After Hours

10+ tips for improving problem determination and resolution

To provide effective service for your users, you need to get to the root of their problems and figure out viable solutions — sooner, rather than later. These pointers will help you zero in on the problem and resolve it as quickly and tactfully as possible.


When that phone rings, the clock starts running. The sooner you can resolve the caller's problem, the better off both of you will be. Here are some tips to help.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Remember Occam's Razor

One useful principle I've learned is that of Occam's Razor: The simplest explanation for a situation is often the correct one. Yes, your customer's blank monitor might have been caused by sunspots, in connection with an electrical storm this morning. But isn't it more likely that the signal cable or the power cable is loose or unplugged? Eliminate the simple causes before trying the more complex ones.

#2: Ask carefully about the "simple" causes

Be careful in determining these simple causes. Your customer, particularly one who has technical ability, may be offended. To minimize this possibility, consider apologizing in advance, or using "the system" as your foil. For example: "I'm really sorry to ask, but you did already check to see that it's plugged in, right?" Alternatively, you could say, "I'm sorry, I have to ask this, or else I'm in trouble with my boss...."

#3: Use open-ended questions at the start

Open-ended questions are designed to gain as much information as possible from the customer. In the case of problem determination, you want such information, because you want to eliminate or focus on particular causes of the customer's problem. Open-ended questions generally require sentences to answer; they can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Using a courtroom analogy, an attorney who's doing a direct examination of a witness will use open-ended questions. That's because the witness is either the client or someone who's allied with the client.

#4: Use closed-ended questions to confirm

Closed-ended questions are designed to confirm your current understanding. At this point, you've gained valuable information from the customer and now want to confirm it. For example, you could ask, "You're saying you did install release 3.5, is that correct?"

Be careful not to move too quickly into asking closed-ended questions because you might shut yourself off from valuable information.

#5: Empathize with the caller

Customers who call with a problem have more than a technical issue. They almost always have an emotional reaction as well. It's important to address this emotional aspect, because the way you do so determines their satisfaction with your work. Take a second to say you're sorry for the problem and that you want to get it resolved as soon as possible.

#6: Help the caller help you

If you need information from the customer, make it easy for him or her to provide it. Are you looking for a serial number from an equipment label or tag? Then tell the customer where it is (e.g., the first line or second line of the tag). Also, if you can, tell the customer the structure or format (e.g., it's a six-digit numeral or it's a10-character alphanumeric, with three letters followed by seven digits).

#7: Explain why you're asking them to do certain things

A customer with a technical problem has enough anxiety as it is. If you ask that customer to do seemingly unrelated tasks, you could increase that anxiety, causing a negative reaction. To reduce this possibility, explain to the customer why you're asking him or her to do something and how it relates to resolving the problem. If your customer is technically proficient, describe the result of what you're doing. It can save time and may prevent insulting the customer's intelligence. For example, instead of saying, "Okay, click on Start, then highlight Run, then type regedit," consider saying, "Okay, we need to edit the registry. If you want, I can step you through how to get there."

#8: Identify what's unique about this customer

What's different or special about this customer, if others don't have the same problem? Is this customer in a different building, or attached to a different server, or using a different release of software? Knowing the answer could help you narrow things down.

#9: Determine what's changed recently for this customer

Similarly, you'll want to ascertain whether anything has changed with regard to the customer. Has he or she moved to a new location or had a system upgrade? On the other hand, was the customer left behind when others went to that upgrade?

#10: Does the problem "stalk the swap"?

If you're dealing with hardware or equipment issues, check to see whether the problem "stalks the swap." If it does, you have pretty good assurance that the piece you swapped is the piece that's causing the problem. Let's say you've narrowed a connectivity problem to either the network adapter or the patch cable between the PC and the wall jack. When you replace the network cable with a new one, the problem goes away. To make sure, though, take that old cable and use it with another PC that has a good connection. If the connectivity problem appears with the second PC, you can be pretty sure the cable was the problem.

#11: Document the problem after it's resolved

Once the problem is fixed, document it in your problem ticket. If you have no ticket system, at least let your co-workers know via an e-mail or text. Also, discuss what happened with the customer if he or she did something that caused the problem. If you can prevent it from happening again, both you and the customer benefit.


About Calvin Sun

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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