How To Be A Good Server: Tips for Servers To Up Their Game And Make More Money

By: Amanda McNamara

13 Minute Read

May 02, 2019

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Tips for servers

I firmly believe that if every American were required to work at least one year in a front of house restaurant position, it would fundamentally improve how we engage with one another, especially strangers. 

Behind teachers and nurses, restaurant servers rank high on my list of the professional positions I respect and empathize with the most, mainly because I walked in their non-slip shoes once upon a time. 

During any given shift, you are required to be equal parts party host, mind reader, sales representative, glassware balancing acrobat, customer service representative, and a palate-pleasing encyclopedia. If I were to compare restaurant servers to an animal, it would have to be a duck: both are calm, cool, and collected on the surface, with the jets firing at full throttle under the water. The hustle never stops, and neither does the grind, but boy oh boy it is fun to be the gatekeeper of a good time.  

Download Our Free Guide: 30 Ways to Become a Better Restaurant Server

Tips For Servers: How to Get Better at Your Job and Make More Money 

Though on paper front of house staff earn less than salaried positions, the paper in their pocket at the end of a double shift tells a different story. 

In the majority of American restaurants, servers and bartenders are considered tipped wage workers, meaning their wages are largely funded by tips and gratuity from their customers, as opposed to their employers. Though servers are paid a lesser minimum wage than non-tipped wage workers, it is legally required under the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) for employers to be in payroll compliance and pay the difference should a server leave their shift with less than they would have made if paid the hourly minimum wage rate that non-tipped wage workers receive. 

One of the most unique things about the server pay structure is that they can physically see the fruits of their labor in hand at the end of a shift. Tipping culture can be very lucrative, but it’s also important to note that recent studies have shown race and gender biases do, in fact, impact the size of a front of house staff member’s tip. 

Whether you’re new to the apron or a veteran of the game, you should always be finding ways to improve and hone your server skills. Let’s dive into some proven ways how you can be a better server and bring home some thick–cut bacon in the process. 

Read More: Restaurant Tipping: How EMV and Danny Meyer Spell Its Demise

1. Don’t just serve customers – connect with them.

Any server will tell you that they have at least 1,000,000,000 things running through their mind at any given moment during a shift. Though it can be hard to manage so many competing tasks, priority numero uno always has been, and always will be, creating a top-notch dining experience for every guest. 

This means you cannot revert to robot status by just taking, entering, and fulfilling your guests’ orders. Making the effort to connect with guests can have a drastic impact on your tips, your sales, and your restaurant’s overall performance: loyal, repeat customers generate 10x more revenue in their lifetime than new customers; they're also a lot of fun to hang out with during your shift. 

You don’t have to divulge your life story every time, it can be as simple as introducing yourself –  a 2009 study found that servers who introduced themselves by name to their tables saw a 23% increase in their tip – or writing a quick “thank you” on the check –  a 1996 study found that writing a simple “thank you” on guests checks increased tips to servers by 13%. 

Nothing quite tops off a fun night out to eat like a good laugh: Another study found that telling a joke to your guests increases tips by a whopping 40%. This also may help them remember you for future visits, creating a regular customer, and a regular stream of income for you. 

2. Upsell an experience, not an item.

Upselling is a strategy front of house staff use to recommend a higher-priced item based on conversations they have with guests about likes, wants, and preferences. To upsell effectively, you need to ask discovery questions (questions that teach you more about the guest), genuinely listen to their answers, and respond with a relevant recommendation based on the information they gave you. 

Instead of selling a thing - like a glass of wine, appetizer, or dessert – upselling an experience can oftentimes be more effective. Here are some examples:

DON’T: “Would you like some wine with your meal?” 

DO: “The Malbec would pair perfectly with your steak; it will seriously enhance the flavor and texture of the filet. Should I bring a glass out with your meal, or would you like me to bring a taste now?”

Why this example works: You’re adding value to their entree by recommending a wine that enhances the tastes and textures they will experience when dining. 

DON’T: “Would you like to start with some appetizers?” 

DO: “The frisée salad is my favorite way to start the meal, it’s light but complex with quinoa and roasted pumpkin seeds, but it won’t fill you up before your entree. I ordered the roasted tomato soup for lunch today and it was delicious – our Chef has been tweaking it for weeks. Can I bring you a taste of either?”

Why this example works: Sharing a personal experience with a menu item can encourage guests to also give it a try. Today’s restaurant goers check reviews before trying a restaurant or a specific menu item; consider this your in-person Yelp review.

If you have yet to try a certain menu item, see if another member of your team has and is willing to give you their opinion to pass off as your own. Coming from a vegetarian who sold an impressive amount of wings while working at a sports bar, it works. 

Read More: 3 Suggestive Selling Techniques in Restaurants

3. Don’t Assume 

Never assume your guests know their order until it’s entered in your point of sale. As my 10th grade Geometry teacher Mr.McGowan used to say, “Don’t assume – it makes an ass out of you and me”. The man even made this into a poster. 

Even the pickiest of eaters will be curious to hear about your specials, new menu items, your favorite dishes, and any other recommendations you can offer them that would enhance their dining experience. Remember: You know your restaurant’s menu better than they do, even if they’re a loyal customer. You have plenty of time between the moment they sit down and the moment they place their order to upsell them or convince them to give a certain menu item a try. 

You’ll notice that in the suggestions above, the upsell ends with an assumption that an appetizer or wine will be ordered. The more “typical” something seems, the more likely your guests will go along with it. Not only that, but the more items servers can add to their dining experience, the more delighted the guests will be, the bigger the check will be, and the higher potential you have to take home a larger tip. 

Some members of a group may not order anything at all, or just water, but by talking through the options and learning about what their interests are, you create a lasting connection that could parlay into a repeat visit, a great online review about the quality of service, or even a visit from a friend or family member of theirs who heard them raving about their experience.

4. Speed Does Not Equal Efficiency

If you’re not already familiar with the steps of service, start studying. The steps of service are the 12 most common interactions restaurant staff and guests experience during a meal; set against your restaurant’s average table turn time, the steps turn into a checklist where each interaction must be completed within a certain time after the table has been seated.  

Though the specifics will vary from restaurant to restaurant, here’s an example of what the steps of service may look like: 

  • 90 seconds seated: Table is greeted and drink order taken.
  • 4/5 minutes seated: Drinks are delivered and meal order taken.
  • 9 minutes seated: Condiments, cutlery, napkins, and other supplementary items are dropped off; check and see if refills are needed. 
  • *Food delivered* and customers asked “is there anything else I can bring you?”
  • 2-4 minutes after food delivered: Check in on quality of food; ask about refills.

Turning tables is key to making more money, but there’s a fine line between turning tables and rushing guests in a full service establishment; this is where the steps of service will help you the most. Following the steps of service will help you stay on par with your restaurant’s average table turn time and keep with the flow of customers going, ensuring you’re not losing out on tables and their potential gratuity. 

Pro tip: The best servers know to never go from one place to another empty-handed. There is always something that needs to be carried from the kitchen to the floor, from the bar to the dishpit, from the bar to the patio, etc. Though you have your own assigned section and side-work for the shift, helping others who may be in the weeds, bussing tables, or restocking server stations is a great way to play as a team and build camaraderie with your fellow front of house staff members. 

5. Handle Campers with Care 

Campers, squatters, whatever you call ‘em, they’re the bane of every restaurant server’s existence. A camper is a guest who chooses to stay at their table for a long period of time after the payment process is completed. 

Though it’s great to see guests having such a good time that they want to stay and continue their conversation, they are unknowingly throwing off the flow of new guests being seated. While Server A may be stuck waiting for a table to pack up and head home, Server B may be double-seated, sending them into a frenzy while an even longer line starts to form at the door. 

Campers are frustrating mainly because they cost the restaurant and the server money. As a result, servers may – either inadvertently or explicitly – try to encourage the guest to leave. This can be awkward and sometimes perceived as rude. 

You don’t want all of that hard work you put toward showing hospitality and cultivating connections to be for naught because they wouldn’t leave. Maybe you did your job a little too well! 

Everyone has a different way of handling campers, so you’ll need to figure out which one works best for you, your personality, and your relationship with your guests. Honesty has worked pretty well for me in the past, something like “hey folks, I’ve loved having you here but I need this table for another waiting party.”

Read More: Server Duties: 20 Waiter and Waitress Duties and Responsibilities

How Restaurant Managers Can Help Servers Make More Money

As the fearless leader on the floor, restaurant managers are responsible to help their team be successful. Here are a few ways restaurant managers can teach staff how to be better servers. 

1. Give a little, get a lot!

Handing out simple tokens of appreciation (a mint, a fortune cookie, etc.) is a very simple way to increase tips.

The below video (start at 1:48) is about a study where servers were instructed to give diners a mint at the end of their meal.

  • When one mint per diner was given, tips increased about 3%.

  • When two mints per diner were given, tips increased about 14%.

  • When a server gave one mint, started to walk away, then said "For you nice people, here's an extra mint," tips increased about 23%.

What's noteworthy is just how much they increase server tips; it's clear that the personalized connection between server and guest cannot be overstated. Providing a bag of mints each shift isn't much of an expense, and if they can satisfy staff with more tips, that's even better!

2. Lean on restaurant technology 

Incorporating pay at the table technology into your restaurant operations can help improve your table turn time, decrease the amount of steps a server needs to take, ease the ordering and payment processes, and prevent servers from running back and forth to the kitchen to ask questions related to allergens or ingredients. 

Toast, for example, has an “item detail” feature that comes in handy. Allergy considerations, ingredients, or even suggested wine pairings can be available at the touch of a button. 

Use those valuable seconds that would be spent running back and forth to the kitchen for such questions to fill up waters and ensure tables have what they need.

Another way restaurant technology can help maintain the hum of service is by adding counts to items to help servers avoid ordering something that is out of stock, then spending time returning to the table to disappoint a guest with bad news, and waiting for the customer to choose something else. BONUS: The back of house will be grateful for the lack of disruptions in service!

3. Train, train, train!

Adopt and promote a philosophy of lifelong learning in your restaurant. Staff training cannot be a one or two time thing if you want your staff to give your guests the best experience possible every time. This applies to information about your menu as well as on-the-job skills training. 

Wine tastings, menu item tastings, and education on how to pair is essential; so is training about improving table turn time, how to properly greet a table, how to handle rude customers, and how to artfully encourage campers to leave (see above). Consider inviting guest speakers to your upcoming pre-shift meals, require your staff complete an online hospitality skills course on Typsy, or encourage your team to attend a food show or industry event like Toast’s Food for Thought.  

4. Keep track of your strongest servers and be willing to help.

Track each server’s sales performance using your restaurant point of sale's reporting. This will help you identify who your strongest team members are, who could use a little help, and who could benefit from some additional hands-on training. 

By tracking this data over time, you will be able to see how your staff is improving, or identify specific areas where a team member may be lacking. For example, the data may tell you that server A is having difficulty selling craft beers, while server B tends to ease up on upselling after 9 PM.

Read More: 6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Restaurant Training Manual 

5. Incentivize your staff. 

Employee incentives are a wildly effective tool to motivate your staff to perform better on the job. There’s nothing better than a little friendly competition to get the momentum going. Check out our post about how to start an employee incentive program in your restaurant, complete with 11 incentives to try. 

Becoming a Better Restaurant Server

Ready to become a better waiter or waitress? Download our free list of 30 Ways to Become a Better Restaurant Server below to start earning more tips from your guests.

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