Reflect your customer

“Great, I’ll bring you a bowl of the bisque, a Caesar salad, and the steak medium rare with a side of spinach.”

How can this line make a waiter more money?

According to a study by R.B van Baaren, et. al., of the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, restaurant servers earned significantly higher tips when they repeat customers’ orders back to them.

In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (39, 2003, pp. 393-398), van Baaren and his team described research where servers repeated one group of customers’ orders back to them and for another group did not. All other variables were, of course, kept similar to as great an extent as possible. The customers who heard their orders repeated left tips 68% higher than the customers who did not hear their orders repeated.

68%! Wow. I remember my days as a waiter when I was in college, and my mind races thinking about what I would have done with 68% more tips.

Why does this happen? What is it about “verbal mimicry” (yes, that’s the technical term) that makes restaurant customers want to leave larger tips?

The authors of the study offer a few interpretations. For one, various studies show that people tend to like people who mimic them better than those who don’t and also feel closer to people who mimic them. Not surprisingly, they also say that humans sense that someone is more attentive when that person repeats what they say. Additionally, people display more generally “pro-social” behavior after being mimicked, i.e., they act in an overall more social way to everyone around them, not just towards the person who mimicked them.

There are many ways to connect with other people through mirroring their words and actions. Body language, laughing together, aligning your moods and sharing language are all some of the ways that humans connect with each other in this way.

But this idea of mirroring or mimicking is even older than humans. In the 1980s “mirror neurons” were discovered in macaque monkeys. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire either when a monkey, ape or human performs an action or observes another doing that action. In other words, mirror neurons have evolved to connect our own actions with similar actions taken by another. Mirror neurons explain why babies will mimic the smiles or arm gestures of others at very early ages. We are wired to play copycat.

Mirroring and mimicking don’t have to be the least bit manipulative; in fact they are some of the most natural things we do. A restaurant server who repeats back your order is just reinforcing the most basic kind of human connection. She is aligning with you and, in a very important way, saying, “I hear what you are saying.” We may not admit it consciously, but most of us find this very comforting.

How can this apply to your work?

Most of you create business relationships that are deeper than a waitress who serves a table and collects a tip, and you will need to do more than just repeat back what your customers say, but the lessons of van Baaren’s restaurant servers are still powerful and instructive.

You have many opportunities to connect and align with your customers during a relationship-building encounter, showing them that you hear them completely. Align with your customer’s mood; adjust to his pace. Demonstrate that you have connected with what your customer says, not only by repeating what he says, but by responding to it and integrating his ideas and interests into your conversation as well. You don’t need to force this– remember, it’s very natural, and your ancestors have been doing it for millions of years.

Actually, it’s more unnatural to use traditional methods of business communication to persuade your customers,showering them with PowerPoint slides and sales pitches, trying to pound your ideas into their heads. That’s the opposite of mirroring. It’s brute force.

As Aristotle said, “The fool tells me his reasons. The wise man persuades me with my own.” One of the best ways to be wise is to reflect your customer, honoring his interests and ideas, demonstrating that what he cares about is central to what you care about.

Leave A Reply