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Service Efficiency vs. Customer (and Server) Comfort

Efficiency and comfort can sometimes be at odds. This divergence is often exacerbated by new technology, particularly in the service industry. Combine the drive for efficiency with technology and customers’ feelings about service providers — and vice versa — and comfort and satisfaction can be lost altogether.

The Payment Plan

I recently experienced the potential while staying at a lovely hotel in Vancouver, a beautiful city. A satisfying lunch at the restaurant in my hotel was followed by a payment process that is becoming more and more common. Here’s how it works:

The server brings your bill. If you’re paying with credit, the server takes your card, swipes it in a portable credit card processing device, and then hands you the swiper so you can enter the amount of your gratuity and sign right on screen.

In concept, this is completely straightforward and convenient. No more ballpoint pens to keep track of! It cuts out multiple steps for the server and the establishment and it saves lots of waiting time: Servers no longer need to return to a centralized processing location to run the customer’s credit card and print the traditional paper receipts for signature.

Plus, the mobile swiper theoretically eliminates the customer’s having to do the math to figure out the tip. You can select a percentage of the total for your gratuity, a specific dollar amount, or no tip at all.

The Tipping Point

But it can get a little uncomfortable as you’re choosing the tip and signing. I watched several times as serves stood waiting to retrieve their equipment — usually right next to the table but sometimes right over the customer, rather than being positioned discreetly, a couple of feet away.

If the physical proximity of the server is too intimate, it can create discomfort, not only for the customer, but also for a sensitive server. Servers know they’re being judged — but not necessarily how or why. In the past, at least they had a little protective physical distance if a rude or difficult customer decided to stiff them. But now, the fact that a customer might under-tip or stiff a server altogether right in front of their face can add insult to injury.

As for the customer, the discomfort can start with the very process of tipping itself. In order to figure out how much to tip, the customer has to weigh the merits of the meal with the style and effectiveness of the personal service — knowing that, at least in the U.S., the tip isn’t just a gift for an extra-good job; instead, the tip is expected and typically constitutes a large part of a server’s actual compensation.

That’s why many customers feel obligated to tip well, even handsomely, even if they’ve received mediocre service (see The Pitfalls of Screened Service), and may feel particularly intimidated when an undeserving server is standing right next to them, looking at them.

Show Me the Money

Tipping sets up a complicated chain of moral as well as mathematical judgments. This combination of arithmetical calculations and assessment of human behavior can make it too easy to make a mistake. As someone who occasionally goes back to hand servers a few extra dollars after realizing, while putting on my coat, that I hadn’t leave enough I can attest to the fact that figuring out the tip is an activity that requires full — and preferably, unself-conscious — focus.

The new tech-based process can also be awkward if you’re not fast enough and the restaurant is very busy. You can see that the server is impatient and ready to move on, while you’re thinking through the tip amount. For people who aren’t accustomed to paying via swiper, it could be stressful to have someone standing by, waiting for you to decide and calculate — all the while judging your generosity or your ineptness.

Eventually, we’ll all get used to the new approach. But the mobile payment process presents a compelling example of social pressure potential: It requires that two human beings judge each other within uncomfortably close proximity — no matter that it takes place at the end of a good meal.

Onward and upward,

LK

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