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ATPM 9.07
July 2003


How To



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How To

by Sylvester Roque,

A Little Help, Please? Tips for Getting Good Tech Support

One of the things my wife likes about the Mac is that as long as I don’t touch them, our Macs are remarkably stable and we have experienced relatively little downtime. Unfortunately, no matter how stable your Mac is, if you use any computing platform long enough you will experience problems that require either troubleshooting or technical support. This is not an article about troubleshooting those problems. ATPM contributor Paul Conaway has discussed this issue far more thoroughly and effectively than I can at this time. This article is about what happens on those rare occasions when your troubleshooting efforts don’t resolve an issue and you need assistance from technical support.

Maybe I look at the world from a different perspective, but years of using both Macs and PCs have convinced me that getting good tech support begins before you buy a product. If a manufacturer has a reputation for providing good support, your odds of having a good tech support experience are better than they would be if the company had a less than stellar reputation for support. Before you make your next hardware or software purchase, try to get a feel for which vendor seems to have the best technical support. If two programs or pieces of hardware have comparable feature sets and pricing, you will probably be happier in the long run with the one that seems to offer the best technical support. Many Mac hardware and software vendors put a great deal of time and energy into this aspect of their business. They deserve our recognition and our financial support when it’s time to buy new products.

When All Is Right With the World

I conceived this article based upon the premise that the best time to prepare for a tech support call is when all is well and you don’t need help. This is the time to prepare for future problems. Taking some basic steps now can minimize the impact that a computer crash will have on your life. One of the things we’ll do is take some time and build a notebook that contains information to help technical support help you.

Right now, while all is well, back up your data. You’re likely be more tolerant of problems if you know your data is safe. How often you back up will depend upon how you use your Mac. The more critical your data is the more frequently you should back up. It’s also probably a good idea to clone your system so that you can easily reload your system software if necessary.

Now that you have backed up the system and your valuable data, it’s time to do a few other things while your computer is healthy. One of the most important things you can do is gather the kind of information that technical support personnel are likely to need in order to help you. Troubleshooting software issues, for example, often requires knowing which version of the software you have installed, which operating system you have installed, etc. Fortunately, even if you are a novice Mac user, Apple has provided an easy way to gather system information and it’s called Apple System Profiler. This handy utility provides a wealth of information about your computer’s hardware and software. I think it would be good to print this information out and have it handy. If you have never run Apple System Profiler before take my word for it, it’s easy. Here’s what to do:

  • If you are running Jaguar, go to the Apple menu at the far left of your screen and choose About This Mac. Click the More Info button to launch Apple System Profiler. Once the program has gathered all the information you can either print the result or save it to disk.
  • If you are running some earlier versions of OS X you may not be able to run Apple System Profiler from the About This Mac window. Never fear, there is an alternative. Go to your boot drive and open OS X’s Application folder. Look inside the Utilities folder and you will find Apple System Profiler. A quick double-click will launch it.
  • Our readers who are still running OS 9 are not left out in the cold. You can still run Apple System Profiler. You should find the program in your Apple menu at the far left of your screen. Once you launch Apple System Profiler you must choose New Report (Command-N) or you won’t be given the option to save or print the results. In the dialog box, click on any boxes that are unchecked; otherwise, System Profiler may not gather information about your control panels and extensions.

Now that you have gathered this information, let’s add a few other things. Using your favorite word processor or spreadsheet program, create a table that has the technical support contact information for the manufacturers of your hardware and software. This may seem unnecessary but most of my frustration with technical support has come from the amount of time wasted looking for this information.

The format that this contact information is in is not as important as the content. As you build this file, put this information into a layout that is easy to read and makes sense to you. Here is some of the information I am going to include in some type of notebook:

  • Company Name
  • Software Title and Version Number (can be taken from ASP report)
  • Date Purchased
  • Serial Number or Technical Support ID Number
  • Tech Support Contact Information: URL, telephone number, e-mail addresses, etc.
  • Notes: Hours of operation, cost, user name, passwords, customer ID, etc.

Until recently I would not have written this information down, but that’s a lot to remember. I don’t exactly like having user names and passwords written down, but some companies such as Roxio require a login name and password just to download program updates. I can never remember these things when I need them.

We are almost through compiling our technical support notebook. There are only a few more things to add. It’s probably a good idea to include a page that lets you track when you add new hardware or software to your system. When your system suddenly starts acting up, check this list to see whether something has been added to the system recently. This might be the culprit. Also, add a few blank pages. When problems occur and you begin troubleshooting, use these pages to write down the steps you have taken and the order you performed them in. I cannot stress how important it is to write this stuff down. After a week troubleshooting a hard drive problem once, I no longer remembered the order of the troubleshooting steps I had performed.

If you notice any pattern to the problem (i.e. the program always crashes during printing), make a note of this as well. Include any error messages that have appeared on your screen. Some of these messages are gibberish to you and me but may be helpful to support technicians.

All Is Right With the World (Not)

Until now, everything we have done has focused on what you might call emergency preparedness: things that you can do before problems occur. From now on we will focus on some things to do when problems do occur. As I said, I’m not actually going to go into troubleshooting issues here. I’m talking about preparing for the possibility that your troubleshooting skills won’t be able to resolve the problem.

OK here’s the situation. You are happily working in your favorite application when you experience a crash. Try as you might to fix things, something is not right in your little corner of the universe and you want things put right before your sense of well being is shattered completely. Let’s look at some things you can do to get some help. Remember the technical support notebook you created? It’s about to come in very handy.

If your computer can still access the Web, check the company’s Web site. Many companies maintain a searchable database or have an area where you can e-mail your questions to technical support staff. There may also be a user forum with helpful information. Remember when you wrote down that user name and password? You may need them now.

There are other forums that might be helpful such as MacFixIt or Macworld. As you check out these forums, you may need to create a user name and password or one may be assigned to you. Although you can usually read posts from other users without a password, posting questions usually requires a user name and password.

Now that you have exhausted other avenues, it is time to make the dreaded technical support phone call. This is where your little notebook will really come in handy. I have tried to make these comments general enough to apply to most of the situations you will encounter. Here are the steps that seem to me to be most helpful.

It’s usually best to make technical support calls with the machine that is having problems present. Things tend not to work so well if you call from work about a problem on your home computer since there is no way to test the offending machine.

Make sure you are calling the right place. If your favorite application is the only thing crashing, the best place to start is probably the manufacturer of that program, not some hardware vendor. Providing technical support is expensive and companies don’t usually want to provide support for someone else’s product.

Using your contact information, check the hours of operation for technical support. I confess I have made calls to technical support a few times only to discover that they were gone for the day.

Before you pick up the phone to make the call, remember that you are likely to spend some time on hold. Eventually you will speak to a real person rather than the automated phone system. Remember, the technician you speak with is human and will greatly appreciate being treated as such. No matter how angry you are, or how justified your anger is, taking it out on the technician won’t help. Right now, while you are nice and calm, look at the world from a technician’s perspective. It’s always nice to use the technician’s name rather than some of the less palatable names I’ve heard used in reference to technicians.

When speaking with the technician, briefly describe the hardware or software that seems to be causing a problem. Let the technician guide you through the process. Each company has different procedures for handling this part of the process. Some companies do not even begin to provide technical support until you provide a serial number or other proof of purchase. Remember when you wrote down those serial numbers and technical support ID numbers? You will probably need them now.

Once you have gotten this far it’s probably a good idea to tell the technician what efforts you have made to resolve the problem. That troubleshooting page that you created will really come in handy now. You did write down the steps you have already taken, didn’t you?

Throughout this process, don’t get too upset if the technician asks you to repeat a step that you have already performed before you called. In most cases this is company policy and the technician has no control over this. If he has to pass your case on to someone else, they are going to look for this information. I know of at least one ISP, for example, that refers problems regarding static IP addresses to the third level of their technical support department. Even if you have experienced the problem before and know that you have a static IP address, the first technician cannot just send you up to the next level. You have to complete his checklist before going any further.

Sometimes a technician will ask you to do something that may take several steps to complete. Don’t be afraid to write the steps down in order. If you’re a novice user and really uncomfortable performing the steps that you have been asked to perform, mention this to the technician. No matter how much of a novice you may be, the technician has probably encountered someone with even less knowledge. Most of them are willing to walk you through the process.

While we are at this stage in the process, don’t feel the need to rush. The technician may have other calls on the line but that does not mean you should feel pressured to rush through the call. Technicians are busy and don’t usually have time for small talk, but that doesn’t mean that you should be rushed through the call either. Hopefully your advance preparation and the technician’s skill will result in a quick resolution to your problem. If they don’t, try to remain as calm as possible. Even if you have to make a second or third call for support, don’t get upset just yet. If, you are given several things to try and asked to call back when you have completed them make sure you understand exactly what to do and in what order. You should also find out whether there is a case number that your problem has been assigned. Also find out whether you need to speak to a specific technician.

If you make enough technical support calls there may come a time when you and the technician are not communicating very well and you think you need to be transferred to someone else. If this becomes necessary, be as courteous as possible. Once or twice now I have been on the verge of doing this because the technician that I spoke with spoke English well but with such a heavy accent that his instructions were difficult to understand. This is not intended to be an insult to him; it’s simply a statement of one of the problems that can arise.

• • •

Hopefully you will rarely have to use these tips. If you do, keep in mind that advance preparation and good humor can make things easier. It also helps if you have a cordless phone that will accept a headset and microphone. This way, you have a way to move about while you are on hold and both hands are free to carry out the technician’s directions.

Good luck, and may all your crashes be small ones.

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