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Talking Shop: Use these tips to keep your sanity when providing long-distance support

Practical tips for providing long-distance support

Earlier this week, a friend who was having some trouble with Windows called me for help. My friend owns a small trucking company and, like so many other small businesses owners, doesn’t have a lot of money to invest in technology. She runs Windows 98 on her PCs and an old version of Norton Antivirus. Although she always plays it safe by deleting e-mail messages with attachments from unfamiliar people, last week, a client sent her a file infected with the Fun Love virus.

According to my friend, Norton Antivirus didn’t immediately catch the virus, and by the time that she knew what was going on, Windows was unbootable. Any time that my friend attempted to boot Windows, she received a Windows Protection Error. That’s when she called me.

This particular repair required my friend to install a new floppy drive, boot the system with a boot disk, remove the \Windows\System\FLCSS.EXE file (the main virus file), reload Windows, and install the latest version of Norton Antivirus to disinfect her system. The actual repair process isn’t important though. What is important was the fact that I had to talk someone, who had absolutely no computer repair experience, through the process over the phone.

Anyone who has ever done telephone support will tell you that it can really eat up your day. When I did contract telephone support for a living, I also found that I was extremely exhausted at the end of long support sessions. Over the years though, I picked up on a few techniques that made this job a little easier.
  • Don’t answer the phone when you're already on a call.
  • Mimic the user’s configuration.
  • Don’t stay on the phone during long processes.
  • Have the support Web site readily available.

Don’t answer the phone when on a call
When I did contract telephone support from my home for a living, I quickly discovered that I hated answering the phone. The person on the other end of the phone was almost always in a bad mood because he was having a problem. He expected you to drop what you were doing and fix his problem immediately. This was especially frustrating when someone would call when I had another call on the line. Both callers had problems and wanted a quick fix.

My solution to this problem was to get a second phone installed on a separate phone line. The second phone had an unlisted phone number that I gave only to friends and family. The point is that if a call came in on this phone, I knew that the call was safe to answer. Any time that a call came in on the other phone, I let my voicemail pick it up. That way I could listen to the message, have time to prepare for that particular repair job, and could call the person back when I was ready rather than being interrupted while I was doing something else.

Mimic the user’s configuration
The next step in preparing to troubleshoot a problem is to mimic the user’s environment. If you can run a remote control session with a user, that’s great, but if her machine’s severely damaged this isn't an option. You should have a machine that’s running the user’s operating system and some common applications readily available.

When I was doing full-time technical support, I only had two PCs, so I loaded VMware Workstation on one of the machines. This allowed me to simulate all of the different environments that my end users were running. Not only can this help you resolve problems more quickly, it also makes you appear more competent. For example, it’s more professional to instruct the user to click "here, here, and here" rather than telling them, "Click here. OK, now read me that screen."

Don’t stay on the phone during long processes
This one is a biggie for me. If a process is going to take longer than five minutes, I always give the user instructions for completing the process and ask them to call me back once the process finishes. Since I don’t answer the phone, I listen to the message and then I return the call to continue the repair process.

The reason why I don’t stay on the phone during long processes such as reinstalling the OS is that my time is valuable. If I’m not tied down to a phone, I can be getting other things done, or helping someone else who has an easier problem.

Have a support Web site handy
There’s nothing worse than having an end user stump you with a tough question. While you’re flipping through a book or surfing the Web for a solution, you’re wasting time and the person who is having the problem may begin to think you're less than knowledgeable.

Before I return a support call, I always have a support Web site ready to go (whether I think I’ll need it or not). For example, my friend in the example I describe above was having a Windows Protection Error. Even though I knew how to fix the problem, I went to Microsoft's support Web site and looked up Windows Protection Error prior to calling her back. That way, if I needed a little extra help, it would be readily available to me.
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