How to get good technical support

Tired of bad computer technical support? Here are some tips and tricks to improve your chances of a successful computer problem resolution.
Written by Robert Vamosi, Contributor
Tired of bad computer technical support? Here are some tips and tricks to improve your chances of a successful computer problem resolution.

Think about the last time you had a computer problem: You were probably in a hurry. Worse yet, you most likely sat on hold for twenty minutes, and then, when you finally did get a hold of someone, the computer technician didn't understand your problem, your need for a quick resolution, or anything for that matter.

Sound familiar?

Often, poor or frustrating technical support is the result of wild guesses on the part of the technician rather than an informed diagnosis based on concrete information. Why is that? First of all, you can't control the quality of support given by the technician, no argument there. But you can control the quality of information supplied to the technician. The better the symptoms are explained by you, the better the diagnosis.

So, what makes for good technical support? Being prepared. In the next few pages, we'll discuss what you can do to increase your chances of receiving good technical support the next time you need to call.

When you buy a computer from a brand name manufacturer, chances are you'll receive a standard warranty package. Usually it's one year on parts and labor, with as much as three to five years on parts. If you are lucky, "labor" means that someone will come out to your home or business and install the corrective part. But in most cases it means free telephone support and free shipping of the replacement parts, but you are on your own when it comes to installing them.

Beyond the standard warranty, the question remains: Should you pay for extended coverage, or should you contract with someone local? It depends. If you rely on your computer for a home-based business, or small company, buy an extended warranty or contract with someone local and budget it as a basic operating expense. Remember, operating expenses during downtime will always cost you more than a service contract. If, on the other hand, you use your computer to play games, e-mail friends, etc., then consider whether you can live without your PC for a couple of days if it needs to be sent to the repair shop. If you are really concerned about your computer, then by all means get an extended warranty or local contract--it's probably worth the insurance. Be aware, however, that if you buy your computer from a local reseller, and you decide to buy their two-year service contract--the first year's service is already covered by the manufacturer for free and therefore you're paying for a two year contract and only receiving one additional year. Always ask a lot of questions, and if possible, negotiate the coverage to begin after the manufacture's free repair period.

If you chose not to buy a contract, you might need to take your computer in to a local repair shop. If you do, try seeking out a small Ma & Pa shop that has been around for a few years. Their service has to be good and their prices competitive in order to survive. The large, department store repair shops can do no better, and sometimes they charge even more for basic labor.

Long before picking up your telephone to call for help, there are some basic steps you should take to increase your chances of obtaining good technical support later on:

Record your error messages
It's a good idea to keep a journal or a binder containing a record of any problems you experience with your hardware and software. Such note taking might seem trivial now, but if you should need technical support later, patterns of similar errors over time could be priceless to your computer technician. Windows, for example, loves to display strings of nonsensical numbers when it finds an error. Write down everything--the .dll, the error code, special characters, etc. The more info you gather at the time of the problem, the better your chances are for a successful resolution.

Tip: Hold down the Alt+Print Scrn keys, then, open a word processor such as Notepad or paint program such as Paint and paste (Ctrl+V) the error into a file. Save the file into a new directory for error messages on your hard drive. You might also want to print it out and place it within your journal or binder.

Record your actions when the problem occurred
Take a moment and think back to what you were attempting to do (Print? Save to disk?) when your program or system stopped working. You've done these same steps a hundred times, but did you do or notice anything different this time? Maybe there's a new program running in another window? Maybe you were you downloading a large file from the Internet? What may seem to be trivial information, information about unrelated programs, is sometimes very significant.

Back up your entire system often
One common solution to many computer problems is to reformat the hard drive. That means all your data will have to be reloaded onto your computer. And the only way you can do that is to have a complete backup. Don't be fooled by the manufacturer's attempts to provide a partial backup procedure that only backs up the most recent files. While that may save some time now, when it comes time to restore your hard drive's contents, you'll actually be at a loss.

Store your program disks in one place
This means all of your original program CDs and disks, including your original operating system disks. Ideally, these should be kept in one box near your computer. If you have updated your system by downloading a patch or a driver, copy each updated file to its own floppy disk, label them, and place these disks within your box of computer program CDs and disks.

Once you've made the decision to call technical support, make sure you have the following information on-hand:

System specifications
In other words, know your machine! This is important. With so many makes and models out there, the technician answering your call will need to know what kind of system you have. For example, if you call Dell Computers and say you have an Optima, the technician will need to know exactly which model number because that one product line has many variations. Better yet, check to see if there's a barcode with a serial number somewhere on the computer. If it's not on the computer, check your original invoice. Having a serial number is one sure-fire way to improve your support experience.

Hardware and software information
Find out what hardware and software you have installed on your machine. At the very least know which operating system (Windows 95, 98, etc.) you are running. If it's a software problem, find out which version you are running. Most applications will tell you the correct version number by clicking on Help > About.

If you are calling about a hardware problem, think about what other peripherals you have on your machine. For example, parallel port Iomega Zip drives plug in between the computer and your printer. So if you call your printer vendor to say your laser printer stopped working, you should also explain that it stopped working sometime after you installed an Iomega Zip Drive.

Tip: Any time you add something to your computer and then notice something else has stopped working, chances are it's that last thing you added that is causing the conflict.

Power supply
Always check your cables and power plug. You'd be surprised how often technical support calls are resolved with this simple reminder to check your cables and power outlets. There's even a tech support joke that goes something along the lines of: A man calls technical support to say that he was working on a document when his computer went dark. The technician asks if all the cables are plugged in. The man answers: "Yes." The technician asks if the man can reboot the computer. The man answers: "No." Finally, the tech asks the man to try plugging the computer into another outlet. After a moment, the man says "I'd like to but ever since the power went out, I haven't been able to see all that much here in the dark."

It's inevitable that when you call technical support, you will spend a few minutes on hold. So, put that "wasted" time to good use--here's how:

Place your support call near the computer
It's a good idea to make your technical support calls in the same room as the troubled computer. What if you don't have a portable phone? Well, if you have a modem on your computer, then you have a working telephone line connected to the computer. Most modems have a plug for a standard telephone. Unless the technician needs to dial into your computer (which sometimes happens), you should be able to talk and work on the computer at the same time.

Be prepared
Have all your notes in one place. Grab your binder and original computer disks.

Relax and stay calm
Remember that anger won't fix your computer any faster. And, as bad as it might seem, you probably haven't completely broken your machine or lost all your data. When your computer starts flipping alien messages on your monitor, the temptation will be strong to pick up the phone and vent your PC's problem with someone. However, if you really want help, take a few breaths and count to ten before someone answers your call.

Every computer support technician keeps an internal log file. Not only do they record information about the machine you're using and what you're calling about, they also record how long they have spent on the phone with you and whether the problem has been resolved or not. Some technical support systems even track the number of minutes or days from the time the support log was created until the log is finally resolved or "closed." Logging your call helps the technical support person when you have made multiple phone calls regarding the same computer problem. Chances are each new technician will read what the other technicians have already tried, thus saving everyone time and energy. Here's how to make this system work for you:

Write down the technician's name or ID number
If they say it real fast, or if it's a long ID number, ask to have it repeated and then repeat it back to make sure it's right. You should keep track of each person you speak with, preferably, in the same journal or binder where you are recording your system's error messages.

Listen carefully
The technician on the other end doesn't know you or the problem you're having with your computer. The tech may ask some basic questions (such as whether the computer is plugged in or not). These are sometimes necessary to establish a basis of information. You might be embarrassed, particularly if you do find that the source of your troubles is an unplugged network cable, but don't worry. There's no black book in which you'll receive a bad mark. From the technician's point of view, it's just another resolved or closed call.

Be prepared to go deep and undercover
Sometimes it's necessary to open your computer case. If a technician tells you to do so, you should feel safe under his or her guidance. If your hard drive, CD-ROM, or other peripheral device fails occasionally, it could be that a cable has gotten loose. Often the solution is to open the computer case and push down on all the cables inside the case. You don't have to pay someone to do this simple test, and sometimes you can be up and running again within a few minutes. A note of caution: If you are wearing any loose metallic jewelry, take it off.

Be patient
You may be asked to perform several basic tests that seem to go no where. It's becoming more and more common to find technicians who are roboticly reading down a list of known tests or following some in-house flow-chart toward a pre-determined diagnosis. If you really feel frustrated by the lack of progress with any given technician, ask if he or she can consult with another technician. If not, demand to speak with the technician's supervisor. Remember, it's a buyer's market. Good technical support should be included in the price of any new computer system or software.

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