Rude customers can be money in the bank for servers, Calgary study suggests

There's an upside for servers getting mistreated by rude customers — they receive nearly double the tips from other patrons in the restaurant, according to new research from the University of Calgary.

"Customers tipped 83 per cent higher when they witnessed the mistreatment than when they witnessed a neutral interaction," said Sandy Hershcovis, a Haskayne School of Business professor.

"So they were willing to financially compensate for the bad behaviour of fellow customers."

Hershcovis is the lead researcher of the study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It is titled "When Fellow Customers Behave Badly: Witness Reactions to Employee Mistreatment by Customers."

The researchers hired an actor to play the rude customer and Hershcovis's grad student played the server. Another researcher observed how other customers reacted.

"It was incivility, so people on their cellphone while talking to servers, people using sarcastic tones and those sorts of things. So it wasn't really terrible stuff," she said.

Still, the results were remarkable to the team.

"Only 11 per cent of people intervened but, after the [rude] customer left, 75 per cent of people said something supportive to the victim, to the server," Hershcovis said.

In addition, they tipped substantially more, offered better evaluations of the overall customer service and were generally more polite to the mistreated server.

'Service with a smile' required

But there's a catch, Hershcovis cautions.

"When the server talked back [to the rude customer], they lost all those benefits," she said.

"When the server took matters into their own hands, customers no longer felt empathetic towards that server and they weren't willing to tip more. The server does have to maintain that service-with-a-smile attitude in order to gain those hidden benefits from being mistreated."

Hershcovis said real-life events inspired her study into the impact of watching other customers act rudely.

"It actually comes somewhat from my own experiences, back in the day 25 years ago, I worked in retail myself and I had to deal with a few choice customers," she told CBC Calgary News at 6 on Thursday.

"One of the things that helped was fellow customers came up to me afterwards and sort of empathized, and said 'Oh my god, I can't believe that happened.' I sort of wondered, how do customers react when they witness fellow customers mistreat servers?"

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With files from CBC Calgary News at 6