Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


Everyone who uses a computer needs technical support from time to time. Perhaps new hardware isn't working or your OS (operating system) is showing an obtuse error message. This is when you need support from a human who can, hopefully, solve the problem.

The most common methods for getting support are via the telephone and email. The one you choose can determine the quality of support you get. Other less common support methods include online chat, in which you and a support technician type instant-message style. This can be cumbersome and daunting for some users, and it won't work if your computer is unable to go online.

Getting tech support can be time consuming and frustrating. Before you contact a company's tech support department, try to find the answer yourself. Check the manuals and the program's built-in help system. Most companies have a support area on their Web sites with FAQs (frequently asked questions), a knowledge base, online manuals, downloadable drivers, and more. It's quite possible the answer you seek is already there.

Before you contact technical support, have the vital details a technician will need, including the product's model, version, and invoice and serial numbers. Know the OS you're using and any user ID or account names associated with the product.

In addition, be prepared to possibly pay for technical support. Manufacturers are increasingly charging fees for expert help. Many products include a period of free support (perhaps six months from the date of purchase or 30 days of support starting when you ask the first question). Other companies aren't so gracious, charging for help from the start.

For telephone support, you may be charged per incident (a flat fee to resolve a problem) or per minute. The former may be a better deal; you don't want to pay $1 a minute to watch your PC reboot. Some companies offer a toll-free support phone number. Others will charge your credit card or charge the call directly to your phone bill. If you have a choice, choose credit card billing. If you don't get the help you paid for, the credit card company is better suited to resolving disputes than the phone company.

What follows is advice for getting and using tech support.

The Phone Support Dance

No one likes to wait on hold, so try calling tech support during slower periods. Support centers are generally busiest at the start of a business day and when users get home at 5 p.m. or so. Try making your call during off-peak hours.

Be at the computer when you call tech support. The technician probably can't help if you're on a mobile phone miles from the problematic PC. If an error message is troubling you, be ready to recite the precise message and let the technician know what you were doing when it appeared. If possible, see if you can reproduce the problem before you call.

Try not to call from the same phone line the computer uses to dial into the Internet, especially if the problem is related to your modem or Internet connection. The technician may also ask you to download a file while you're on the line, so use a second line or mobile phone if possible.

In addition, be aware that a technician may not be a tech-head at all. In fact, he may not even work for the company you've called. Many companies outsource their tech support to third-party call centers. This can be good and bad. The technician may not know a PC from a plantain, but he's plugged into a vast knowledge base with answers to common and obscure problems. You may have to wade through several basic questions to get there, but chances are he'll have the answer.

Support reps at some companies (especially if outsourced) have quotas to meet. For example, they may have to field a certain number of calls an hour or close a certain number of cases per shift. As a result, you may feel pressured to get off the line. Don't budge until you're satisfied with the help you've received. Don't be afraid to ask the rep to wait while you reboot the PC to test a fix. If you're not getting anywhere with a support rep, ask to speak to someone more familiar with the product. If that doesn't work, ask for the support supervisor. You may end up speaking with someone more familiar with your problem, or at least a bit more sympathetic.

If your problem can't be solved quickly, you may end up talking to two or more technicians. Write down the names, titles, and extensions of everyone you talk to and a brief note about what happened during that call. This way, if you get contradictory information, you can say, "But Bob in data services support specifically said the software would work with my modem." If a rep says the company will replace your product or send a new version and you don't receive it, you have a name to pin it on.

If you have exhausted every support avenue but aren't satisfied, bring out the big guns. Go to the company's About The Company section on its Web site and browse the executive bios and press releases for the person in charge of customer support. The title will vary from company to company (executive vice president of corporate affairs or VP of customer support, for example). Call the company's main switchboard and ask for that person. You might not actually talk to him or her, but that's fine. Talk to an assistant and leave a polite message that you're a customer and regular support channels aren't satisfying your problem. Odds are someone in a position to deal with the issue will call back.

In addition, keep in mind the support technician's position. She may be sitting in a cubicle answering call after call from frustrated users. A friendly tone and polite attitude can work wonders in making the technician want to be more helpful.

Email Support

Getting help via email can be convenient for you and the company. You can send a message at any time, night or day. Of course, you may not get an immediate answer, so if you need one, don't rely on email support. Some companies are known to take a week to answer simple email questions; others do it in hours.

The trick with an email support query is to provide enough information to get answers without being long-winded. Minimize the number of times you and the company have to reply to each other. Provide the product name and version you're using, the OS and hardware you're running, and a brief description of the problem. Identify the question clearly and give your name and phone number.

If there was an error message, explain exactly what it was. If you can copy and paste the error message into your email message, do so. It's likely, though, you won't be able to. In that case, take a screenshot of the error message and send it as an email attachment. (Because of virus concerns, however, some companies may not open an attachment.)

It's also a good idea to ask one question per message. If you have multiple questions about the hardware or software, sending two messages lets tech support route them to technicians who are knowledgeable in those subjects. In some cases, a different technician will answer each message, making it hard to establish a dialogue. In your replies, keep the previous messages intact, and leave the quoted text for the technician to refer back to. Some firms put a trouble ticket number in the subject line for tracking purposes. If so, don't change the subject line.

The company should forward your question to a technician knowledgeable enough to provide the right, personalized answer. Companies often see the same questions repeatedly and have a library of boilerplate responses to these questions. This can provide you fast and thorough answers to common questions. Sometimes, though, the technician will fire off a canned answer that doesn't help. If so, ask again. You may have better luck getting help through another channel.

The Help You Need

Most technical support incidents are productive if you're prepared with the information the technician needs and you aren't hysterical because you've just lost the Great American Novel you've been writing. Getting tech support probably won't be the highlight of your day, but with patience and a little luck, it can be truly helpful.

Sidebar: The Other Side Of Tech Support

You've experienced tech support as a frustrated caller, but what's it like as a technical support rep? We asked Rich Vazzana, IBM's vice president of support and enablement, about life on the other side of support.

IBM's technical support team handles 28 million calls annually for 18,000 products. That's about 53 calls per minute, 24 hours a day. In addition, IBM receives five technical support emails every minute and more than 150 million visits to its technical support Web site annually.

Q: What are the most common types of support questions IBM gets?

Vazzana: I put them in two categories. One is a break-fix problem. "I thought it was supposed to work this way. The manual is telling me it works this way, but it's not." The intermittent problems are the ones that are hardest to solve. The other category is: The information is there to help the customer, but they misplaced the manual or couldn't find it on the Web. In that case, our people can guide them to the information.

Q: What can a user do to make the support call effective?

Vazzana: The biggest thing is that the customer stays calm and articulates to the best of her ability what she did and what has happened. Let the representative know what you are trying to accomplish. Tell us what you were doing, what the error message was, and what software product you were running at the time of the problem. Can the situation be repeated? The worst thing is having to take them through the sequence again. But that's OK. At least they feel like they are being helped.

Anyone calling for support should have some basic information. If there is a customer number or account number, know what that is for, for what machine? And the serial number. The more informed you are, the faster you're going to be able to get your question responded to.

Q:What pressures do managers put on service reps?

Vazzana: Speed to answer the phone, for one. I measure them on something called "first access resolution." Sixty to 80% of calls can be answered the first time. What do you do with the other 20% to 40%? "I don't have the answer to that, but based on the information I have, I'm going to send this to [another tech]." The objective is the customer doesn't get bounced around. The pressure I put on the agent is to make sure he knows how to use the knowledge base and articulate the answer back. It's best when an agent can handle multiple types of calls; that's called a "blended agent."

Agents need to stay calm, understand that the customer who is calling in might not be extremely organized, and guide him through the process to help him as fast as possible. One caller refused to give a serial number because he didn't want to turn the machine upside down to see what it was. The agent guided the caller through it.

Q:Do you prefer users get support from the Web site rather than calling or emailing?

Vazzana: Web support is most cost-effective for us, but there's another reason. We've found that if the customer goes on the Web first to do some research, then talks to an agent, the agent is 7% to 15% more productive for that customer. The customer thinks that agent is more helpful than if he just called in. The Web enables the customer to solidify his question and get to the point where he understands how to ask his question. That leads to a major improvement in how effective he finds the support call.

Sidebar: Alternative Tech Support Resources

There are plenty of reasons you may want, or have, to look beyond the manufacturer for technical help. You may have exceeded the free support period the manufacturer offers, the company may have gone out of business, or the support is just lousy. No problem. There are plenty of other resources you can turn to, including the following.

Ask Dr. Tech. If you regularly need computer help, try Ask Dr. Tech (http://www.askdrtech.com). For a flat, annual $89 fee, the company provides 24/7 online and phone support, plus system maintenance and antivirus tools. A $179 Plus plan adds priority response time and online data backup.

Google Answers. Google's personalized answer service (http://answers.google.com/answers) isn't limited to computer questions; you can ask the panel of researchers about anything from movies to relationships. Computer categories include Security, Software, and the Internet. When you pose a question via the Web form, you specify what you're willing to pay for the answer (as little as $2.50). If a researcher can answer the question and thinks your price is fair, you'll get an email notification. Many questions are answered in an hour or two. You can also search past questions and answers.

Smart Computing. There is nothing quite as satisfying as knowing how to solve problems yourself. A subscription to (ahem) Smart Computing (http://www.smartcomputing.com) can deliver the knowledge you need to be your own technical support. When a problem crops up, a subscription gives you access to the Smart Computing Q&A Board, where you can get possible answers from other helpful readers. In addition, you get access to thousands of articles from Smart Computing's archives, as well as to the archives of its sister publications.

Sykes AnswerTeam. If you need support but can't get online, try Sykes AnswerTeam (800/403-7749; http://www.answerteam.com). The company provides telephone tech support for more than 150 hardware and software products 24/7. There's a flat $14.99 per-call fee, which you can use to diagnose problems, resolve software issues, or configure hardware. The firm provides tech support for hundreds of businesses, answering 360,000 calls and email messages daily.

Tech24. Tech24 (http://www.tech24.com) offers 24/7 online support for $19.95 per question. You communicate in an instant message-like chat window. "Screen sharing" technology lets the technician see what's on your computer screen and, if you give permission, take control of your PC to fix a problem. The techs can also provide personalized software training for the same fee.

Tech Support Guy. For free support, turn to Tech Support Guy (http://www.techsupportguy.com). It's not actually one guy; it's a community of smart folks who can answer questions about operating systems, networking, hardware, applications, and more via the site's message boards.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz