Applying the principles of psychology in the restaurant and hotel industry

Hotel supervisor Last year, I spent a great deal of time in different kinds of restaurants in Switzerland in order to evaluate the effectiveness of psychology training on guest satisfaction. It was a very enriching and unique experience for the participants and for myself. It is indeed unusual for academics to spend time with practitioners. I would like to share this experience because I firmly believe that it can be useful for restaurant employees and managers around the world. Before describing the focus of the training class and the results of the study I would like to mention how it started.

Michael Lynn is an influential professor and researcher at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and he has spent most of his career studying the topic of tipping behavior in the US. He has published several academic papers on how waiters and waitresses can increase guest satisfaction. He has also demonstrated that very few of these techniques are used by restaurant employees in the US. After having read most of his articles, I started wondering if the same techniques could also work outside of the US. After a pilot study in which a sample of restaurant employees in Switzerland were surveyed, I came to the same conclusion as Michael Lynn. Very few restaurant employees in Switzerland use all the techniques that generate guest satisfaction. For that reason, I decided to create a training program and train employees in Switzerland on the psychological techniques identified in the literature and see if guest satisfaction would increase (when it is measured through the amount of tips).

It is interesting to note that many employees were skeptical about the strategies taught in these training sessions. Some thought that they would not work in the restaurant in which they worked (more precisely employees in fine-dining restaurants thought the strategies would be more effective in casual-dining restaurants and employees in casual-dining restaurants thought that the strategies would be more effective in fine-dining restaurants), others thought that these strategies were not adequate in the Swiss culture because they thought that these techniques could only work in the US. Others thought that it would be difficult to use the strategies because they were not accustomed to them. Despite these concerns, there were also many employees who were enthusiastic about trying out these strategies.

What are these strategies exactly? I will present some of them here and I will use an acronym to facilitate their memorization. This acronym is PPePPS and stands for Personalization, Positive emotions, Proximity, Professionalism and Surprise. Personalization is an important aspect of service because it means to create a personalized approach to service. For instance, employees who introduce themselves by their name will be perceived as more friendly and their service more customized. Asking customers what their names are is a question that could be perceived as rude, but existing studies have shown that guests generally respond positively. If employees remember and call the guests by their name, they will send a strong signal that they care about their guests.

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Positive emotions constitute another element that leads to customer satisfaction. It is therefore not surprising that employees who smile are more likely to bring positive emotions to their customers by means of Ôemotional contagion’. They can also reinforce positive emotions through different methods: talking about the good weather or complimenting the guest on the meal he or she has ordered.

Proximity can be conveyed through different methods. It has been shown repeatedly that the closer the distance between the employees and the customers the higher the tips. The same is true when employees squat down or lean toward their customers or when they briefly touch the arm or shoulder of the customer when they bring the bill or when they inquire about the level of satisfaction of the customers. This increased proximity with the guest will promote friendliness and will create trust.

Professionalism (or perceived professionalism) can be promoted by repeating the orders back to the customers. It is indeed not rare to observe restaurant employees only nodding or saying something like ÒYesÓ or ÒI have understood and I will bring back your drinks in a minuteÓ. When employees repeat exactly the order, first, they actively demonstrate they have understood and second they reduce the risk of error. Another behavior that will increase the perceived professionalism of the service provider is upselling. By making suggestions and offering choices to the customers, the employees will give customers the impression they care about their needs.

The last approach that can be applied successfully with customers is the element of surprise. Usually, people appreciate unexpected gifts or gestures. It has been shown that customers react very positively when someone brings a second piece of candy a few minutes after having received their coffee and a first piece of candy. Nowadays, it is commonplace for customers to receive a piece of candy or a chocolate with their coffee. Customers are even disappointed when they receive nothing with the coffee. However, it is very rare that employees bring extra pieces of candies and this gesture should without a doubt delight the guests. It is also possible to surprise the guest by letting a short, handwritten note on the bill such as Òthank youÓ, or a more personalized message or even a small drawing.

While not all employees used these strategies in the study I conducted in Switzerland, employees who were trained got, on average, more tips than employees who did not receive training. In addition, the more the employees used these strategies the higher their tips. It also bears mentioning that some of the strategies should not be used with certain guests or under certain circumstances. For that reason, I strongly believe that service providers should remain authentic and use these techniques to benefit customers and encourage them to become repeat customers.

Although these behaviors seem inexpensive and easy, it is surprising to see how rare they are in most restaurants. Employees are sometimes so afraid to disturb clients that, in the end, they may appear as cold and unwelcoming. With robots entering the hospitality industry (, it is essential for human employees to focus on the core elements of hospitality and service.

By SŽbastien Fernandez

Sebastien FernandezDr. SŽbastien Fernandez (PhD in Differential Psychology) is currently Assistant Professor of Human Behavior and Performance at the ƒcole h™telire de Lausanne. He is also teaching executive education programs in talent assessment. He performs research about selection practices in hospitality and about human factors that predict effectiveness in the workplace. He spent a few years conducting selection interviews and psychometric testing to recruit officers in the Swiss army.

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