Great tip: Kindness pays

Interactions between waitstaff and diners, like the one portrayed in this photo illustration, matter to restaurant customers, according to a study completed by a team that included a Washington State University professor. Customers are inclined to reduce tips or not return based on how they see others being treated.

PULLMAN — Karma can deliver punishment or forgiveness in real time, especially for employees in the service industry.

That is one way to interpret research by Washington State University marketing professor Jeff Joireman. He and two other researchers looked at how restaurantgoers would respond when diners at another table believed their food was 20 minutes late.

What Joireman, Ismail Karabas, assistant professor of marketing at Murray State University, and ShinHye Kim, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, found was diners are inclined to reduce their tips and are less likely to return to a restaurant if they observe poor service.

“There’s a wider audience out there than the customer you’re dealing with directly,” Joireman said. “Those people are worried about fairness, and they’re going to take revenge out on you if you don’t treat that customer appropriately.”

But patrons are willing to forgive a mistake if a server addresses the problem or fixes the issue and apologizes.

“I don’t think we want to say apologies are not a good idea, but you don’t have to bend over backwards,” he said. “The most important thing is to fix the problem and not be rude.”

Similarly, if a manager apologizes, the customers will still be likely to return to the restaurant, but punish the server by leaving a smaller gratuity.

Those findings emerged by looking at several scenarios, including polite and uncivil behavior of both servers and customers in the study being published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

In one, a customer informs the server of the issue. In another, the customer complains the meal “is taking forever,” cusses, yells and says she is never returning to the restaurant.

In studying customers, the research team discovered it’s not just staff members who can win or lose by how they act. Diners seemed less likely to return a wallet left on a table by a fellow customer who was inconsiderate to waitstaff.

“Observers will punish the customer if they feel like the customer is being overly rude as well,” he said. “So that means maybe withholding help.”

The work of his team complements what others have learned about how third parties take it on themselves to bestow rewards and punishments.

“When we watch other people, if we see somebody treating another person nicely, we may reward that person through reputation and say, ‘That person is really nice. We should work with that person,’ ” Joireman said.

The experiment is one of many Joireman has completed that explore how human behavior can help or hurt businesses.

“We just thought it would be interesting to see what happens when people observed a service failure as opposed to being a part of the service failure themselves,” he said.

One of the challenges he faces is doing that without reducing a venture’s profits. He and his team overcame that obstacle with a method that is common in their field. The experiment participants didn’t eat in a restaurant. Instead, they read about hypothetical situations online, then replied to questions.

Some were WSU students who completed their responses in a school computer laboratory as part of fulfilling requirements for a class.

Others were recruited through the website Amazon Mechanical Turk, which allows researchers to post their surveys on the site for a nominal fee. Participants are paid a dollar or two that can be used to purchase Amazon goods.

“It’s kind of a safe way of gaining some insights without jeopardizing the reputation of (a) restaurant,” Joireman said.

He and his colleagues are constantly looking for ways to make what they do more real as they explore other variables in human behavior. Recently he had actors perform a scene from the perspective of the customer. It was filmed and shown to participants in a different experiment that is not yet published.

He anticipates his approach, as well as what issues he tackles, will evolve, especially in an era in which almost everyone has a cellphone that allows them to record and post their activities in minutes.

“It’s definitely increased the stakes and increased the motivation,” he said, “for service firms to really pay attention to service failures.”

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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