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Remote Tech Support

December 24th, 2008

Over the years, I can’t relate how many times I have given people technical support for computers via phone or chat, unable to see what they are seeing. One of the side effects of being into computers is that you become a resource people go to if they have trouble.

I don’t mind this kind of thing at all, honestly. But one of the problems with it that kind of gets to you sometimes is that human language usually assumes a common frame of reference. Even in ordinary circumstances, people speak from their own base of knowledge and at least in their speech automatically assume that you understand what they do. When you share a physical space, this is usually overcome by being able to see what they see, by interpreting body language or looking at the same thing they’re looking at. This is all lost when speaking over distances.

Add to that the context of tech support: the person you’re speaking to doesn’t know what they’re looking at themselves, or at least that knowledge is limited or hobbled somehow. Plus, computers use a system of visual and other metaphors which sometimes don’t work perfectly, further adding to the confusion. Imagine trying to guide a person, by telephone, through a maze in the dark, and you begin to get the idea. So to help out your poor, frazzled tech support people, remember these problems and try to account for them.

Here’s one thing you can do right off the bat: when you are experiencing your problem and a dialog box comes up telling you something is wrong, write down the message. You’d be surprised by how many people tell me that a dialog box keeps coming up and telling them there’s an error, but they can’t tell me what it said. That’s like asking for someone to help you read instructions, but you can’t tell them what the instructions are. Write this stuff down, in full. It may be tedious, but often those messages contain important information. Have that information available before you make the call.

So then you call the person you need help from. First off, start from the beginning. A lot of people don’t do this. They jump right in and say, “I can’t print! What do I do?” Well, first of all, what program are you using? What are you trying to print? What happens when you try to print? This is a key point in the “assuming the other person knows what you know” problem. Remember, this person has no idea what’s happening on your computer, so starting in the middle is not a good idea.

One good way to avoid this problem is to try starting from scratch. Before calling your tech support person, restart your computer. Then, when you call the person up, start by telling them what it is you intend to do. If the tech person doesn’t know anything about your computer, you have to tell them that information as well. (“I’m using a Sony Vaio laptop with Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2007.” If you know the Chip type, speed, and amount of RAM, include that as well–for example, a 1.8 gighertz Centrino with one gigabyte of RAM.)

State your objective and what software you intend to use to achieve it. (“I want to print a letter I’m writing using Microsoft Word.”) Then try to explain where the trouble occurs, but keep in mind that this may not get across. (“The box thingy tells me something is wrong, but I don’t understand.”) If there is any other context, let the person know. Tell it like a story. “I received an email from my friend last week pointing me to this cool web site. I visited the site, and nothing seemed wrong. But a few days later, my friend sent me an email telling me that they didn’t send the email, and I should not visit the site….” Setting up the situation is often crucial to understanding how to fix things. Don’t make it necessary to backtrack.

Once you’ve finished explaining the context, start going through the process, from start to finish, and describe what you’re doing. This is another thing that can be frustrating for the tech person: the person they’re helping is doing all kinds of stuff during the call but they don’t say what they’re doing. The tech person has to keep a mental image of your screen in their mind, so anything you do without expressly telling them will mess up that image and make things worse. State clearly everything that you do, even if it sounds too simplistic. “Okay, I am clicking on the Start menu, and going up to my PowerPoint icon. PowerPoint is opening. I’m going to that horizontal stripe near the top with all the buttons on it, and I am clicking on the tab marked ‘Insert.’ I am clicking on the button that is marked ‘Clip Art.’ A panel appears on the right….” And so on. This will make the tech person’s job MUCH easier. The only exception I can think of is if the process is tediously long before you get to the trouble point.

The impulse here is to get straight to the problem; starting from the beginning as I have described above feels like repetition and will take time to get to. But remember, what takes even more time is the confusion created by starting in the middle and leaving key details out. One way you can simplify the process is by leaving out anything that’s not relevant. If your problem is in printing, then don’t start with an empty page and tell the person how you wrote the document; instead, open the prepared document, ready to print. That kind of thing.

Next, follow the tech person’s instructions, continuing to explain what you are doing in detail. Don’t suddenly decide to go off on a tangent or push some button on your own. If you think there’s something you should do which the tech person isn’t telling you, then ask before doing it. But mostly, you should just be the hands, eyes, and ears of the tech person, letting them use you to operate your computer.

Follow the advice above and the whole process should go much more smoothly. It may seem like it’s prolonging things, but in most situation you’ll save loads of time, as well as frustration on both sides.

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