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Miss Conduct

‘Are you all set?’

Annoyed by an apparent trend in customer service. Plus, how to tell a friend her gifts might be dangerous.

Lucy Truman

At some point, employees began replacing “Can I help you?” with “Are you all set?” — a question that seems to shut down the buying process. I can’t help but see it as a thinly veiled way for the employees to say that they are too busy to help. I must be misunderstanding something, since retail owners and operators would never support practices that are bad for business. Can you help me out?

G.L. / Andover

Practices that are bad for business are not the same thing as practices that are bad for the customer. Humans are naturally egocentric, so when we are playing the role of the customer it seems only logical that all of a business owner’s decisions must be made with us in mind. Wholly untrue slogans like “The customer is king” and “The customer is always right” fuel this cultural myth.

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However, the primary warrant of a business is to make money. You can go broke making customers happy. The desires of customers have to be balanced alongside all kinds of other constraints — legal, financial, practical. Investing in selective hiring and customer-service training for retail clerks might make for a wonderful consumer experience, but if your business model is based on minimal overhead and a customer base that either doesn’t have many options or is primarily motivated by low prices, it doesn’t make sense.

“All set” generally means “Are you ready to move on to the next order of business?” In a restaurant, for example, one goes from being all set with one’s menu (and hence ready to order) to all set with one’s order (ready to be left alone to eat) to all set with one’s meal (ready for the bill) to all set with the check (ready to leave). Shopping has fewer steps, but moves to the same music.

If an “All set?” leaves you feeling unsettled or if it’s not clear what’s being referred to, simply make eye contact and say what you want.

“I don’t need any help, thanks.”

“Where are the safety razors, please?”

“I think we’d like some coffee, and you can bring the check with that.”

And so on.

How do you tell a friend that her gifts of homemade goodies are not safe? Many of us who have received gifts have had to toss them because of mold, leaky jars, or because they just tasted bad. I have mentioned the problem to her, but only my experiences. We don’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her to stop, as she means well. What would you suggest?

M.C. / Andover

Don’t say anything about the leaky jars of yesteryear, but the next time you get an alarming — unsafe, not merely unappetizing — gift from Botulism Betty, speak up loud and clear. You’re only worrying about being tactful because you think Betty’s an awful cook. If she were a good one — Nutritious Nancy — you’d get on the horn immediately and say something like “Nancy! I had to warn you! Those jars are leaking! I knew you’d want to know because you take such pride in your work. Good grief, you’ll probably have to throw the whole batch away now, won’t you? What a nuisance!” Keep a similar brisk, can-do frame with Betty: No recriminations, no excuses, these things happen to everyone. Encourage your friends to do likewise, and if Betty is capable of getting the message, then, eventually, she will.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

HAS A SHOP CLERK OR RESTAURANT SERVER TREATED YOU RUDELY? Write to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com. And read her blog at boston.com/missconduct.

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