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Touchy table service might be on the way: Cornell Hotel School study shows customers tip more after being touched by restaurant servers

Reach out and touch someone may be the new motto of the hospitality industry. A new study by the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University, published in the June 1998 issue of the Cornell Hotel and Administration Quarterly, shows that when restaurant servers touch their customers -- even for as long as four seconds -- they increase their tips by more than 3 percent. Especially prone to the power of touch were younger customers: Touching them increased tips by nearly 7 percent. Older customers were less influenced by the four-second touch: hands-on service only increased tips in this group by about 2 percent.

Existing studies have shown similar increases in tips when the customer is touched, but this study is the first to show that a prolonged touch does not provoke a negative reaction from customers that might cause them to leave a smaller tip.

"We found customers tipped significantly more when touched than when not touched and that the duration of the touch has no negative effect on tipping," said Michael Lynn, associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing, who co-authored the study with David Sherwyn, assistant professor of law, both of Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, and Joseph-Mykal Le, a graduate student at the University of Houston at Clear Lake. "Our finding that even four-second touches increase tips suggests that hospitality managers and employees need not fear that they might accidentally touch customers for too long," Lynn said.

Lynn had a waiter at a Houston restaurant randomly assign his customers either no touch, a brief touch (two seconds) or a prolonged touch (four seconds, which was silently counted as "one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, four-Mississippi"). The waiter touched his customers on the shoulder while delivering the check at the end of the meal.

The study showed that tips increased from an average of 11.5 percent in the "no touch" condition to an average of 14.9 percent in the "brief touch" and 14. 7 percent in the "prolonged touch" conditions.

The study suggests that hospitality managers' objections over encouraging employees to touch customers because of the risk of lawsuit are unfounded. The study's authors say the touch they suggest "is not harmful or offensive enough to make out a claim for battery."

"Moreover, the damages in a battery suit depend on the harm done, and the harm inflicted by a brief, casual touch is negligible," the study offers.

"Hospitality managers could benefit from encouraging their employees to touch customers," Lynn said. "Such a policy would make customers feel more welcome and appreciated. It would also increase employees' tip incomes, which should increase employee morale and reduce turnover. We see no valid reason to forgo these benefits. Thus, our recommendation is to reach out and touch your customer."

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