I still cringe at the memory. I was a Japan newbie then, on my first trip to Tokyo a decade ago. The porter brought my bags up to my hotel room. I thanked him and offered a tip, which he politely refused. I thought he was just being shy and offered it again with renewed vigour. A flurry of embarrassed bowing followed until yours-truly-from-bakshish-land realized she was committing a cultural crime.
Cultural crime: Japan is a no-tipping zone and yet the quality of service is excellent. Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP
Japan is strictly a “no tipping” zone, and here’s the wonder—I find the quality of service amazing. I have been back several times on work and holiday—our family is head over heels in love with Japan—and every time it is a joy to experience the exquisite service, whether it’s a five-star hotel or a small humble restaurant, a fancy hair salon or getting your nails painted at a busy department store. The job is done to perfection and the service is always kind, unhurried, knowledgeable, and charming.
Switch tracks to the US, with its tip-till-you-drop culture. It has the highest tipping norm in the world—it used to be 15%, now more like 20%—and you are expected to tip the widest number of people. But despite leaving generous tips left, right and centre, the overall service level is sometimes great, sometimes awful.
Providing fabulous service is of course at the heart of any luxury experience, so it leads me to the rather counter-intuitive question: Does tipping come in the way of excellent service? Why does zero-tipping Japan score an A+, while hefty-tipping US does not?
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The concept of tipping has thrived in the US, as indeed in most of the world, because all three parties in the equation—the customer, the server, and the owner of the service establishment—have a stake in it. The customer feels he will get better service as the tip carrot dangles unsaid throughout the meal, egging on the server to do his best. (“Tip”, some say, is an acronym for “to insure promptitude”.) The server feels that if he provides better service he will get a fatter tip. And the restaurant owner feels this is a good way to have his staff paid and happy.
In reality none of these three hopes work quite so. Sadly enough, extensive research by Cornell University’s Michael Lynn shows that the tip amounts have very little correlation to quality of service. While tipping no doubt adds to the income of the front staff—in the US, the servers get very low hourly wages and depend on tips to make ends meet—the whole issue is fraught with perceptions of unfairness. Why should the front staff corner all the tips, doesn’t the kitchen staff and others play a role too? This leads to tension and bickering, which doesn’t help service levels.
Tipping aside, the culture of the host nation plays a crucial part in the guest experience. The nations of the East, generally speaking, have an inborn service attitude, while the West is more about “I” than “serving you”. This is most visibly illustrated by the service on airlines—the quality on Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific or Emirates is totally different compared to any airline from the US. Flights, thank goodness, are tip-free, and the service I believe reflects the national culture. India admittedly doesn’t do too well with its national airline but Jet Airways is a delight with its contemporary, courteous, concerned brand of service. And our five-star hotels send back atithis feeling like gods.
The Trident, Gurgaon, is an example of excellent service and no tipping. I have stayed there a lot and always marvelled how the hotel consistently delivers such a high level of service across the board. How do they ensure that a young unsupervised attendant—with no tip in sight—does his job so well? I suppose what makes the Trident special is that it is able to go beyond warmth and hospitality—which they also have in oodles—to create a sense of home, of genuineness, of affection and trust. If your daughter is unwell, it seems the whole hotel is working in concert to make sure she gets better. Or if she is partial to mangoes, from room service to the restaurants, they all seem intent on sending mangoes her way.
Kapil Chopra has been the Trident’s general manager from day one (now senior vice-president, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts) and I asked him why they chose to go the “no tipping” way. Chopra says the main motive was to “not put pressure on guests”. Typically, foreign guests arrive in the middle of the night, and the first thing they have to do is exchange money, and then at every transaction they have to tip, tip, tip. The Trident takes away the hassle, and tells guests instead that if they wish they could leave a consolidated tip when they check out, which is distributed among the entire team.
The Aman Resorts are fabled for their outstanding service, and they go a step further, making the entire stay a cashless transaction. They take your money three months in advance! I thought that was pretty arrogant till I fell under their spell in Bhutan. It was fabulous not having to think about money for a week; everything—food, drinks, laundry, cars, guides, sightseeing—was taken care of.
Perhaps the Oberoi dharma, “Guests come first, colleagues and company next, self last”, holds the answer to why the Japanese excel at service sans tipping, while the Americans don’t. With tipping, the self comes first. Without it, you can focus single-mindedly on your guest, no dollar signs to distract you, no ulterior motives to pull you astray. Excellent service becomes a reward in itself.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury. Write to Radha at firstname.lastname@example.org