Starbucks uses crowd-sourced ratings known as connection scores to evaluate the customer service at its cafes around the country.
In interviews, 17 current and five former Starbucks employees told NBC News that the system, which has not previously been reported on, made them feel powerless and at the mercy of customers’ whims. In two instances, workers said that low scores caused managers to reduce hours for store employees.
While the ratings have been used for years, many workers said that the connection score system has also helped drive a national labor organizing campaign currently underway at Starbucks. Since last December, employees at more than 80 of the company’s roughly 9,000 company-run U.S. locations have voted to unionize, a movement that the White House has hailed and that has helped energize other labor efforts.
“It’s just a really good indication of the way the partners feel that corporate is sort of out of touch with the reality of the job,” said Maddie Vanhook, a worker at a Starbucks cafe in Cleveland that unionized this week. “You’re just kind of pumping out drinks. I think a lot of people just get into a groove. But then somewhere in the back of your head, if you don’t say hi to everybody or you don’t have a little conversation with everybody in between all of this rush and noise and other stuff going on, it’s like, oh, you know, this will affect my store’s numbers.”
The majority of workers told NBC News they would not be financially punished if their cafe’s connection score was low. But three current and two former Starbucks employees said they recalled their managers threatening to cut staff hours if their stores failed to improve the rating. Two workers said their managers carried out the plan, resulting in lost income for some workers.
Reggie Borges, a spokesperson for Starbucks, repeatedly denied that connection scores influence how many staffing hours a store receives, which he said were based on factors such as foot traffic and sales volume. But he also said that customer connection scores reflected the company’s priorities for its workers, whom they call partners.
“It’s an important number and we care about that because we’re a company built on the idea that the connection that a customer and partner have in a store is the differentiator for us compared to other companies,” he said. “People come to Starbucks for the experience.”
Over the past decade, corporations have increasingly begun asking customers to evaluate the performance of retail workers, restaurant servers, pharmacists, doctors and call center representatives. Similar systems are used by gig work platforms like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, which, unlike Starbucks, say they directly penalize individual workers whose ratings sink below acceptable thresholds.
Legal experts say the trend is transforming the relationship between customers and service employees, giving customers a role that is more akin to supervisor. They worry that by using feedback collected through online surveys, corporations may be unwittingly allowing the gender and racial biases of their customers to influence how they manage their workforces, which could amount to discrimination.
“Customer feedback is notoriously unreliable and discriminatory, particularly against women and people of color,” said Dallan Flake, a law professor at Ohio Northern University who has written about customer reviews. “Despite this, businesses are relying on it more and more in making employment-related decisions, such as promotion, termination and pay rates.”
Borges emphasized that connection scores are only one signal Starbucks uses to assess the performance of its stores. He said the company is aware the demographics of its staff could influence ratings, and encourages store managers to focus on improvement over time rather than comparisons to other locations. He added that the company’s diversity and inclusion team works closely with the teams responsible for creating materials like customer surveys.
Starbucks calculates connection scores by compiling email surveys sent to a sample of customers who are part of its rewards program, which the company says has more than 27 million active members in the U.S. They are asked to rate a series of statements about their recent experience at Starbucks on a scale of (1) “Strongly Disagree” to (7) “Strongly Agree.” The survey includes questions about how clean the store was and how good the drinks tasted, but one is most relevant to the connection score: “The employees made an effort to get to know me.”
Perfect scores count toward increasing the metric, according to Starbucks, while anything less than 7 is essentially counted as a zero. For example, if 40 out of the 100 people who answered the survey responded with a 7, the customer connection score at that location would be 40. The scores are updated at the beginning of each week and factor in data from the previous eight weeks.
Some workers said district managers often shared data about connection scores across the area, so they could tell how their location compared with others nearby. The workers said they could also view comments customers left, which sometimes referred to things out of employees’ control, such as ingredient shortages.
A former Starbucks worker said their store received around 30 survey responses per week, out of more than 6,000 visitors. Borges said Starbucks couldn’t say how many responses were typically included in customer connection scores, but that “stores are looking at a large number.”
Studies have repeatedly shown that customer feedback collected online can be biased in a variety of different ways. In many cases, researchers have found that people rate the performance of minorities and women lower than for other groups. Reviews can also be influenced by other factors, such as whether customers anticipate being asked for their feedback and their understanding of how negative ratings could harm a person’s livelihood.
Heather Weizsacker, a Starbucks store manager in Seattle, said that she and other managers felt pressured to keep their connection scores high, a concern that trickled down to workers. “There was a lot of shame for those of us that had low scores,” said Weizsacker, who went on medical leave in 2020. “Sometimes other managers would even make ‘jokes’— very demoralizing.” (Starbucks said that making fun of people is not consistent with its values.)
Workers said in order to influence the ratings, managers often pushed them to engage customers in conversations that seemed inauthentic. “It’s so fake and cringey,” said Cierra Goolsby, 29, a Starbucks worker in Carbondale, Illinois. “Some people love it. But it makes me feel weird, to try and get to know people without some people actually inviting you into that.”
Casey Moore, a barista in Buffalo, New York, said a manager instructed workers to ask customers a “question of the day,” which she hears repeated through her drive-through headset as many as 60 times an hour. On Cinco De Mayo, her coworkers asked, “My favorite Mexican food is a burrito. What’s yours?”
Workers frequently said that trying to improve their store’s connection score contradicted other requirements Starbucks has put in place, such as serving customers drinks faster at drive-through windows.
“It’s frustrating because there’s a lot of push and drive to focus on speed and volume, but in the same breadth, have us make these connections with people,” said Olivia Lewis, 30, a worker at a Starbucks that recently voted to unionize in Boone, North Carolina. “That’s what we want to do. We’re in the service industry. We love talking to people. But you can’t do both.”
These kinds of demands are part of what troubles Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, a professor at Willamette University’s law school who recently wrote a paper on customer scoring that will be published next year.
“This is just one more pressure point in the workers’ lives,” he said. “And at some point you have to ask whether something has to give. Because mounting pressure combined with low wages, combined with the angst that we’re all feeling in the midst of the pandemic, adds up to a fundamental problem of worker burnout.”
The lack of control Starbucks employees thought they had over connection scores and other aspects of their workplace was part of what some of them said made unions seem appealing.
“We’re doing this so we can fight for everything from working conditions to better health and pay through a collective bargaining agreement,” said Moore, whose store in Buffalo voted to unionize earlier this week (the results of the election are still being finalized).
Joe Thompson, 19, a Starbucks worker in Santa Cruz, California, said he thought his store’s connection score went up because workers there unionized. “The union brings unity, it makes it easier to work,” he explained. “We have fun and the customers support us more.”
Thompson said he also believed that managers with high scores received bonuses. When asked if that was the case, Borges, the Starbucks representative, said that “there are a number of factors that go into rewarding all of our partners.”
He stressed that connection scores are not meant to be a tool for punishment, and that Starbucks believes workers need to balance efficient service with quality customer interactions.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “you know, we are in the people business serving coffee.”