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Customers are not always good soldiers, and too often frontline employees are confronted with uncivil, verbally aggressive and even physically aggressive customers. For example, The Union of Shop Workers in the UK (2017) informs, that over 12 months no less than two-third of frontline retail employees were exposed to verbal abuse and 42% of the workers reported at least one incident of threat of physical violence. Australian Union of Workers (2017) reports even higher numbers, with 85% of respondents experiencing verbal abuse over 12 months and 15% being subject to physical violence.
In the last decade, there has been a growing interest among researchers to understand the problem of customers as social stressors. Knowledge on customer-related social stressors (CSS) emerged in two literature streams. The first literature stream investigates the antecedents of CSS with the goal of outlining the conditions under which CSS might prevail (e.g., job resources, job demands). The second research stream has focused on the outcomes of CSS and examined its impact on several variables including burnout, turnover intentions or job satisfaction.
Despite that a significant body of knowledge has accumulated in both research streams, a closer inspection of the research findings reveals several limitations to our current understanding of the antecedents and consequences of CSS constructs. In particular, there is a proliferation (a) in terms of conceptualization of CSS, and (b) in the number of antecedents and outcomes linked to these concepts. Studies typically examine subsets of variables related to CSS, while a comprehensive overview of these relationships is lacking. This abundance of research findings makes difficult for researchers and practitioners to make claims about the absolute and relative strength of relationships between the different stressors, their antecedents and their outcomes. Thus, the aim of this paper is to meta-analytically synthetize previous findings of the scholarly work conducted on CSS and integrate them into an overall framework.
Our meta-analysis of 84 articles revealed six types of CSS (disliked customers, ambiguous customer expectations, disproportionate customer expectations, customer incivility, customer verbal aggression, customer physical aggression). Antecedents were grouped in four categories and outcomes were categorized in thirteen broad constructs. The results show that job demands are the strongest overall related antecedent of CSS, whereas emotion work and burnout are the strongest overall related outcomes. In general, job resources are rather weak indicators of the occurrence of CSS. Most research effects apply to customer verbal aggression, which is the most studied stressor. In the next stage, we will add about 50 additional articles to advance our understanding of these relationships and test several mediators and boundary conditions. We conclude with an agenda for future research on this important phenomenon that affects millions of frontline service employees around the world.