Body Language: A Server’s Guide to Earning Bigger Tips

Your pizzeria's servers can use visual cues to increase check averages, boost tips and improve the guest experience.

  • Restaurant servers who pick up on guests’ natural body cues can improve the customer experience, boost check averages and earn bigger tips, an expert says.
  • Servers can also take certain approaches with their own body language to improve their chances of a larger tip, says Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

Related: How to address labor problems in the pizza restaurant industry

What if you could teach your servers an easy way to understand and address customers’ needs without uttering a word?

Jodi RR Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, Massachusetts, says it’s possible simply by paying closer attention to the signals that we all reveal through body language. Servers who pick up on guests’ natural body cues can improve the overall customer experience and boost check averages—and earn bigger tips in the process. Here’s how to do it.

1) Identify the person in charge. “There’s always someone in charge of a table, whether it’s the host or hostess of the meal or the senior-ranking person,” says Smith. “This generally tends to be the person who is paying the bill, so it behooves the waitstaff to be able to identify him, since he’ll set the tone for what’s happening at the table.” This person is usually the first to speak, perhaps asking about specials, Smith notes, and is generally more proactive in the initial interaction with the waitstaff.

2) Decode the dynamics of the table. The better a server understands the dynamics of a table, the better he can serve guests. “Is this a social meal, with the group doing a lot of drinking, or is it a quick lunch or nonalcoholic dinner?” Smith asks. “These are things I need to know as a server because they affect the time guests will spend at the table, the bill amount, etc.”

3) Recognize the symmetry of dining. “The symmetry of dining states that whatever the host does, the guests follow suit,” Smith says. When the host orders a cocktail, for example, the others will usually follow. If the host orders soup before the meal, the guests will likely order some kind of appetizer, too.

4) Monitor the table’s mood. There are signals that will let you know if guests are having a good time or not. “Look for signs such as smiling, relaxed bodies, relaxed shoulders, leaning back, etc.,” Smith advises. “Red flags should go up when shoulders are raised, guests are leaning forward, or voices are rising because they’ve had too much to drink and they haven’t had anything in their stomachs yet. These things will affect the tables around them and the ambience in the restaurant.

“Do guests look bored?” Smith adds. “Are their eyes darting around the restaurant? Are they constantly looking toward the kitchen? Are they shifting around a lot? This isn’t a game of poker—people tend to be fairly obvious in their body language. Signals like these should prompt waitstaff to ask what they can do to help—more drinks, a complimentary bread basket, checking with the kitchen, etc. If there’s a table with children, ask if they’d like rolls or the children’s meals first to help keep them from getting bored or disruptive.”

Related: Are aging baby boomers to blame for the labor shortage?


Server Signals

In addition to reading a guest’s body language, servers can take certain approaches with their own body language to improve their chances of a larger tip, Smith says.

1) Pay attention to appearances. Servers’ hands should be neat and clean, and so should their clothing. “Dress for your body type,” Smith says. “Pull your hair back, and whatever you use for a staff uniform, make sure it looks like it’s been laundered and pressed recently. People generalize, from what they see to what they don’t see; if I see people in the front of the house looking neat and clean, I’ll assume that the back of the house is also neat and clean.”

2) Don’t be too friendly. “You do not need to be a guest’s new best friend,” Smith advises. “In fact, studies have shown that when servers are a little bit more reserved, they actually get a better tip. That doesn’t mean being rude, but establish boundaries. Have a smile in your eyes and a little bit of a smile on your lips. Make eye contact with everyone at the table as you approach.”

3) Know how to make first contact. “Stand up straight, with an open body posture, and briefly introduce yourself by saying something such as, ‘Hi, my name is Jodi, and I’ll be your server this evening,’” Smith says. She encourages servers to inquire about any allergies, and each restaurant should come up with a table greeting that can be used consistently by all servers.

4) Don’t be in a hurry. Smith recommends waiting three to four minutes after the food is delivered to the table before checking back in with guests. “If I ask guests if everything is OK immediately after the food is set down, they haven’t had a chance to taste it yet,” Smith says. “After three to four minutes, they’ll usually know if they need something else.” After that, Smith recommends occasionally walking by the table, making eye contact with the host of the table to make sure everything is all right and no one is trying to get your attention.

5) Bring the check discreetly. The delivery of the bill will often lead to arguments over who will pay it, so Smith suggests being discreet in your delivery. “Carefully and discreetly slide the bill next to the person that you have identified as the host of the table,” she says. “If it’s the end of the night and you’re not trying to turn the table, you can say, ‘Please feel free to linger.’ If, however, it’s a busy night, you can say, ‘Thank you so much for coming, and we hope to see you again soon.’”

This article was originally published on the PMQ website in October 2017.

Liz Barrett is a former editor of PMQ Pizza Magazine and author of Pizza: A Slice of American History.