Why Contests Don’t Work

(Note: This is the second part of a series I am posting over the holiday weekend.  The first part of this series lays out the basic premises this post and the rest of the series is based on.  In order to full appreciate this series, please read “The Epiphany” where the research behind this post is presented.)

Over the years I have been in countless serving contests.  The manager comes out at lineup and explains that whoever sells the most of the evenings fish special wins a lovely pink women’s size small t-shirt with the phrase “Buy Me a Tequila Rose” across the front.  Immediately visions of sporting this stylish shirt out to the club on my six-foot tall frame to pick up women go through my head.  Nothing says “class” like liquor company promo shirts.  All I have to do is regale my guest with mentions of the finely aged fish special that guests who came in the last three nights did not choose.  Tonight I can tell them that it truly is a limited time offer.  I will leave out that if they don’t buy it the kitchen manager can no longer in good conscience avoid throwing it out.

Fortunately, most of the contests were not as bad as the previously mentioned tale.  Most managers have accepted that cash is “one size fits all” and far more effective in the aforementioned club.  What surprises these managers, and myself in my time as a manager, is how poorly it works as a prize to motivate a staff.  The previous post outlines numerous studies that show cash incentives actually harm performance.  At first glance, this seems to make no sense.  Servers tend to be highly money motivated as a whole.  Yet cash incentives don’t lead to better performance.  Upon further examination though it can be easily explained.

Here are the basic reasons why financial incentives in the form of contests fail to motivate servers:

High Failure Rate: There is generally only one winner for these contests.  That means that everyone else involved in the contest is the loser.  Servers who lack the confidence to believe that they are likely to be the one winner will concede from the start.  The thought process is that if you did not try, you did not technically lose.  These servers will avoid any appearance of trying to compete.  This means regardless of the product, they will try not to be seen as attempting to sell it.

Detracts From Independence: While servers do tend to be driven by money, it is not the largest motivator.  The trait that is more common is what I call the “rugged individualism of servers. “  Servers tend to be independent people.  They choose an occupation where their individual efforts are rewarded rather than being one part of a larger team.  They forgo salary or hourly wage for the opportunity to make more money based on their efforts.  In the research cited previously this is referred to as “autonomy.”  When you tell servers what to sell, they will under perform.  The cash prize one person receives is seldom high enough to outweigh the loss of autonomy by allowing you to pick what they sell.

Not In The Guest’s Interest: It is the motivation of a manager to push items that there are too many of, have high profit margins, or are paid sponsorships from a vendor.  Servers understand this and do not begrudge managers for it.  None of those factors have anything to do with why a server would recommend an item to a guest.  A server should never recommend anything that is not in the guest’s best interest.  If the item a manager is trying to push is not the best item on the menu, the loss of credibility with the table creates a greater loss of income for the server than the cash prize compensates for.  Dropping from 20% to 15% for recommending a sub par item dismisses all the other efforts a server puts into taking care of their guests.  A server’s primary motivation is to make guests happy, not worry about food costs.

When explained from a server’s perspective it becomes more apparent why cash incentives do not work.  The interesting part is how this interacts with what was learned from the previous post.  During the course of writing this, another light bulb went off.  While it was not my intent when outlining this post, this logic actually adds credence to the research previously presented that showed the primary motivators of employees to be autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  The high failure rate of contests defeats a server’s sense of mastery.  The detraction from independence harms the server’s sense of autonomy.  Selling things not in the guest’s best interest contradicts a server’s sense of purpose.

The research is right.  These are the motivators for servers just like any other profession.  Over the next few posts I will continue to outline what this research means for the restaurant industry and how managers can best capitalize on this information.  In the meantime, there is hope.  In a previous post I outlined contests that I have found to be effective.  In the next post I will explain the inherent contradiction between servers desire for money and the lack of motivation caused by it in the form of contests.

Tips²: Tips For Improving Your Tips, the new book from the author of The Manager’s Office, teaches the skills of exceptional servers that will increase customer satisfaction and dramatically improve restaurant sales.  This book is more than a server training manual.  It is the secret to teaching your staff to enjoy selling and give your guests the experience that will create raving fans.  To learn more about the book, visit www.tips2book.com.  Use the coupon code “MANAGER” to save 20% at the checkout.


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About David Hayden

David Hayden is a restaurant marketing and training consultant based in Kansas City, MO. He writes a series of 9 blogs collectively known as The Hospitality Formula Network and is the author of "Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips" and "Building Your Brand With Facebook"

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