Every server’s goal is to earn more tips. No server is getting rich off their hourly wage. Instead of lamenting the typically low hourly rate, embrace the fact that you can give yourself a raise any time. You just have to sharpen your server skills. 

The number one thing you can do to get better tips is to learn how to read your table. Rather than a specific action, reading a table is more a style of service. 

Learn to interpret everything from a guest’s body language to how the people at the table are interacting with each other. Don’t let any glance or offhand comment go unanalyzed. Once you learn to read your table like a pro, you’ll know exactly how to provide your guests with flawless service that’s catered to their individual needs. This top-notch personalized service is what gets you big tips! 

HOW TO READ YOUR TABLE TO GET BETTER TIPS

Observe how they interact with other people at the table

Before you even approach the table, take a second to check their body language. Are they laughing, leaning forward, and making a lot of eye contact? Are they reserved and formal? Does anyone seem angry?

Use this information to determine how you’ll greet the table. A table of colleagues having a lunch meeting requires a very different demeanor from you than friends out for a fun night. You can also use your observations to decide whether your table likely wants a leisurely experience or quick-turn service.

Pay special attention to seemingly offhand comments or jokes

Many people don’t feel comfortable directly saying that they are dissatisfied or concerned about something. Instead, they make passive comments either to you or to the table (while you are conveniently within earshot). Don’t mistake these for insignificant musings. 

Here are two example scenarios to give you an idea of what type of comments you should listen for:

  • Situation: A guest shivers and jokes that it’s like an igloo in here.
    Action: Say you’ll let management know they need to adjust the temperature. They don’t need to know that your manager is probably not going to do this. Acknowledging their discomfort will still win you brownie points even if the AC stays on.
  • Situation: A guest says to their friend, “I hope we can make the movie in time!” 
    Action: They are concerned that the pace of service is or will be too slow. If you haven’t taken their orders yet, assure them that you will get them in and out in plenty of time to catch their movie. If the order is already in, tell them their food should be out soon, but you’ll still check on it and give them an update so they don’t have to worry. 
Person holding cash - server tip cash.
Customize your service to each table and watch the tips pour in.

Anticipate needs and potential issues

Guests love having their needs anticipated, and of course, everyone wants a smooth dining experience without any issues. You can identify these needs and potential issues by paying close attention to your guests’ body language and tone, and by thinking a few steps ahead.

It’s impossible to cover every scenario you’ll encounter as a server, but we’ve selected a few examples to give you an idea of things you should be looking out for and how you should be analyzing your tables.

Examples:

  • If you have a guest who came in already angry about something, prioritize their service (yes, even if they’re rude). Take extra care to ensure everything comes out quickly and correctly, and be ready with their ticket as soon as they ask for it. You don’t want to give them any reason to take their anger out on you or your tip.
  • Sometimes guests won’t say upfront that they have dietary restrictions (no gluten, vegetarian, etc.), but their order may hint at this. If someone orders a taco and asks for beans instead of beef or wants a salad without croutons, do a mental check of everything they order. Is there something else in this dish that might pose a problem? Taking the salad order as an example, if there is gluten in the dressing or another ingredient, be sure to ask if that is ok. Your guest will appreciate the thoughtfulness, especially if they have an allergy. 
  • If you go to your table and they won’t make eye contact with you, won’t pause their conversation, or their body language becomes closed off, take that as a hint to give them more space. Some guests prefer a server who is more hands-off, so be on the lookout for those nonverbal signs.

As you can see, reading tables is more of a mindset than a specific set of rules. As you get better at this new skill, you’ll see your tips begin to increase. To see an even bigger jump in your income, combine table reading with these four tried-and-true methods:

  1. Introduce yourself by name. It helps form an immediate connection with your table and makes them feel like they’re getting better service.
  2. Suggest specific menu items. Instead of asking, “Would you like an appetizer?” say, “Would you like a bowl of our delicious, house-made chicken tortilla soup?” Hungry people are easy to influence, and this will help you have a bigger ticket price. Bigger tickets = bigger tips. 
  3. Thank your guest by name. Check the name on their credit card, and use it when you drop off the receipt. A personalized thank you makes people feel good right before they fill out the tip and sign their receipt.
  4. Write something nice on their receipt. Even if it’s just a “thank you” with a smiley face, studies show that doing this increases tips.