You’re a bad customer and you don’t even know it

by Christopher Elliott on September 12, 2013

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Deadbeats. Gate lice. Entitleds.

Pull back the curtain on the service industry and you can hear them talking about us — often in unflattering terms.

Being tagged as a terrible customer can be embarrassing. Consider the lousy tippers database, which outs customers who have the gall to pay the menu price for their meals, minus a gratuity. Being a bad tipper can have real consequences. Just ask Drew Brees, who, as it turns out, is not a bad tipper.

But did anyone bother to tell us what being a “good” customer means? That’s not always clearly disclosed. Maybe it should be.

You don’t have to yell

Consider my recent run-in with a little rule called NRS 463.350. If you’ve never heard of NRS 463.350, you’re not alone. Neither had I when I tried to walk through a Las Vegas casino with my family on our way to a bus tour. In Sin City, there’s really no way to avoid walking through a smoke-filled gaming floor if you want to get anywhere. You hold your breath and walk fast.

NRS 463.350 is a Nevada statute that says minors aren’t allowed to loiter on the casino floor. It’s a law I wholeheartedly agree with, but was unaware of when we stopped at a gift store to buy a bottle of water.

This particular casino is very upscale and enjoys a reputation for delivering excellent service. But, apparently, waiting for Mom to buy a beverage with an 11-year-old is considered loitering.

“You can’t be here!” an employee barked at me. “You have to move now.”

Had I known about NRS 463.350, I certainly wouldn’t have stopped.

But yelling at a guest? Unless there’s a fire in the hotel, I can’t think of any reason to do it.

Had the employee said, “I’m sorry, but Nevada state law doesn’t allow minors to stop in the casino,” then I might have felt a little better. When were they planning to tell me the kids couldn’t stop to marvel at the slot machines?

Point is, with just a few carefully chosen words, the employee wouldn’t have made me wish I’d never set foot in the futuristic-looking casino with a backward view of customer service.

We’re not invisible

A few days later, I had another fascinating conversation with an off-duty bartender in California. During a frank discussion about the tipping economy, she told me that on a good evening she raked in $600 in gratuities, which she didn’t have to declare as income to the government. But she added that customers who didn’t tip “at least 20 percent” were her pet peeves.

“What happens if you fail to observe this invisible rule?” I asked.

“Unless you’re the only person at the bar,” she said, “you’re invisible to me. You don’t exist.”

OK, I’m on record as being the world’s worst tipper, which is why I always ask someone else to calculate the tip. I feel that the price that’s on the menu is the price I should pay. If you want 20 percent more, then why not add 20 percent to the menu and be done with it?

But beyond that, I wonder what happens when someone from Europe walks into the bar and isn’t aware that “at least” 20 percent is expected. Do they also become “invisible”?

This isn’t the time to argue about the ethics of paying your employees below minimum wage and forcing them to rely on the kindness of strangers to earn a living. I’ll save that for another post. But I’m hard-pressed to recall the last time my menu said, “YOU ARE EXPECTED TO TIP 20 PERCENT,” or even, “Prices do not include gratuity.”

There’s no guidance, no disclosure.

As a result, employees are often furious at us. In the airline industry, for example, employees have a rich vocabulary to describe passengers that behave inappropriately, starting with the simple word “pax” (an abbreviation of passengers) and ranging to the derogatory term “gate lice” for inexperienced air travelers making rookie mistakes. They also call people who ought to know better, because of the color of their frequent flier card, “entitleds.”

So how can we be good customers if no one knows how they’re supposed to behave? The casino should have told us about the kids-standing-still rule by prominently posting it outside the entrance. It did not.

My friend’s bar should inform patrons that they depend on tips to pay the rent. Or, they might start by printing a little notification at the bottom of our bills:
Prices do not include customary 20 percent gratuity.”

I spend a lot of time on this site telling companies how to behave. Maybe it’s time they let us know what’s expected of us, too.

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  • RNE

    A scofflaw earning $600/night of unreported income should be glad she is behind a bar and not behind bars. I’m unsympathetic to her plight.

  • mjhoop

    So my Euro cousin, from a place where the “gratuity’ is included in the price of everything, comes to NC Outer Banks. He doesn’t tip because it’s not the top thing on his mind–for obvious reasons–it’s not part of his culture. And a server who doesn’t recognize a foreign accent and know things might not go exactly to the American pattern perhaps needs to go into a business that requires less general knowledge and fewer interpersonal skills. Laying bricks, maybe? Now that is work that deserves a tip. (And I’ve been both a server and a builder’s helper in my lifetime).
    Back to the story:
    A restaurant employee follows cuz out to the parking lot, noisily letting him know he ‘owes’ the tip.
    My cuz is a patient person and his memory has been jogged re: tipping.
    The next eve he goes to the same restaurant to find that “servers” don’t forget. (As cuz has not). A 20% tip has been added to the bill.

    Hey, servant class, (I can say that, I occasionally inhabit it) a “gratuity”/ tip is a GIFT. Because your employers is too cheap to pay you sufficient to live on, get over yourself and get a new better job. If we all stopped tipping, would you just quit working? I doubt it. But I bet you would treat people from whom you expect a gift w/ a little more respect and occasionally make allowances for cultural differences without acting like a third world tax collector.

    The more tips I pay, the more they irritate me. If Americans were honest, the bosses would pay a living wage and the workers would work well for it as a way of showing appreciation and respect to all of us. But when it comes to sharing the wealth, America is short some cents on the dollar.

  • Charles Smith

    The ‘servers’ involved in Customer Service need to reexamine their occupational choice. If a person ‘expects’ a 20% tip then they should provide service that EARNS that 20% tip. I always tip at Service Restaurants, but am of the thought that ordinary service deserves an ordinary tip. I usually tip about 15% (or for the mathematically disinclined $1 for every $7 before tax on the bill) and cannot remember the last time that I received service worth even that, let alone 20% or 25%. If you want my money as a tip, earn it by providing exceptional service, not mediocre.

    Of course, a lot of Customer Service people look at their position as “just a job”. So if you treat me as ‘just a customer’, expect me to treat you less than you feel you deserve.

  • dcta

    I have to agree with you, Mr. Smith – no one is getting 20% unless the service is actually “exceptional”. It’s 15% all the way AND I tip on the total pre-tax which I’m certain pisses them all off.

  • Alex

    It’s horse$hit how they keep raising the rate. Standard tip used to be 15%, now it’s 20%. Before you know it, it’ll be 25%.

    I refuse to play ball. 12-18% depending on service. That number can also go higher if you’re outstanding, or down to zero if you really suck (yes, that’s happened). Tips are not automatic – they must be earned.

    Don’t like it? Well then, as Steve Buscemi so eloquently put it, “learn to f*cking type.”

  • Alex

    The idea of our system is it gives wait staff an incentive to provide good service.

    I’ve had plenty of crappy waiters in Europe.

  • former waitress

    As a former waitress, I considered my tips a reflection on the job I did. If my tips were poor, I needed to be better at (1) making the customer’s experience MORE pleasant and (2) offering GOOD cheerful service. Had I ignored customers, I would have starved. 20% is not “customary”. You are NOT ENTITLED> It is not “polite”. It is a gift, or a reward, that you earn.

  • former waitress

    Agreed 100%.

  • James Penrose

    Used to be 10%, they keep giving themselves raises even though the cost of food and drink has certainly kept up with inflation.

  • http://astro.dur.ac.uk/~gelbord/ Jonathan_G

    The cost of food and drink may have kept up with inflation, but the sub-minimum-wage pay scales of tip-earning servers certainly has not.

  • James Penrose

    Their hourly wasn’t any better when the tip rate was 10%. First job I ever had paid under minimum and there were NO tips.

    But then I never planned to make a career out of low end jobs.

    A really good server can move on up to the fine dining end where you can make some fairly serious bucks, hourly wage wont’ even matter when the group of four who just spend $500 on dinner leaves you $100.

  • Ton

    as a european with experience with the us system i tend to remember,

    in europe a tip is exactly that a “hey that was good”message, knowing that staff get paid a lot less influences, having said that the quality of service is usually a lot better. Not that strange given that in my country (netherlands) most staff in restaurants are parttimers who study and earn some extra cash.

    The thing is that i still see it as a reflection of that service, not as a payment for service, if it is the latter it would be valid if i can selfserv and have the option, but if service is mandatory that is not an option..

    Anybody who tells me i have to pay (or puts something like above) well they are on my sh#tlist, and if you class me as ïnvisible” i will no longer be your customer and i will complain.

    i am not a bad tipper and in fact i have paid 20% on some occations when service was extraordinary but you have to earn it

  • Jone

    We stopped for a minute in a casino, a very nice one, with my Granddaughter in a “umbrella” stroller when she was 2-1/2 months.
    Security quickly escorted us out to prevent the baby from being on the aisle neasr the slot machines!

  • MeanMeosh

    “Tip creep” is one of my biggest pet peeves of traveling across the U.S. today. I was always told somewhere between 15-20% for average to good service, but anything 20% or more was reserved for exceptional service. I hate to break it to this bartender that customary tipping is NOT a “minimum” of 20%. You want that much, you provide the service to earn it. Otherwise, somewhere between 15 and 20 is what you’re getting. Don’t like it? If that’s not good enough for you, then the next time I’m looking for a place to eat or drink in your area, your establishment isn’t good enough for me, either, and you can chew over that while enjoying your big bag of nothing while I go to your competitor next door!

    And as for a sense of entitlement, the bartender in this story needs to look at himself/herself in the mirror.

  • MikeA

    A few months back in Boston a friend and myself went to a restaurant. There were only two tables occupied of about 15. The folks at the other table came in after just us, ordered and were served their meal before our water came to take our order. The waiter quote “does not work our table”. Their waiter lavished attention, and after 30 minutes we had to remind our waiter to bring our food. With this lousy service I left no tip (remember “tip” is an acronym for “To Insure Promptness”). On leaving, we were half way down the block when the waiter hurried after us to advise we had not left a tip. I advised him why we should leave a tip having endured his lack of service, and suffered a litany of curses in return.
    We need to do what Australia does – where all prices stated on menus include tips – and stop this total tipping nonsense.

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