By Gabe Goldberg (SD user GabeGold)
Image by Flickr user TheGiantVermin
Nobody enjoys calling companies for service or help. It can be so unpleasant, time consuming, and frustrating that it’s often tempting to put aside or even discard something that’s broken, not working quite right, or just baffling because of missing, incomplete, or incomprehensible instructions.
Resist that defeatist attitude! Know how to seek problem remedies, assert your right to a properly functioning [whatever], and deal effectively or even partner with people on company service front lines.
Remember that only the right questions get useful answers. Just as you describe to a doctor or auto mechanic what’s wrong and when you first noticed it — perhaps even imitating an odd car noise you don’t like — be specific. General complaints like, “I can’t use my email”, “My scanner stopped working”, or “PowerPoint gave me an error” may (or may not!) draw sympathy, but you’ll have to give more details before getting help.
First, collect as much information as possible about your problem or question. That includes recording any error messages word-for-word, including any codes or program names. Sometimes error message text is enough for self-service problem resolution: feed the message text to Google, in quotes. If — as is likely — you’re not the first person to encounter the message, you may find discussion, tips, and answers. Of course, don’t take the first hit as gospel; browse multiple websites for credible sources and to learn multiple options.
If you’ll call/email/chat for support, remember that just as the doctor or mechanic needs details, someone analyzing a technology problem must know the environment in which it occurred. If it’s a computer problem, be ready to describe relevant features of your system (hardware, software, networking, applications, etc.), your operating system (the version of Windows XP/Vista/7 or Mac OS), what application failed (Thunderbird, Audacity, Firefox, Excel, etc.), your Internet connection (cable, DSL, FiOS, dial-up). If it’s another gadget, have model and serial numbers ready, along with specs like memory size, database version, software revision number, or anything to describe the environment.
Don’t omit details — support staffers usually prefer having more information than necessary to missing crucial details. But be clear about what you know and what’s assumed or guessed.
Note anything done just before the problem occurred and whether you noticed anything else unusual, since seemingly unrelated matters can provide useful patterns and context. Explain whether the problem has happened before and identify whatever (hardware, software, settings, anything) changed recently. Think CAREFULLY about recent changes, since they’re easily forgotten but often explain mysterious behavior.
Be honest about attempts to resolve the problem, since those may have changed the environment in which the support person will have you working. Especially note if you’ve rebooted your computer or power cycled (turned off/on) a gadget, since doing that often cures — though doesn’t explain — problems.
Mention where you’ve looked for information (product manual, company website, FAQ, etc.).
If you’re sending an email or getting ready for an online chat, reread your query as if you know nothing about the problem besides what’s there. Is it complete? Does it make sense? Have you assumed or omitted key details?
For an email subject or chat title, use meaningful terms detailing the product in question (e.g., Window 7) and the problem (e.g., “Windows Update never finds new patches”). Text like “Help!”, “Urgent”, or “Question” is uninformative and is useless for later indexing/searching.
Be clear what you want; don’t focus on the process to follow; that may distract the responder into addressing how you’re trying to do something rather than what you want to do.
Once discussion starts, collaborate rather than argue, criticize, or overpower. Be respectful — make it easy for them to help you. Don’t make them feel stupid even if you think they are; they may have missed a detail or you may not have conveyed the whole story. Don’t try to impress them based on age, experience, or professional credentials — but explain your suspicions and reasoning. No matter what, for better or worse, they’re your gateway to additional company resources. Always request a problem or ticket number — that’s often the only way to continue working on a problem without starting over.
Sadly, many support conversations are script-driven — that is, consist of mechanical responses that may not make sense. For example, you may be told to reboot your computer when you’ve already done that. Sometimes it’s easiest to play along and do — or say you’ve done — whatever’s instructed, to get to the next step. If asked to capture a trace, check a log, reset a connection — just do it. They’re there to help, not waste your and their time; they may have seen your problem before and KNOW what’s needed to resolve it. A friend’s favorite apparently useless but reasonable tech support action is having someone reverse a network cable. The cable orientation is meaningless, but removing and reseating it can reestablish a connection degraded by corrosion, dust, or vibration.
On the other hand, if a support person who sounds relatively clueful has just told you to do something ridiculous (“Go check the phase of the moon”), you might ask whether that makes sense or is just from a canned checklist.
Always keep perspective and save anger, escalation, complaining, and social media ranting for severe problems. And if you’re lucky enough to reach someone who resolves your problem with a verbal smile, gently ask for their contact information. If they provide it, don’t abuse it; save it for emergencies, not minor issues/questions or chats.
Besides help from your product’s vendor, many technology sites host discussion forums where experts hang out and offer help. For my Honda Accord I’ve had great success on sites like CarTalk and Honda Tech. Similar sites exist for almost any product.
Finally, resolve to never enter the “Customer is not always right” hall of shame for perpetrating dialogues like this.
Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology for decades. This article appeared originally on the slickdeals.net web site. © Gabriel Goldberg 2010. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org when you use it.