Waiters use nodding trick to boost restaurant tabs

Over at 43 Folders, Merlin Mann mentioned the "Sullivan nod," which, according to Wikipedia, is a "sales technique used to create a subconscious suggestion to a customer to purchase one particular item out of a list of like items."
A Sullivan nod is executed by nodding slightly, by approximately 10–15 degrees, when the item it is hoped the customer will choose is reached. The key is to make the nod perceptible, yet subtle, so as to not distract. The nod is best done with lists less than 5 items in length. Studies have concluded that 60–70% of the time, a Sullivan nod will result in the customer choosing the 'recommended' item.

The Sullivan nod has been used for years, but I just heard about it. Consultant Jim Sullivan, the creator of this technique, claims it "even works over the phone for room service orders." Link


  1. haha, this is even better than the “jedi mind trick” some of the fellows use at work.
    when handing the check back to the guest, they write a small number in the top corner of the receipt and circle it, which is the expected amount of tip (20%) that should be received.
    more often than not, the guest leaves 20%+

  2. 1. Does anyone go over menu selections one by one with the waiter standing there?
    2. Does anyone pay any attention to the waiter while they’re looking at their menu?
    3. If the waiter is going over the specials or desserts or something like that, I immediately throw out the things I know I won’t have (he could be nodding 270 degrees while mentioning curry and he’d get nothing out of me)
    4. No references given for these “studies”. Nice. They can be traced back to the Jim Sullivan Institute for The Enrichment of Jim Sullivan, I’m sure.
    5. Over the PHONE?

  3. I used to be forced to watch sales training videos by a guy named Jackie Stewart who used to nod during role play, point to his neck, and say, “see the hinge?”

  4. I’ve always heard that 15% is the proper amount to tip. I’m a good tipper though, I usually start at 15% and pay up or down according to how good a job the waiter did. I’ve found that tipping well at a restaurant you frequent will often get you a free drink or appetizer. Of course when that happens I always increase the amount of the accordingly.

  5. This is good to know. Now when I see someone practicing this trick or the one Zikman mentioned in an attempt to subvert my free will, I’ll exercise it instead by leaving an awful tip along with a note why.

  6. I have spent too much of my life waiting tables, mainly in fine dining establishments. I employed the nod without knowing it was a real technique.

    Not only did I nod during my descriptions of the specials (usually on the one that was most expensive), but I would also nod when asking if my customers wanted appetizers or desserts. While some patrons were somewhat immune to the trick, I had the highest sales average per ticket during most of my shifts.

    The nod must be very subtle, or it becomes annoying. It is also important to note that good servers know how to read their clients, and will not sell them a meal they obviously won’t like. People who are dissatisfied with their meal, even if they are pleased with your service, generally leave a smaller tip.

    While 15% was an average tip around 10 years ago, an average tip now should be 18%; a good tip is 20%. An excellent tip is anything more than 20%.

  7. As a restaurant manager & staff trainer, I’ve taught the Sullivan Nod for years. Almost everyone says thet it can’t work but, once I get just two or three of the waiters to try it for one service, they start telling the rest of the staff how well it works. I’m always amazed that we humans can be influenced so easily by such simple leadership signals.

    – Sommelier –

  8. I was taught the nod as a waiter and I never used it because it just seemed like a gimmicky waste of time. The idea was you nod when you upsell. As in, “We also have a special today on…” nod when you say it. Meh! I just wanted to get people their damn food and make them comfortable.

  9. I learned this as part of corporate training at TGI-FRIDAYS. We typically employed it with a “table touch.” Just placing two or three fingers on the table which gives the feeling of intimacy but isn’t as potentially off putting as touching a person.

    Ask a server what they like or recommend. A green server will say the most expensive thing on the menu. An experienced server will say the third most expensive thing on the menu, then the second.

    Also, don’t expect something to be taken off your bill. The goal of a server is to get your bill as high as possible while trying to get you as a regular. So instead of taking something off your bill you’re more likely to get something for “free” like a dessert or drink.

  10. Over the phone? How exactly does that work? Was Sullivan testing at hotels with videophones? This is ridiculous.

  11. 60-70%? Un-cited “Studies?” From a Wikipedia entry with no citations??? And we believe this why? Because salesman Jim Sullivan says this is so?

    This trick would appear part of an overall friendly salesman’s manipulations. By itself it certainly will not work 60-70% on a general population, especially where people are not necessarily equally open to all the menu choices and are not completely open to suggestion on any one–they have things they do and don’t like so they won’t just be pushed into buying it off the menu because someone is nodding their head.

  12. Another take on the use of this. I used to do sales as a job to pay the tuition. Where I worked, we carried a number of products that were essentially identical from two or three different manufacturers. We would carry them all because some people would come in looking for a specific brand, but most people didn’t know, care or need the difference.

    So, when someone came in looking for these, you bet I would use every trick I had to subtly point them to one of the choices. Why? because you can’t just hand them one and say ‘take this one’ because 50% of the time they assume you are ripping them off and want to know what’s wrong with it. And if you try and demonstrate the minuscule differences between the brands you will spend an hour trying to help someone on a 30 second decision.

    So tips to guide the process along are not always a bad, or even underhanded tactic.

  13. First we learned that waiters and waitresses are heartless racists. Now they’re trying to control our minds.

  14. Heck, I didn’t realize this was a secret – although I waited tables for a long time, so I guess I was “on the inside”.

    The Sullivan nod is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what happens behind the scenes in food service. If you REALLY wanna know (and you might not) then look here:


  15. “These are not the specials you are looking for…”

    Also, how exactly does a technique that relies on a visual cue work over the phone?

  16. Since they’re talking about a list of five or less items, I think that this applies primarily to high end restaurants that have a few pricey items on the menu. Anyway, who gets tipped on a take-out order?

  17. Funny, I was under the impression that the tip is whatever I choose it to be, subject to the general guideline of around 15%.

    Spreading around FUD about some 20% standard is just another version of the nodding trick, I assume.

  18. 20% is definitely standard in most US metropolitan areas I’ve been and for people who eat out often. Especially for real servers, not high school food-runners at a chain restaurant.

  19. Two points:

    1) I order what I want. There is no way that someone touching the table, or nodding, is going to influence my decision.

    2) Tipping is very much culture/country specific, so there’s no point arguing what the ‘correct’ rate is. Here it’s generally 10%.

  20. You DO order what you want. Sullivan’s nod only helps “tip the scales” in the server’s favor- if you have a strong aversion to ordering it (ex: you can’t afford it, you have an allergy), then no, it won’t affect your choice.

    The only reason I can think of for SN working over the phone is the seller feels more confident using it- which transfers to the listener in their tone of voice.

    And don’t tip poorly because your waiter/ waitress uses the SN- they’re just trying to get you to try something new & enjoy your visit… & hopefully this becomes a better tip for them, yes. Don’t you want a better paycheck too?

  21. I’ve been out of the restaurant business for over 10 years and we were taught to use this then. I never used it to increase tips, but I did nod in anticipation while a table was eating and ask, “Is everything great?” They always said yes.

  22. Why should tip percentages go up over time? The food prices are going up anyway, so the tip increases accordingly.

  23. The whole point of the sullivan nod and other techniques is to generate a social connection between the parties, which induces reciprocal behavior — especially in tipping situations.

    Techniques that raise average tips include: the table touch, squatting when taking the order (to match eye levels), and writing a named thank-you on the check. Nonverbals work best.

    When I see a server really laying on this stuff I mercilessly tease them about it, critique their execution, etc. And then I tip more because of the increased social connection we’ve just made.


  24. This is a form of NLP and creating a social connection. Think about waiters or waitresses that aren’t engaged when they wait on you. They’re usually standing away from the table and they’re probably leaning away from you. I bet you don’t enjoy your meal or the dining experience with a disengaged waiter.

    When the waitperson is engaged they’re probably leaning towards you when they’re talking to you. They want you to have a good dining experience and you’ll probably ask which dish you should order if you’re undecided. Women seem to ask for suggestions more often then men (no statistical proof, just personal experience) and we enjoy our meal more often with an engaged waitperson.

    I don’t think most waitpeople intentionally engage you to get more tips. It’s because they enjoy what they are doing and want you to enjoy your meal. Bigger tips are just a fringe benefit of the experince.

  25. The sullivan nod works because of the subliminal effect it has on the person using it more than it does on the person being nodded at. It works through the power of Placebo. If the person really believes that the nod works, while they are executing this wonderful move they do so with far more confidence and expectation because they believe it will work. This comes through in the voice, hence working over the phone. Dont believe it, try it for yourself. Next time you ask somebody for something, try nodding while asking and see… Couldnt hurt!!

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