IT Employment

10 ways to decline a request for free tech support


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Requests for free tech support often catch you off guard, and your first instinct is to accept the task. But taking on a free support job is often a significant commitment and can be a real headache. When someone makes an unwelcome request for free support, use a response from this list to politely, yet firmly decline the job.

#1: There really isn't much I can do with this machine

This frequent situation occurs when someone wants to run high-end applications on a cheap, under-powered machine. Someone who just bought a 12-year-old 386 for £25 doesn't want to hear that it won't run Windows XP Professional. Many years ago, just to see what would happen, we took a hard disk from a 486 running Windows 95 and put it into a 286 with just 1 MB of RAM. To our surprise, it didn't fall at the first hurdle, but it took nearly 15 minutes to boot. Clicking the Start button, however, caused it to grind to a halt.

#2: I really don't have time right now

Not a great excuse, as it often leads to the machine being left with you until you do have time. After tripping over it, bruising your shins, and learning a whole new repertoire of foul language, you take it apart to see what you can do --usuall, when you need to be doing something else.

#3: This one is a bit beyond my capabilities

This one is known as the "professional suicide gambit with a double-edged benefit," and no self-respecting tech likes to make such an admission of defeat. But it does have the benefit of closing the door on all future unofficial job requests. Unfortunately, it may also darken the reputation of anyone courageous enough to use it.

Note: In this context, courageous means stupid. The term courageous is used in the British Parliament where it is considered impolite to call one's colleagues stupid.

#4: My employer made me sign an exclusivity of service agreement

This response is a rather pompous line to take, and one that doesn't work with family and friends. It may, however, be used in situations where a near stranger decides you will do as a cheap technical support resource. After considerable persuasion, they may be able to talk you into working for them at an hourly rate that would salve your conscience. Use this one if you don't mind people considering you a bit stuffy.

#5: This job will be expensive

Advise the customer that the job will cost slightly less than the machine's replacement value and suggest that they consider purchasing a new system. With luck, they will take your advice, buy a new PC, and leave you alone.

#6: Great -- and you can help me with my <insert your own project that needs attention>

This reverse psychology technique is a good way to turn the tables on the person seeking free support. If the local house painter wants help with his PC, ask him to paint your windows in return. You can use this response for a whole range of services, such as a kitchen or bathroom remodel, car servicing, or lawn care. The barter system is also beneficial because in some locations (including the United Kingdom), it is outside the income tax system. In the past, I have had my garage door repaired in return for fitting a new hard disk and CD writer. People who don't agree to a fair, reciprocal service are trying to take advantage of your good nature.

#7: I am not allowed to work on personal machines during work

The worst favor seekers are coworkers who use the IT department as a source of free support for their personal systems. These requests can be a real headache if your employer takes exception to company facilities and time being used for private purposes -- a very understandable position.

I remember one coworker who regularly asked us to work on her personal system. She insisted that as she used it to work from home, we should be responsible for sorting out the horrible mess her children caused by loading a variety of dubious applications. We resolved the problem by passing the request to her department head so that he could agree to the cross charge. Not surprisingly, he refused, saying she did very little work in the office and nothing from home.

#8: Why don't you take it to <insert the name of a trusted local repair shop>?

Let's not forget those techs who scratch a living from home PC users. Many of us have worked for small local repair shops and know that it can be a precarious way to make a living. Sometimes, it can be tactful to suggest your local repair shop if you don't feel that you can't take on a job. Unless you routinely refer them ill-tempered customers, they'll likely be grateful for the business and may even reward you with a handsome discount.

#9: I can't fix this problem without the original system disks

This response works well when you know for sure that someone doesn't have a valid software license. I once encountered a customer with a special vendor-locked edition of Microsoft Publisher. After we had replaced his processor and motherboard, the locked version no longer worked. Without thinking, I blurted out that I had a normal version. I should have kept me mouth shut. The customer pursued me for weeks, until I told him a story about the disks being corrupt.

#10: Just say No

This simple refusal is the most honest approach when declining a request for free support. You don't even need to justify your actions. You clock off at the end of the day, just as your colleagues do, and you're entitled to enjoy your free time. You may not want to spend all your waking hours obsessed by computers and the problems they produce. It is remarkable how easily we techs become somebody's best friend when they want a favor, yet as soon as they get what they want, we're forgotten until the next time they need something.

21 comments
bscash
bscash

A former co-worker of mine had the best come back for this.  He would listen and ask questions, then he would say  "the problem is blah" and I usually charge $50 an hour but because I work/ am a friend with you, I will only charge you $35....

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Try asking your doctor or lawyer to dinner and try to get free advice. They will ALWAYS tell you, "Why don't you make an appointment and I can take a proper look at it?" (And the next time you ask them round they'll have an excuse why they can't make it.) So I go along with what Jeff Dray and quite a few other comments said. For politeness' sake take a brief look at the offending item and say, "Bring it into the workshop." But there's almost no good way to get out of it if a "friend" asks you to help them set up their smartphone, knowing that you own the same model...

banjiui
banjiui

Number 1,7,8,9,and 10 reasons works well for me, especially now that i am constrained by number 7... great post!!!

Vineet369
Vineet369

I agree with the last line of the first para of this article. I know how frustrating it feels if someone, of whom you haven't seen in years, come to you and asks for a "favour", which would waste endless hours of my personal time. Its costs you for being GENEROUS ! So I just stopped it, unless he just satisfies with a suggestion.

techrepublic
techrepublic

Telling folks I don't do Windows is the biggest time saver I've ever found. Worst comes to worst and they beg me to look at it I just fool around a bit and give them a #3 & #8 from above before heading home.

oregonnerd13
oregonnerd13

Nearly every time I've stepped in for free I've ended realizing what an idiot I am. ...And frankly, looking back, I may not have needed the help. Since I now am officially disabled and at least supposedly totally out of the stream, it's become easy: those not retired find that one harder. ("Sorry, don't know how any more, since those [insert phrase that the idiot asking doesn't know] came on the market.") Works pretty well, too, even with my wife. --Glenn

Matt51F1
Matt51F1

I now use a line that a friend of mine (also in IT support) started for me: "What kind of car do you have? Do you get it serviced? Does it break down? Do you ever need to get it repaired? Tell me... do you ever go to your mechanic and say: 'Hey - would you work on my car in your personal time while I'm out having fun with friends? Even though you work on fixing cars all day, every day, I won't expect you to do it for nothing - I will shout you a coffee or dinner around home sometime....'" Then you start on what they do and ask them if they want to work on things they do all day and if they'll take off their only free night of the week to do it for nix. I've even had people expect me to drive to their place (one was 140km away - another at 170km). I now say that if they want it fixed then they have to fit in with my schedule and drive to my place where I have tools and spares. Generally they will go to the local computer shop when they realise that I'm not going to run around after them fixing problems that they caused - for free!

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I barter my services. I don't expect cash but some form of return services. My present clients know this and are never surprised. Whether surplus bakery goods or mechanics know how, I don't work for free. I have refused to do work for some who haven't offered anything in return but that hasn't stopped them from asking time after time. Some even complain about how much they have to pay but won't offer anything for my services.

nubbs17
nubbs17

...Just not for free. Just last night our environmentmal manager called, he was trying to set up a wireless network at home (which he also uses for work, by the way) and asked if I could come by and save him. He had cursed his way into a corner and after 8 hours of fighting the router/modem was ready to shoot his computer. I had him up and running in twenty minutes. As a "Thank You" for my work he is giving my wife and I a gift certificate to the restaurant of our choice. Not bad..

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Geez, Bob, I'd like to help, but the service contract says if I touch it then the warranty is void. I suggest you take it to your vendor and have them look at it." Who knows, it might even be true. Under some circumstances, you could probably get away with, "I know how to set one up to connect and work with our corporate network; I've never set one up on a major provider or with consumer apps." This is one of my All Time Favorite Top 3 TR articles. Don't miss its companion article, '10 Reasons Not to Provide Free Support': http://www.techrepublic.com/downloads/ten-good-reasons-not-to-provide-free-tech-support/173362

antigramp
antigramp

...I saw recently (I haven't had the opportunity to try yet): "if you want me to work for free, you have to use free software". Apparently that sends them scurrying back to the devil they, uh, "know". Or they could always trust the neighbour's kid. And no, I don't have any Windows disks. That's saved me more time than everything else put together.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

If they're Mac or Linux users, does your policy change?

bbeckers
bbeckers

...bartering is wonderful! Just a couple of examples: Friend A: Bakes me an entire pan of the worlds best caramel rolls (in my opinion) hot & fresh and ready for when I stop by to fix her PC. (Sometimes I wish her computer broke more often... lol) Friend B: Is an excellent mechanic who operates his own service shop. Let's just say I will never have to pay for an oil change again... Friend C: CPA. Today is tax day here in the US. Need I say more? ...there's more, but you get the point. Then... there's "Friend" D: Always wanting me to fix his ancient Pentium-III computer. Never wants to pay or offer anything in return except "I'll buy you a beer sometime", and sometime never seems to arrive. I've found "My employment agreement doesn't allow me to work on computers on the side. Bring it into our service center and we'll see what we can do." works for him. OH.... last IMPORTANT point. No matter what I've done on a friend's computer, I *ALWAYS* give time something in writing telling them what I fixed and also what I recommend. This saved my butt on at least one occasion where a month after I fixed a PC, the friend called upset that what I fixed quit working. When I asked him if he did what I recommended, at first he didn't "remember" my recommendations. When I reminded him of what I wrote, and that I saw him tape the paper to the side of the PC... Instant memory recall ("Ummm... oh yeah...").

mrgates
mrgates

Funny thing after I read the "Ten ways to decline a request for free tech support. Number 6 really gets into my crawl. Yea, we have all been there done that, but what really gets my goat is when you fall for that trap, that so-called person states you are wrong and they know more than you do. Yet, they keep trying to call you for this free support and help. I love it when someone says I am wrong and they have no clue what is going on. Another part of that is when someone says, "Why did it do that?" Some things cannot be explained and it is just the way it is. We all have learned to just accept it and move on, but no, these free-loaders want to know why, then when you try to explain it, then they get frustrated at your answer. I too barter for my work. I got a full rack for my pickup truck in return for my services. (Upside of this)

robo_dev
robo_dev

He had a house full of guests, and no TV signal. I quickly found the loose connection and fixed it. Got a hearty thanks, but he did not even offer me a beer or invite me to watch the game. Then, an hour later, his girlfriend calls up, and in a demanding yet angry voice basically tells me that I come over to fix the cable again, right now. Somehow my telephone just stopped working at that point....it must have been either the same wiring fault that my neighbor's house had, or some sort of RF interference, because I SWEAR I did not just hit the OFF button on my phone. And somehow my ears stopped receiving audio input at the exact instant the phone started ringing again...funny thing those ears of mine.

demonkoryu
demonkoryu

Considering that Windows 95 requires a 32-bit processor, I wonder how you got it to boot on a (16-bit) 80286 CPU.

MyLittleMansAnIdiot
MyLittleMansAnIdiot

....do a bit of outside tech support for friends and colleagues, that was until I worked a miracle with a friends PC one day. His hard drive crashed due to physical damage, I managed to reover most of his data and reinstall windows (3.1) on it just to get him up and running temporarily. I informed him he needed to purchase a new hard drive right away and to see me when he had and I'd install it for him. I didn't hear from him again and forgot all about it, then 6 months down the track, I get a phone call from him asking me to come fix his PC again because I "did something to his hard drive and the computer won't start". I assumed he had the drive replaced professionally and I went to his place to find he hadn't at all and was still running the same hard drive, and it was totally dead. I reminded him of the advice I gave him previously regarding buying a new hard drive and he denied I'd told him such. He then demanded I pay for a new hard drive and the cost of data recovery from the one currently in his machine (which was going to be incredibly expensive at the time). Needless to say, I'm no longer friends with this person, and I no longer provide "out-of-house" tech support for friends, if it's more than a quick fix I recommend they take it to an accredited repairer.

tmsbrdrs
tmsbrdrs

If they're Linux users, mostly they prefer to fix it themselves. At most, they'll ask for advise or already have a techie friend.

If they're Mac users, tell them to go see a "genius".

dtjuk
dtjuk

Yeah, no way to even get Windows 3.1 to run in Enhanced mode on a 286. Win95 used VXDs which required at least a 386DX processor.

oregonnerd13
oregonnerd13

I identify with that. Totally. The best one was the boss who had me add a hard drive...while her boy friend was wandering around drunk, varying between just drunk, helpful (while not knowing anything) and belligerent at about three second intervals. I didn't kill him. I'm not sure whether or not to be proud of that, but at least I'm still relatively unacquainted with the justice system in the Medford area (other than having become a criminal for being epileptic). --Glenn

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