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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 3 Issue 4 April 2009
In This Issue
How to succeed when calling Technical Support
Calling for technical support can be frustrating, especially from large companies. Having experienced this again recently, here is my advice on how to have a successful experience, or at least manage or minimize the frustrations.
How to succeed when calling Technical Support

It's happened. Your computer or printer or most important piece of software has developed a major problem or has stopped working altogether. You've tried to get it working again, but have made no headway so far. You know you need help, but either from past bad experience or friends' horror stories you're dreading that call to the big company's technical support line, where you'll likely experience confusing voice menus, long hold times, poor language skills, and worst of all, inept help. While I can't tell you how to guarantee a perfect experience every time, I can offer some suggestions on how to improve your likelihood of success.

Recently a client's problems with her multifunction printer reminded me how difficult this process can be.

What can you do on your own first?
There are a number of things you can do before calling Technical Support that may at least help you learn more about the problem, and at best lead you to a solution on your own:
  • Description: Summarize the current problem in a few short sentences. For example, "When I print a Word document, the printer makes its usual noises but the paper comes out blank, but oddly enough web pages print ok" will get you a faster solution than "I can't print."
  • Recordkeeping: Keep a pad of paper near the computer. Write down any strange behavior or error messages, the date and context, and what you tried, e.g., "Word froze while I was typing, I restarted the computer, it worked ok again." Take pictures of the screen showing the problem if possible (see http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2008_02_27.html "What's this thing on my screen?").
  • History: When did the problem start? Did anything else significant or unusual occur around that time?
  • Research: It's likely that someone else has had this problem or something similar. Using specific keywords that describe the problem ("Epson Stylus Color 860 prints blank pages"), try some research: look in the manual, search with google, visit the support page (or "knowledgebase") on the manufacturer's web site, talk to friends or colleagues.
  • Power off & on: Turn off any related equipment (shut down your computer, power off the printer, etc.) and then turn it back on again. If that doesn't help, turn it off again, take each of its cables one at a time and carefully and methodically unplug and re-plug each end, then turn the equipment back on.
  • Peripheral: If an external device (printer, camera, etc.) has a problem, can you unplug it from the computer and still make the problem occur? For example, most printers can print a "self-test" page with no computer attached.
  • Basic maintenance: Empty your Recycle Bin/Trash, clear your web browser cache, scan for viruses and spyware, check for software updates.
In my client's case, her HP OfficeJet J5780 printer/copier/scanner/fax sometimes printed pages with the text shifted 2-3 inches higher on the page. Powering off didn't help, cleaning the printer's rubber rollers (a suggestion for "paper misfeeds" my research found) only helped temporarily, and the problem grew more frequent. It was clear this was not computer-related, especially since it also occurred when I tried making a copy.

Preparing for the call
As you sit down to make the call, I suggest:
  • Gather all relevant product information: make and model, serial number, purchase date and warranty duration (receipt if available), software CDs, manuals, passwords, etc. I recommend keeping all of your computer-related materials together, whether nicely organized and summarized in a Word or Excel document, or simply thrown together in the same drawer or box.
  • Gather your notes on the problem: A short description, history of symptoms, what you've tried, where you think the problem may be.
  • Get a pad of paper to organize your thoughts and to take notes once you're on the phone.
  • If you're using a cordless or cell phone, is it fully charged? If your cordless phone's battery runs low, do you have an extension phone nearby to avoid getting disconnected? Can you plug your cell phone into its charger without losing the call?
  • Using a phone with a built-in speakerphone or headset can also help.
  • How much time do you have? I try to have something else at hand to read or work on while I wait on hold.
  • What is your goal, or an acceptable outcome? Return? Repair? Replacement? In-person technician visit? You'll have to convince the support person that the problem is real before they can authorize any action on the company's part, assuming they can't solve it by phone.
  • Ask yourself "What are they probably going to ask me, and suggest that I do?"
  • Do you expect to be helped for free? This will depend on the company's policies, the type of problem, and the warranty.
  • If this call doesn't address the problem, what's next? Is it worth your time to keep calling, or should you just go buy a replacement?
  • If it's a serious computer problem, do you have a recent backup of your data? If not, can you do a backup before the call? Do you have the CDs to reinstall your software?
Making the call
To get to the right person, I suggest:
  • Your goal is to reach Technical Support, not Sales or Customer Service.
  • If you encounter a speech-recognition system ("To place an order, say 'sales,' for technical support, say 'support...'"), be careful not to bump the phone or cough, as this often gives the wrong answer at just the wrong moment. The "mute" button on your phone or headset (which turns off your microphone) can help.
  • Avoid Monday morning, you'll be competing with all the calls about problems that occurred over the weekend.
  • The first person you reach may not be in Technical Support, so keep your initial explanation short.
  • You may have to call back, so write down the steps it takes to reach a support person.
  • "This call may be monitored": Even when you're on hold, someone may be listening. I mute my microphone when I'm on hold for extended periods of time.
On the call
Once you're talking to a technical support person:
  • Explain the current problem as best you can. Ask them to say it back to you, correct them if they misheard you. Rephrase if necessary. Getting them to understand the problem is the single most important place to start. Then, explain what led up to the problem, including any odd behavior or error messages.
  • Be sure to ask for (and write down) the "incident number" or "case number" for the call, which will help if you call back.
  • Make sure the person has your phone number, and ask if they will call you back in case you get disconnected. If they can't, ask if you can call back and reach that same person, or if you can send that same person an email.
  • While some companies use "remote assistance" software (which enables the other person to see what's on your screen), most don't, so tell them anything you think is important.
  • Stay calm and be polite. Big companies often make this process difficult, but the support person most likely wants to do a good job. Being patient, cooperative, reasonable, and persistent can go a long way.
  • The support person may have to put you on hold to reach other people or to research a question, but long hold times can try your patience. Early in the conversation tell them that before putting you on hold for any reason, or before transferring you to anyone else, you insist that they explain what they are doing and how long it might take.
  • Most first-level support people I've talked to have only a limited amount of training, and sound like they're working from a book. That may work for some problems, but it often doesn't resolve more complicated or unusual problems.
  • They will probably ask you to try things on the computer, such as restarting, reinstalling software, etc. It's reasonable to ask them to explain what they want you to do and why. If they ask you to try something you don't want to do (like opening up your computer with a screwdriver), it's time to discuss on-site service or shipping the unit to them for service or replacement.
  • If their suggestions don't solve your problem, they may eventually suggest "restoring" or "recovering" your computer or device. This often means that they want to reset it back to the way it was when it came from the factory, including reinstalling Windows or the Mac OS, which may wipe out all of your important data (documents, email, etc.). It's important to ask, "Will this delete any of my data or settings? Will it force me to reinstall all of my software? What are the consequences of this step?" Their mission is to solve the nominal problem, not to do what's best for you in the larger sense. So, for example, they probably won't help you back up your data first. While demolishing your house and building a new one will technically fix that stuck living room door, it's probably not the solution you'd prefer, nor should it be done without your informed consent and careful preparation. Press them for other things to try instead.
  • After giving them a chance to help you, if you don't think the person can handle the problem, ask to speak to a manager or second-level support person. It's also reasonable to do this if you run into a language barrier.
  • Sometimes a single call can't resolve your problem. Ask: "What will happen next? What will you do, and what should I do? After that, will you call me, or do I have to call back? When? What will happen after that?"
  • If you end up arranging a return or replacement, ask: "Do I ship the old one to you first, or do you ship the new one to me first? What will it cost? What happens after that?"
In my client's case, since the computer wasn't the problem I could focus on the printer misfeed. The support person had me reset the printer back to factory settings (afterward I wished I had asked how to print out the current settings first) and when that didn't solve the problem, was willing to discuss a warranty replacement. Then, to convince them that the 1-year warranty hadn't ended, even with the 6-month-old receipt in my hand it took numerous additional calls and faxes until I finally thought to ask for a supervisor. She authorized an immediate exchange for a new printer, with free shipping both ways. Problem solved!

When you don't want to call, or when you can't
Some companies offer additional ways to contact support, and others don't offer phone support at all:
  • Support via email: Whether you compose a message using your email program or fill out a form on a support web site, it's not a live conversation, so it's important to be clear and concise. You may also have to wait hours or days for a response, and then have to reply to clarify any misunderstandings.
  • Support via "live chat": Some companies offer special instant messaging systems, where you type messages back and forth with a live support person in real time. This may get you in touch with a support person faster than by phone, but some things are more awkward, e.g., restarting your computer will terminate the chat session.
Where to go from here
  • If you've tried calling technical support for a significant problem and not made much progress, consider whether hiring a computer consultant might be worth it. While a consultant will cost more in dollars, they should be much more motivated to find a solution that's best for you, and probably cost you less time and aggravation. I know a number of very good "mechanics" that I'm happy to recommend.
  • Searching for solutions using google is useful, but sometimes it yields ideas from too many unknown sources. You can tell google to restrict your results to a particular (and credible) web site by adding the "site" keyword. For example, searching for "Word prints blank pages site:microsoft.com" (don't type the quotes) tells google to limit its search to the www.microsoft.com web site.
  • Be skeptical of solutions you may find online that require you download software from a site you've never heard of. There are a number of legitimate and useful (and free!) utility programs out there, but there are many more plausible-sounding scams, viruses, and spyware, some of which charge a fee!
If you know someone who might find this helpful, please feel free to forward it.
If you have any comments about this article, send me a reply!
If you have a topic that you'd like me to write about, I'd love to hear about it!
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2009 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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