Nuts and Bolts

OK – this has all been pretty philosophical, right? Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of getting good tech support. There are several things that the user can do to help ensure a satisfactory solution to most PC problems.

Know your equipment. Many users seek support but are often completely unaware of the specific equipment involved. Consider the effect of going into an auto parts store for a pair of wiper blades, and having no idea whatsoever of the make and model of the car that needs the blades! Now consider the absurdity of asking a support tech why your system says the hard drive is full without knowing any details about the hard drive or the system in which it is installed.

If the system for which you need help is a mass-produced system, provide the make and model number at the very least. Some systems will carry further identifying numbers that may be necessary for obtaining proper support. These might include a “type number”, a “version number”, a “revision level”, a “service ID”, a “support ID”, or a “configuration number”. All systems should have a serial number, although this number may not be helpful when identifying specific components.

In addition to the above information, provide details on any upgrades to the system, including any BIOS updates, RAM upgrades, hard drive upgrades, and so forth, as well as the operating system version installed.

Mass-produced systems can often be identified as to factory standard equipment based on the model and type numbers alone. For example, a Compaq Presario 5005R can easily be identified as a 1.1GHz Athlon system with 128MB SDRAM on a 200MHz mainboard, shipped with a 40GB hard drive, a DVD-ROM drive, a CD-RW drive, and a 16MB NVidia TNT2 display adapter. Simply put, if it’s a 5005R, that’s the way it left the factory.

Custom-built systems require more info than their mass-produces cousins, as each system is built to its buyer’s specifications. A single model family from a given manufacturer might have any one of several available processors, and will often even use different mainboards. For this reason, the actual make and model of the system are probably irrelevant when seeking support. Rather, the user should include such info as mainboard make and model, CPU type and speed, and the specific make and model details for other installed devices like display adapter, NIC, sound card, modem, SCSI adapter, and so on.

Some PC builders are kind enough to provide details on the component installed in a particular system. These makers will often maintain a database of installed components versus system serial number. Others, while they may keep such records, do not have them readily available to their support personnel. It is always a good idea to compile a record of your own, which can then be kept handy for future reference. This record should be updated with the pertinent information regarding BIOS or firmware updates, driver versions installed, and any other information that you believe you might want. A PC component inventory will help you to keep track of each installed component. The secret here is to keep it updated as changes are made to the system.

Be prepared. By this, I mean that the user should have the equipment documentation at hand, together with any and all driver disks and the OS installation disks. If the problem is with a particular application, have the pertinent disks and manuals for that application at hand, as should be any applicable customer numbers and/or product serial numbers. If you have prepared a component inventory as described above, now is the time to pull it out!

For telephone support, have the phone available when sitting at the PC if at all possible. If the problem involves dial-up online access, the user should have the phone and the PC on separate phone lines if at all possible. If the problem is not of a type that keeps the PC from starting, have the PC up and running when you call for help.

Think about the circumstances that led up to the problem. For example, was there any new software installed? How about hardware – were any changes made there? Was an automated update of any kind done? Think through the chain of events carefully and try to identify anything that may have contributed to the problem. I once took a support call from a user who stated that nothing out of the ordinary had occurred prior to the onset of his problem. Closer questioning led to the revelation that he had downloaded and installed several apps that morning. He did not consider that to be a likely cause though, as he downloads software on an almost daily basis – making it an “ordinary” event for him. Ordinary events can and do cause problems, so keep them in mind as well.

If the problem is of an intermittent nature, try to determine the sequence of events that leads up to the problem. If the problem occurs the same way repeatedly, the chances of tracking it down are better than they would be if the problem could not be duplicated.

Document any repair steps taken. In any support scenario, the more information that is provided to the support tech, the more likely it is that a solution will be found. If you have taken certain steps in an attempt to solve a problem, be sure to let the tech know what steps they were, and what the results of those steps were. When calling most phone support centers, the user will be given a reference number for the support incident. Be sure to record this number! In theory, should the user need to call again on the same issue, the number is supposed to allow the follow-up support tech to see the history of the incident. It doesn’t always work as expected. Some techs make few notes as to the particulars of a problem. In those cases, the incident number won’t do much other than prove that there was a previous call! If the tech kept proper notes regarding the user contact, the user will be spared the need for repetition of the history. In addition, it is likely that the follow-up tech will not have the user repeat the same “fixes” as those that were previously attempted.

Documenting the repair steps can also aid the user in the future should the problem occur again later, or should the user encounter the same problem on a different system. At the very least, it will add to the user’s general pool of PC knowledge, and the information will likely be useful in a community support environment.

Be concise. When explaining a PC problem, your chances of getting a proper solution will depend greatly on how well your actual problem is understood by the support tech. If you receive an on-screen error message, write it down. The exact wording of an error message can be helpful when trying to track down its cause. While it’s true that some error messages are very generic, there are also some that are quite specific. The user is not expected to know which is which, but it is expected that any displayed error messages will be accurately reported when seeking help.

Try not to ask “general” questions when seeking help, as general questions will usually get general responses. If you need to know how to change display resolution, ask that! Don’t ask how to change “display settings”. A question like that will normally be answered with a question – “Which settings do you want to change?”.

Learn the proper terminology. This is an important point, if only to protect your own sanity! Many support techs will rapidly become impatient if they have to stop and explain each and every term that is used. It is not specifically necessary for the user to know how the various parts of a system operate, but it really is necessary to know what the parts are called. The same thing applies to the user interface, to the pointing device, and to the keyboard. It’s a little bit unnerving to the support tech to realize that the user thinks that the monitor is the computer, as once happened when a caller told me that there was no place to insert a diskette on his computer.

Earlier I spoke about confusion and poor communication. Not long ago, I had to deal with a very confused user who had been somewhat frustrated after spending more than an hour on the phone with the tech support department of a major PC maker. Her confusion stemmed from the fact that she did not know the correct terminology, and the tech with whom she spoke did not understand that! When I got involved, it was to find out why she was having “repeated hard disk failures”, as reported to me by her supervisor. She is an art teacher in a local grade school. Unbelievably, she had gone through her school’s in-house support chain before going to the PC maker for help. When she complained to her supervisor, it was decided that an outside “expert” was needed to solve the problem. What I discovered immediately upon talking with her was that her “hard disks” were 3.5″ floppy disks. In her mind, “floppy disks” were the 5.25″ diskettes. The diskettes that she had were Mac formatted, which was the cause of her problem. I still don’t really know what she thought the actual hard disk drive was called!

So where was the breakdown in that example? Did the in-house tech really listen to the complaint? If so, how much thought went into a solution? Repeated hard disk failures? Was the PC in question ever looked at by the tech? Who fixed the system following each failure? Why did the problem ever get as far as the manufacturer’s support line? Worse yet, once it did get there, how did it escalate even further? The obvious answer is that a combination of obstacles occurred – confusion and poor communication, aided and abetted by a lack of familiarity with basic PC terminology and poor support technique.

Don’t give up. The above example shows us the importance of this, even if it did get way out of hand before a solution was found. Somewhere, somehow, an answer to the problem exists, whatever the problem may be. The answer may not always be as simple as explaining the difference between Mac and IBM formats. It may not be as simple as replacing the phone cord that the cat chewed on. It may not even be as simple as plugging the monitor power cord in. But there is an answer! Keep looking until it’s found.

Some solutions require extreme measures like the replacement of a major component or the complete reinstallation of the operating system. At times, that simply cannot be avoided, as painful as it may be. On the other hand, don’t rush to these extreme steps, either. If you are not comfortable with the advice given, it’s OK to get a second opinion. That’s the great thing about the community support concept – there are generally enough contributors with a variety of differing backgrounds so that several ideas may be offered. As a rule, if one response shows up repeatedly – if many contributors offer the same suggestion – there is probably a very good chance that the suggestion is valid. By the same token, do not rule out the seemingly off-the-wall suggestion that is offered by a lone respondent, especially if the problem is one that has defied the more common and conventional fixes.

Wrapping It Up

The moral of this long story is that the more effort you put forth towards finding a solution, the more likely it is that you will be satisfied. If you, to whom the solution should be most important, don’t expend any real energy in solving your problem, it’s unlikely that others will do it for you. In a community-support environment, common courtesy calls for you to inform the community when your problem has been solved, and what the solution was. Until you do so, there may be folks out there looking for a solution that is no longer needed, and the time spent doing so could be spent helping others who do need help. Remember too that you may want to come back to that community for additional help later!


– ChrisP –

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