Tech support help depends on you, too

April 04, 2002|By Mike Himowitz

SOMETIMES I feel like I'm trapped in the tech support Twilight Zone.

On one hand, I get a stream of reader complaints about technical support lines that are too hard to reach and, once a customer gets through, often unable to solve the problem.

I have to agree with them, because I test hardware and software as part of my job - and spend more time than I should in voice-menu hell.

On the other hand, I once served a five-year sentence as the newsroom's computer systems guy, which was like trying to teach nuclear physics to a class of kindergartners. I'm still the tech support resort for dozens of friends, relatives and even strangers. After hundreds of hours on the phone with people who can't tell you whether their computer is turned on, I can trade dumb-user stories with any support technician in the land.

Tech support is a nightmare on both ends. With profit margins stressed by competition and a sour economy, many hardware and software makers won't spend enough to pay tech support people who (a) know their stuff and (b) have the patience and skills to deal with the public.

The tech support troops in the trenches are doubly cursed. Every day their employers introduce new and poorly tested products that drive customers crazy. And they're forced to deal blindly with millions of different combinations of hardware and software (and six versions of Microsoft Windows). Their newest customers are also likely to be the least technically savvy - people naive enough to believe the ads that tell them PCs are as easy to use as blenders.

So how do you, as a user, deal with this mess? The best way is to take a little responsibility yourself. No, you shouldn't have to do this, but by arming yourself with some basic knowledge about your computer, you can help yourself and the tech support folks when something goes wrong.

The first rule: Know thy PC. Learn what's inside your computer and what software you're running. Write it down or print it out, even if you don't understand most of it. Store it where you can find it quickly should your machine go on the fritz.

Unfortunately, this is harder to do with a computer than other devices that break down from time to time. Even if you don't know whether your car has a 4- or 6-cylinder engine, a mechanic can take a look under the hood and figure it out in a few seconds.

But technicians have to diagnose most PC problems over the phone. So the guy on the other end of the line is literally working in the dark. He doesn't know if he's dealing with a Ford Escort or a Maserati, a 4-cylinder with standard shift or a V-8 with a four-wheel drive - unless you can tell him.

Worse yet, unlike a car, a PC that has been in use for more than a week or two has almost always been modified by its owner. Even if you never open the case, installing a program or setting up a printer or scanner can radically change the machine's software environment, producing conflicts that cause equipment to malfunction and programs to crash.

If you're unpacking a new PC, you'll almost always find some description of what's inside. It may be on the box if you bought the computer from a retailer, or on a packing slip for a made-to-order machine. Dell, for example, creates a unique alphanumeric code for each computer it ships. It's tied to a database that you and its technicians can use to help determine what's in the case.

When you install new hardware or software, note the make and model of the equipment, or the name and version of the program. Once again, write it down on paper in case you have to call tech support with a dead machine.

If you want a more complete inventory, you can try the Windows System Information utility (click Start/Programs/Accessories/ System Tools). But the best system analysis tool I've found is a free download from Belarc, Inc. The company's PC adviser will generate a full Web page report that includes details of all hardware components and the exact version and revision number of every program and driver you've installed) Print it and save it. To download the adviser, visit

Second: Listen to your PC and pay attention. If your car makes a funny noise, chances are good you can tell the mechanic that it's going "grrrahh, grrrahh," or "chukkah, chukkah, whirrrrr." Good mechanics know how to interpret noises - even your imitations of them. If you don't believe me, listen to an episode or two of Car Talk on National Public Radio or some samples at http://cartalk.

Listening to your PC is a bit different than listening to your car. In fact, if you hear really strange noises from your computer, either your power supply fan or hard drive is about to crash, so you might as well take it to the shop now.

Mostly, however, your PC talks to you in the form of error messages that pop up when a program or gadget heads south. These messages are probably meaningless to you, but don't ignore them.

I know it's hard to make sense out of a box that pops up with something like "BILGECALC caused an invalid page fault in module KERNEL32.DLL at 0187:bff9db61." But the error message may mean something important to a technician - it can often pinpoint the problem, or at least be a start to a diagnosis. If you get one of these messages, write it down. The more information you provide, the more likely a tech is to be able to solve your problem.

Likewise, if a program crashes or you have trouble with a scanner, printer or other device, think about what you were doing at the time it blew up and write it down. Did you just try to print a document with a big photo or view a particular Web page? What other programs were running then?

Get this information together before you make your tech support call, and you'll be amazed by the results. The guy or gal on the other end will be grateful - and more likely to get you up and running.

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