Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Pros divulge the tactics they use to get customers to fork over tips.
When Alex Thompson, then a grad student in sociology, started a part-time delivery job in his northeastern college town, he found himself overwhelmed by the intricacies of the tipping process. “Anytime that I would bring it up—god, I was so embarrassed,” he says.
But embarrassment doesn’t bring home the bacon. So in the year that Thompson worked for Jake’s—not the restaurant’s real name, but the moniker the sociologist gave the calzone spot in a paper he published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography last year—he found ways to bring in money without sacrificing his dignity. There was one semi-official rule, passed down from Jake’s laid-back manager: You can’t outright ask for tips. Everything else was left up to Thompson and his band of fellow delivery guys.
Tips, of course, are crucially important to workers in the food industry, many of whom receive the bulk of their paycheck through these add-ons. (Though federal law sets the nationwide minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, tipped employees can receive as little as $2.13, provided that tips make up the difference.) For Jake’s drivers, tips were a lifeline. One driver explained that when his truck broke down, only his tips allowed him to fix it and still stay in the black.
But how to get those much-needed tips? That’s the question Thompson posed in his paper, which zoomed in on the interactions between customers and fast food delivery people. He and the other savvy drivers at Jake’s swear by these methods:
Get Over the Embarrassment
The stigma surrounding frank conversations about money shifts the balance of power in favor of the miserly tipper—and away from the cash-strapped delivery driver. For Jake’s drivers, who often delivered to college students, begging for a tip meant demeaning themselves before their peers or people a few years younger. So the drivers quickly learned to get over it. A twenty-four-year-old driver and vocational student told Thompson, “It’s just something you have to get past if you’re gonna make it as a driver.”
Don’t Take Anything Too Personally
People can be horrible. But workers learn quickly that when an interaction goes poorly, there’s little use in dwelling. One worker told Thompson he had a hard time shrugging off crappy tips when he first started out. He said, “I would just be like: ‘Aw! This guy is a total jerk! How could he not give me a tip?’ It would actually hurt my feelings, you know?” But holding on to that anger affected the driver’s interactions with other customers throughout his shift, creating a downward spiral of bad tipping energy. “My tips will suffer for the rest of the night,” the driver said, “so I just gotta let it roll off.”
Look Like a Customer
One of the Jake’s drivers found that his tips were better when he was clean-shaven: A furry face, he found, usually netted him about $2.00, but a clean one landed $2.50, or sometimes even $3.00. Do calzone lovers hate beards? Probably not, the driver theorized—it’s just that the college students he delivered to thought he was younger without the beard. Customers, he found, were more likely to tip if they thought he was a student, too.
Another driver explained that dressing like the college kids paid off handsomely. He said it got customers to think,
“Oh, this kid is just like me” rather than “Oh this guy is a scumbag delivering calzones and living in his mom’s basement. Why should I give him my money?” If you kind of present yourself in a way where they could almost picture themselves on the other side of it, then you can do better.
Jake’s tip-hunters avoided standard-issue uniforms and instead adopted the uniforms of their clientele, such as button-up shirts. One driver even kept track of which sports games were on in a given night, and wore the jersey of the team he thought his clients were more likely to root for. Who would stiff Peyton Manning out of a tip (other than a bitter Patriots fan)?
There’s an unfortunate limit to this strategy: Not everyone can look like the delivery customer. If the typical takeout order-er in a given area tends to be white and middle class, that leaves delivery drivers of color, or anyone with limited budgets, at a distinct disadvantage. Research has shown that this is the case. In a 2011 study, African-American drivers in New Haven, Connecticut received about one-third fewer tips than their white counterparts. It’s an unfortunate fact that when it comes to tipping, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia among a customer base can radically alter how much you make.
Talk Like a Customer
One Jake’s driver found that taking the delivery phone call was a big advantage. “I try to remember [the customer] and read their behavior,” he told Thompson. The drunk calzone seekers got the “bro” talk, complete with exclamation points: “Totally awesome! I’ll meet you outside in like five minutes!” And then, during the delivery: “Man! Looks like you’re havin’ a great time tonight! I wish I wasn’t workin’ and could join ya!” The kids who seemed to be studying got a very different performance, one that was a little more laid back: “’Alright, man. Cool. I’ll be there in three minutes. You wanna meet me outside? Is that cool?’ Then when I get there, I’ll be like: ‘You got an exam tomorrow?’”
Other popular driver chat topics included hit movies, sports teams, and booze and drugs—basically, whatever the drivers thought the clients would be interested in. And with women, the drivers (all men) would have a lighter touch: “A soft voice tone, unintimidating and unassuming posture, and nurturing, minimal, though polite, conversation,” Thompson writes in his paper.
Love the Pets
“You know what really works?” one driver asked Thompson. “Dogs. You compliment their dogs.” The driver said that he got down on the floor and played with customers’ pooches. It worked. “They gave me a five!” he said.
The Receipt Trick
One of Thompson’s personal favorite tricks came at the very end of the delivery interaction, when a customer using a credit card had to sign the receipt. If she left the tip line conspicuously blank, Thompson would turn back to her and say, “Sorry, boss needs you to fill out the entire thing!” That forced the customer to either come out and admit that she was purposely stiffing him, or wilt under his passive aggression. Cha-ching!
The Change Trick(s)
There are a few ways to pull the change trick. The first, another one of Thompson’s favorites, was wide-eyed innocence. “Great, a five dollar tip!” he would exclaim if a customer had given him a nice round bill, possibly hoping for change. “Awesome!” Only the customers who really, really wanted to leave a bad tip—and were willing to go through a very uncomfortable social interaction to do so—would demand their change back.
There’s another change trick that a driver at Jake’s pulled after he had already been stiffed. He made a practice of carrying around a bit of change in case his customers handed him, say, $7.00 for a $6.88 bill and then went to close the door. (That’s a 1.7 percent tip, for those counting along at home.) “I pull out the change and I give to them and I say: ‘You obviously need this more than I do!’” he told Thompson. “They got upset but they get it then. Then they usually either tip the next time or they dig into their pocket and pull out a tip.” Schooled.
Get To the Credit Card Tippers Last
If there’s one easy way to mess with a delivery guy’s hustle, it’s by tipping on a credit card. This method is super convenient for customers (no scrounging in the couch for loose change), and, depending on where you live, it could be pretty typical. But if Thompson’s time at Jake’s serves as any guide, it's also a one-way ticket to the end of the delivery queue. “If it was a large tip, the delivery would be very fast, efficient,” Thompson said. But on a busy night, the pre-tipped deliveries “became the lowest priority. It was the last thing you were going to do on your runs. They’re a double edged sword in that way.”
When Necessary, Stew Quietly
There are times, of course, when nothing works. Sometimes, tip jerks are going to be tip jerks no matter how charming the delivery man may be. When Thompson and his calzone colleagues got together, these people got a torrent of gleeful abuse. A group of drivers laughed as one recalled:
These kids are the bottom of the barrel. And when I say bottom, I mean the b-o-t-t-o-m of the barrel, and not like a peanut barrel where they’re all salty and delicious. This is like the bottom of the bottom of a chip barrel. You know? Where there are all the tiny chip pieces that nobody wants or uses.
Next time you “forget” to tip your hardworking delivery guy, remember: You are one of those chip shards that everyone hates.