if I *think* I've given good service or that there isn't anything I'm aware of that put the guest off and they leave a low tip, yes, I think they're cheap.

      So IMO the answer is if the service was obviously bad and you could tell the server knew it (they were apologizing for a mistake or problem, for example) and you tip low, they'll expect it. If they don't seem to have a clue and you've taken offense to something they clearly don't know about, whether it's because the server referred to your table as "ya'll" or made a joke you didn't like or touched her hair or whatever your issue is, no, they won't automatically know, they'll just think you're a cheap tipper and it's very frustrating. At first you look at it going, "WTF. What did I do?!" and when you can't come up with anything, you just think "Cheap b*stards." and go about the rest of your evening. If there is really something you think should be brought to their attention that EVERYONE would find problematic and the server obviously had no clue about, maybe you should let the manager know. (i.e., don't pick on little things that are just personal preferences, and if they tried to suggestive sell you something or upsell your item, that's just part of the job) I don't think I would take kindly to both a rotten tip and a nasty note; I'd much rather receive the criticism from my manager once my busy shift is over so it's not upsetting me the whole rest of the night. But that's just me.

    2. If you're leaving less than 15% under any circumstances, you need to make some sort of effort to let them know why. A poor tip is akin to constructive criticism only if you can substantiate it, otherwise it's little more than an insult.

      The serving staff and managers are not mindreaders--once you're out the door, the opportunity for constructive criticism is lost and you're viewed as nothing more than a cheapskate.

      5 Replies
      1. re: tubman

        It never occurred to me to have a conversation with a server about their performance as to why I am tipping them a sub par amount (-15%) unless it is a glaring problem and then I would get the manager involved. I am pretty verbal during a meal and if the server is sincerely trying to do their best I can over look a lot but if I figure if the server is too obtuse to get it during the meal, it's not worth the effort after the fact. I figure the tip speaks for itself-mediocre service=mediocre tip. Great service=great tip.

        1. re: Fru

          It doesn't though, really. There are people you clearly have given great service to who thank you effusively for this, that or the other and then they leave you 10%. Or less.

            1. re: rockandroller1

              Well, I cannot speak on the behalf of the obtuse diner who doesn't get it either.

          1. re: tubman

            If a restaurant wants me to train its servers and give constructive criticism, it can put me on the payroll. Otherwise, it's not my job to make sure the server interprets my tip correctly.

          2. To provide the short answer to your Title specific, the answer is no. There are only two conclusions to be drawn from the 10% tip. First you were less than satisfied, or second, you are a poor tipper, hence cheap. The onus is never on the customer to provide a reason for your gratuity. Why should your day or evening be disrupted with a confrontation the other side may not agree with or resent. I would imagine in most cases as this, the customer would not usually return for another visit,,,,,but if your intention is to return another time.......a discussion would be welcomed for both the patron and establishment so you should never have another poor experience. Another way to handle this is to draft a letter to the establishment via e-mail or USPS and convey your thoughts. If you do this anonymously, expect nothing, but if you provide your contact information, you should expect a response........form your opinion on the specific establishment then.

            4 Replies
            1. re: fourunder

              Based on my experience with an uncaring server and an equally uncaring manager, my answer is no.

              1. re: fourunder

                I totally agree with this. And I strongly recommend a letter.

                Regardless of what business you're in, in this day of text messages and emails, when a customer takes the time to write and mail a letter it makes a statement. If the manager doesn't jump up and take notice of your letter, smile, move on and think happy thoughts of the high restaurants failure rate.

                1. re: fourunder

                  Completely agree fourunder. The customer does not owe anyone anything in the way of an explanation. For many a confrontation is not what they had planned for the evening. They just want to pay and leave if they were unhappy. If you want to speak up by all means do so but you do not need to provide the staff with a rationale for a lower tip.

                  1. re: fourunder

                    I rarely undertip, but if I do I:

                    a) Feel no reason to explain my actions to anyone
                    b) Don't really care if they think I'm a bad tipper or not. That's what they'll likely assume though, because everyone is so durned entitled these days.
                    c) Also don't get into the whole (silly, IMO) notion that 99% of things "aren't the server's fault". I really don't care. If I enjoy my experience I tip well. If I don't, I don't tip well. Carrot, stick.

                  2. There are a couple of questions laid out.

                    - Leaving less than your normal - absolutely leave what you feel is justified. If you are concerned that someone who offered you less than adequate service might think less of you, so be it. Life is too short to worry about everyone's opinions, especially those that are not performing up to standards.

                    - Letting mgt know - this basically has two answers. jfood is of the opinion that mentoring always pays dividends. is this confrontational? not if done properly. if the service was less than deserved, jfood always mentions on the way out the door to the MOD, with one exception. If he is with a group and does not want to change the flow, then he would contact the next day. so the two answers are (1) if it does not disrupt the rest of the evening then do on the way out, and (2) if it might disrupt, then call the next day.

                    - Confrontational - if it gets to anywhere close to confrontational then just leave, should never get close to that standard.

                    - Server knowing - most will, but jfood had a bottom 5 servers of all time once and jfood actually went to zero on the tip. he spoke to the MOD on the way out. And while he was waiting for the car he saw the MOD chat with the server and the server was defending his actions. So 99% of the servers will know when their game was off, but there are those one or two cases when the server is bad and clueless (not a good combo for the future either).

                    - Confronted by the server for less than his expectations - If a server ever confronted jfood on this, jfood would apologize and ask for the slip back. He would then take the slip to the MOD and tell him/her about the totally unprofessional confrontation his empolyee just exhibited and take the tip to zero. The MOD can handle the conversation with the server as inside baseball. Never, never, never confront the customer.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: jfood

                      I think "never, never, never" confronting the customer is a bit hard and fast. Customers sometimes make mistakes with their math, especially after a few cocktails. There are discreet ways of letting the customer know that you think they may have made a math error. At my restaurant, the server will simply return the change (even if already told the change all set), usually with the checkbook open, so the bill total and the change are easily visible. This almost always works for simple math errors, and is non-confrontational.

                      If there is a bad tip left without explanation, for "good" service, we just think you're cheap.

                      1. re: invinotheresverde

                        "Confront" is the key word. Server should NEVER confront the customer and the customer should NEVER confront the server. So yes, it is hard and fast with confrontational.

                        Your "is non-confrontational" is the key. But that is such a tough discussion to have for several reasons. And it's not the first question and how that is phrased, i.e. Server says "Thank you very much for joining us tonight, was everything OK with the food and service?" Then the slipery slope begins

                        - "Yes everything was fine". What does the server say? Does s/he question the tip, then the confrontational line is crossed
                        - "The food was not very good". Does the server state that the kitchen prepares the food and it should not be reflected in the tip. Once again might be over the confrontational line
                        - "Your service was not up to par for the following reasons...". Oops, probably did not want to ask that question.

                        Your cash example is nice and subtle, and allows for some math erros to be corrected, but if not how is this handled? Very tough. But you, being in the biz, have seen this many more times than jfood, who has not been in the biz, so you have much more knowledge and exerience to give better guidance. Would love to hear what happens after question 1.

                        But in the end sometimes the customer feels they have overpaid for what they received and sometimes the server feels they have been underpaid for what they delivered. One cannot expect to maximize every meal from a buyer perspective, and the server cannot expect to maximize the tip at every table.

                        1. re: jfood

                          Once the question is asked and answered per your example, the server has to chalk it up to a loss and a bad tipper. There's really not much else that can be done after that. They've politely inquired about the diner's experience, and received positive feedback. You can't MAKE people tip more, and some people are just cheap.

                          1. re: invinotheresverde

                            I,

                            Number 1 - Agree, sorta like solving world hunger
                            Number 2 - some people take it out on the server which is wrong
                            Number 3 - Wow I screwed up and i gotta do better next time. And some people are just bad servers

                      2. re: jfood

                        I agree 100%. This is not the place for a conversation with a server. And any conversation initiated by management should be handled delicately so as not to cause discomfort for the guest. BTW, I am a former server - you generally know when things are not going well, regardless of the reasons. Sometimes everything is perfect & the tip is less than you would think. But thats the nature of the biz, if you aren't prepared to have your wages pegged to a changeable, often unfathomable public, then you will be happier in another profession. You are the customer - you do not owe an explanation. If you feel inclined to mention a problem to the manager, most will be appreciative for the input (if provided without attitude).

                        1. re: jfood

                          "Never, never, never confront the customer"

                          Absolutly correct!
                          No explantaion required. The tip speaks for itself.

                        2. No.

                          For the same reason I don't provide a rationale when give a higher tip.

                          The action speaks for itself.