Data Management

Support favors: Where do you draw the line?

Every IT pro has been asked by family or friends for tech support. Chip Camden says IT consultants have even more reason than regular employees to let this imposition raise their blood pressure.

People become involved in IT-related careers for a wide variety of reasons. The term IT covers a broad range of activities. But all IT people have at least one thing in common: They've been asked to fix a friend's or family member's computer. (Let me know if you're the exception.) Furthermore, the majority of these requests ("While you're here, could you just take a look at something?") come with the implied remuneration of $0. Maybe one beer. Two beers if it takes all evening. At most, a dinner.

While we all resent the imposition, IT consultants have even more reason than regular employees to let this raise our blood pressure. We not only make our living off this type of work, we could probably be doing more of it right now and collecting our hourly fee if we weren't stuck trying to figure out why Aunt Edna's sound card isn't pumping Bill Gaither's melodious voice out the speakers. No, Aunt Edna, don't worry about it -- I'm sure it's something simple. Another hour or so... No more Coca-Cola cake, thanks.

Why do we agree to do these favors? Probably because we feel powerless to refuse. You could plead ignorance, but that's really hard for a geek to do. Or, you could lay the problem out openly, and state your hourly rate -- if you don't mind being a jerk.

Family ties run much deeper in our DNA than monetary systems, and nobody wants to be the subject of Aunt Edna's gossip to Cousin Lulu: "He's a nice boy. He's supposed to know a lot about computers, but he didn't want to fix mine. Oh, I know he's busy and I didn't want to impose, but he certainly had time for a piece of Coca Cola cake, for goodness sake. These young people just don't appreciate Family."

Dealing with friends' requests for technical help can be even harder, because no matter what you do the friendship suffers. If you agree, you'll resent it and never like them quite as much as you did. If you don't agree, then you're putting them in their place -- effectively saying "our friendship isn't *that* good".

It's even worse if your friend is a colleague. I have a much harder time deciding where to draw the line in those cases, because I might need their help someday. As long as it's just a "Hey, can you answer this question for me?" I'll usually just do it, figuring that the favor will be returned in kind or at least translate into good Karma. But these things have a way of getting out of hand. Next thing you know, they're saying "Just tell me if you don't have the time" -- which is code for "We both know that I'm taking advantage of you, but if you object you'll be the bad guy. And you can't be resentful, because I gave you an out -- albeit an uncomfortable one."

Even a paying offer can be an imposition sometimes. I was attending a school function, when the father of one of my daughter's friends came up to me and shook my hand. We've done business before, and I like the guy a lot. So when he began, "Say, how much do you know about..." my ears perked up. He continued, "... Access databases?"

"NOOOOOO!!!!" shouted a voice inside my head. Outwardly, I replied, "More than I ever wanted to."

He explained the situation: He was saddled with a client's Access app that was far too complicated for that piece of, um, software. Not being a database kind of guy, he was looking for someone else to take over the project. I felt really sorry for him, and was about to say yes -- but being a good friend he could sense my distaste and let it drop.

See, that's how friends are supposed to behave. It's just as much up to them to avoid putting us into these awkward situations as it is up to us to figure out how to get out of them. Do you think that friends have a responsibility to be considerate, or am I just being a wimp?

I know you all have some juicy horror stories about free tech support gone bad. Please share them in the discussion.

Thanks to TechRepublic member reisen55 for this topic suggestion.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

135 comments
jdclyde
jdclyde

A REAL friend would not take advantage of you, so it helps to weed out the people that are nothing more than acquaintances. I pick and choose what I am willing to work on. A friends mom wanted me to fix her old laptop that crashed, (running WinME). Ran a few quick scans, no deals. Doesn't have original disks and I was NOT going to search and download drivers for a 10 year old laptop, and then try to reload ME. Sorry, it is dead.

drmayhem
drmayhem

But to conclude, where is the point to put a line?

RayJeff
RayJeff

It wasn't to start of as a free favor. A mutual friend of mine an and another (who ironically enough, it was she that got the other friend and I to be friends) was having issues with her laptop, which turned out to be spyware, malware and a separate wireless router issue. Main stumbling block, friend isn't in the same state. Did all of the support via remote. hours upon hours of work. And with all the work I did, which included being able to safe upload all of her personal files to my computer (approx 1.5 GB), she ends up buying a new laptop anyway. Instead of me uploading the files to the new laptop, I took my time (lol) and made a DVD for her and mailed it to her. I didn't even get a thank you until 2 weeks later, when it took about 3 days to reach her. I would say total amount of time I put in was about a month. Ok. For all that work, not once did I get a "how much do I owe you?" Or "Let me pay you something for all of your time and effort.". And you know, I didn't want any money. I much deserved it, because along with dealing with the laptop, I had to deal with her personality and plus her "know-it-all" attitude when it comes to computers-if she knew it all, then I wouldn't have been trying to save her laptop. I would've taken any money, but..I would've traded my work for another laptop she had. She didn't use it because there was an issue with NIC card, from the what she told me of what the problem was with it. I'm thinking in my mind getting a laptop would be more beneficial to me than money. And I would've offered that up for payment. But, of course it never came up. So, I just let it go. Sometimes, it's just not even worth it to try to be compensated for work from people. Sometimes, you just have to chalk it up as a loss and try to find the positive and the gain somewhere in it.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

if saxophone music will be involved at some point.

mjstelly
mjstelly

...that's the usual response sequence I receive if I even hint at not wanting to fix computing issue. Now that my mom-in-law is addicted to Farmville, it's even worse. The stakes are higher. "But I've just got to harvest my beans or they'll wither!" Thanks, Facebook. (bastards)

sambhavpandey
sambhavpandey

If you follow all this what will happen to all the great open source code/softwares ..and all these help forums...where users share their knowledge and experience to the beginners only for a smile and a thanks :)

Calcom Tech
Calcom Tech

You are so right. This happens more than one may think, and it gets to the point where you don't even bring up your professional anymore.

Uma_kant
Uma_kant

Why family and friends could not understand this simple thing - tech help requires skill, which does not come free anyway. So draw a line and say, ?Help is always available but not free?

hiteshhansalia
hiteshhansalia

Yes I been in this situation many times with Friends and many times with Family members. Still suffer from relation havoc. They will forget their own password and call me during my business time, what is my password on Router etc etc.

JamesRL
JamesRL

But my family's friends....another story. Some of my family aren't computer experts. I bought computers for one of my brothers and my parents, installed the OS (legal), installed AVG Free, Open Office, Spybot etc. I will hook it up for them, connect it to an ISP etc. I can find better deals than they can. At one point my younger brother needed a newer computer, and so did I. I am a bit of a gamer, so my old comp was more than powerful enough for him. He lives 60 miles away. I delivered it, set it up etc. Within a week, I get a call that it isn't working. I arrive with my bootcd and discovered that he clicked on a free anti virus scan and got a trojan that wasn't easy to clean. The one time where something went wrong was when someone from my wife's church asked for a favour. I only visit that church to support my kids when they are doing something. But that church has a tradition of internal bartering of favours. So when one of her friends there asked if I could set up a new computer for her, I agreed. Karma I'm thinking. Well the computer setup was easy, and I saved her a few $$ from nerds on site, but sadly I broke the fragile tray on her inkjet. As a professional translator, I recommended she get a laser anyway. Funny she has never asked me back. I would not do something like that intentionally. I've had friends at work, including senior management, bring me there home computers. I will take them home and fix them, but not during work time. To be honest, I enjoy keeping my hand in, as a manager I don't get to do too much techie stuff at work anymore. James

goringmc
goringmc

It's really distasteful when people expect you to be an expert on everything IT. I often have to draw the analogy of the doctor. There are GP's and there are specialists. I declare that I am a GP.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Except in rare occasions, I'll tell friends and family that if they want me to look at something, they have to drop it off at my place. (I generally refuse to look at anyone's systems on-site unless they're paying me by the hour) Turn-around time is never guaranteed. These days, 95% of the time we're talking viruses/spyware, power supplies, or hard drive failures. These problems usually take me 5 minutes to diagnose if I'm at my tech bench where I can quickly and easily test and swap parts. If it's a malware or drive issue, I pull the drive and attach it to my diagnostic rig where I can clone it and then run scans. The cloning and scanning can take hours, but since it's on my turf I can turn it on and walk away where as doing this "on site" is tedious and painful. If the issue has to do with decrepit hardware or illegally installed software, I politely decline, declaring that the problem is not worth fixing. But I will be happy to transfer whatever data you wish to save to a new machine. More often than not, most of these issues can be solved with only minutes of my direct attention and time consumed. I am usually paid for parts and well fed as compensation, and best of all I don't resent doing the work.

jguay
jguay

I used to fix my best friends' computer anytime there was a problem, up until maybe 3 years ago. There wasn't really any resentment issues until her folks bought a laptop from a shady pc place that 'disappeared' after their purchase. (None of the stuff they bought lasted more then 6 months) She brought me this laptop and it was barely functioning, wouldn't login to windows, was massively infected with spyware. I took the laptop and formatted it, got it all back up to speed but the version of Windows on the pc wasn't valid. (It was that way from the start and the key on the bottom wasn't even right.) She knew when she bought it that it wasn't a valid version of windows yet when I got it all fixed she gave me hell for not putting a valid version on for free. I told her I'd be happy to if she had a valid key but the pc place ripped her off. Sent the laptop back to her working fine, then I get a call the laptop is blue-screening all the time and she goes on about how its my fault because its not a valid version of windows, etc. I took the laptop back to fix the BSOD, had it for maybe 2 weeks total, I'd work on it when I wasn't in school. No matter what I did, she wasn't happy and She was too cheap to buy windows, and I never got a thank you for any effort. I didn't expect any money but a simple thanks would have gone a long way. You'd think it was my fault she bought a laptop from a bad source, even after I warned her. It just turned into a bad situation because I felt like my work wasn't appreciated and she didn't really care. She moved out not long after and her folks started calling me for technical support on their pcs, and I got fed up and told her I didn't mind helping her folks when she lived with them but I was in my 4th year of university and I couldn't be on call for them. It killed our friendship for a good 6 months, and I still resent her for it.

SvenVdS
SvenVdS

The worst that can happen in these situations is when you agree to have "a quick look" and the problem gets worst. We've all had it happen .. while you're looking at one problem, another arises and at that point the finger is pointed to you. "it didn't do that before you worked on it". Best case scenario at this point is you work on it for a few hours more (or do a complete reinstallation) and fix everything, including stuff you weren't called for. Worst case scenario is data loss (shivers) ... I've had this happen personally at no fault of mine ... and it's bad ! On top of that, you'll spend an entire evening/day working on the thing trying to fix it with an increasingly annoying/axious 'customer' breathing down your neck. "Can you fix it? Is it done yet? What's the problem? Will I lose everything? Should I take it to the store/someone else? (by FAR the most insulting question for any self-respecting techie!) I've learned from these situations and try to avoid them altogether, but sometimes there's no way around them. What I do is take the computer home with me. I have all the tools to fix the problem there ... boot disks, other computers to mount the hard drive, etc ... sure, it requires some transportation but in the end it might save you a great deal of time (and trouble).

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

A) Do I have the time to 'spare'? B) Do they try to work out their problem on their own before coming to me? If no, sorry, call someone else. C) Have I helped this person before, and if so, have they followed my advice? If the answer to that is no, the heck with it. D) Do they offer something in trade? Sometimes it doesn't matter whether or not they do, but ones that do get precedence over ones that don't.

Jaqui
Jaqui

"I'm sorry, I'm a GNU/Linux guru, don't know nothing about winders" and only a wee bit about Macos. :D only ever had one family member get me to look at their system :D

jck
jck

So, someone asking for your help with solving a really not-so-difficult issue is taking advantage? Sounds more to me like you think your time is too good to "waste" on an issue that, when solved, doesn't benefit you in the majority. BTW, there are driver websites that have free memberships that you can still get ME drivers from. It takes about 2 minutes to sign up for, and they take seconds to download. And besides that: If it had ME, you could have got her an XP Home/Pro (whose footprint is about the same as ME) 32-bit OEM NFR CD for $30-40 and it would have the drivers pre-packed on the CD. It wasn't dead. You just didn't want to have to do something more than a quick, simple fix. BTW, hope you're doing well. Haven't heard from you in forever.

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

It all depends on whether you do any other services or favours for them, and that all depends on how close you are to them. My friends and family know that my services - everything from setting up email to cutting firewood to replacing a roof - are always free of charge, and if they want to pay me for it, that's up to them. But that's because I have a very tight-knit family, and I treat my church family almost the same as if they were blood. They all also understand that I am disabled now, so I can only help them when my body is cooperating with me. On the flip side, I know people who are estranged from their families, and who only have a very small circle of friends. And they don't do any free favours. Quite frankly, I don't know but that may be the very reason they have only a few close friends and family. It also depends on whether the favours they are asking are your livelihood or just something you do well. If doing their favour would cut into your normal income - like if they need it done right away instead of waiting for a weekend - I think it would only be fair to charge them at least a little to compensate for the lost business. But again, that still depends on how close you are to them. My brother, for instance, sometimes asks for my help cutting firewood. Although I've never actually asked for it, he pays me for my trip (about a five hour drive), and keeps me well fed while I'm there. But when he comes up here to help me, I pay him the same way. Neither one of us is losing anything by helping the other, so we don't ask for anything. I find that by not asking for anything in return for my favours, it makes it that much easier to ask them for favours when the need arises.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Always saying "no" doesn't feel right in some circumstances, yet that's the closest to right I can come up with.

kent.manley
kent.manley

One Thanksgiving early on in my support career (when I had one), I spent most of three days coaxing my Grandfather's ancient 386 desktop to life, adding a bunch of components, upgrading keyboard, mouse, and the like - including 40 mi. round trips into town to pick up stuff I didn't have in my 'kit.' I don't think it was much longer after that my Uncle sprang for a new Tiger Direct white box, and the old 386... got the '86.'

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

....so, are you doing anything with that laptop? Cause I sure could use it (hint, hint, wink, wink).

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Open source projects and forum responses benefit an entire software community, and the person providing the service decides for themselves when they will allocate the time to it. Furthermore, the public nature of these endeavors boosts the contributor's reputation. There are some good, selfish reasons for participating.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yeah, not only to avoid unsolicited pro bono work, but also when asked by a salesperson. When I respond "software development consultant" I see the dollar signs light up in their eyes.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Once you feed them, they never leave. And once you help someone with a technical problem, you become their de facto tech support department.

Lodai
Lodai

I guess I'm one of the lucky ones. I do this as a side business right now. What my family does is when they are contacted by their friends, they say that I "may" be able to help them, but expect to pay. For the most part everyone is fine with that and I get a call. The best payment I ever received was my rate, transit expense (only required a bus from work), dinner, and this... "Wow you were faster, better and cheaper than Geek Squad. They are the reason I had to call you in the first place." I agree with previous posters' statements regarding Karma. I have no problems helping out friends and family. Though I have enough red wine and scotch from them to last me a few years...

HeavyChevy71
HeavyChevy71

I like to use the line, "Yes I do know everything. I just don't remember it all at once."

jguay
jguay

That's a great way of putting it, I'm going to use that the next time someone asks why I don't know the fix right away.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Friends like that aren't really "friends". They're "users", and not in the technical IT sense. You're better off without people like that in your life. Learned this lesson a long time ago: When someone brings you what is obviously a piece of junk with illegally installed software, do not touch it. Because the second that you do, they will then assume that you own the problem forever. And it will be a problem forever, or at least until you are forced to tell them that you're sick and tired of them. This doesn't happen often to me anymore, since most people who know me know better, but when someone presents me with this scenario, I simply and politely tell them that it's not worth their time and money to fix it. It's simply not worth your time or friendship to try to resuscitate a 5-year-old machine with a pirated OS and loaded with spyware when you can get a brand new netbook for $300 that works out of the box and will almost certainly out-perform it. Everyone will be happier.

HeavyChevy71
HeavyChevy71

If I am ever asked this question, my reply is usually 'Yes'. It will prevent this person from asking you for free help again. If it's a paying customer, I just bite my lip and fix it.

ih8computers.911
ih8computers.911

The moment a family member asks if they should take it to someone else...I says YES. Obviously they did not have confidence in you in the first place and anything you do from that moment on will be scrutinized. Even thought it's a family member or friend try not take it personally. Ask yourself: Do I really want them as a customer if they are going to question everything I do? If they have a bad experience and come back to you with hat in hand; their attitude will probably be a little different. I make it clear that I do not have a lot of time; do the best I can and that there is always a possibility of data loss.

binaryme
binaryme

I've used this line a few times. Most of my friends/family know I deal with both Windows & Linux so it doesn't help much. Interestingly, I've managed to introduce quite a few of my clients to Linux. The biggest problem (as it relates to this topic) is when the customer can't do something and blames the new OS (and by association me) for issues that probably would have happened anyway (Like no being able to open certain e-mail attachments). The assumption goes something like this:"you introduced me to Linux and now I can't do ... so you better fix it", and the inference is that I should do it for free because it's my fault, even if I warned them that things would be different. Interestingly, when people move from one version of Windows to another they expect things to be different, but when I introduce Linux and warn them about the differences, they still blame me when it doesn't work as expected.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... by wasting all those years working on Windows. If only I could convince them that I only know FreeBSD.

RayJeff
RayJeff

I would've loved to have gotten the laptop. And knowing my friend, if bring it up, it will go into the ass end of a bad argument.

hiteshhansalia
hiteshhansalia

Yes, Agreed with Chip. there are difference between Open source Community and Support to friends and family. They do not go away after zillion spayware infections in 3 years.

jguay
jguay

Speaking of taking it to someone else, when I did consulting alot a few years back, I found I'd get 'friends of friends' for clients. I would charge them for my time and I often ran across a situation like this: They call me for help, I listen to the problem, explain what I think the solution is and quote my price. Then I would get 'Well I know so and so who does it cheaper'. Instead of haggling for a price to suit them I eventually learned to just say 'If you think you can get better value from so an so then from me then I appreciate why you would choose that person.' I'd get really snippy people who didn't like that I wouldn't reduce my prices for them but I learned if you reduce for one person, then it gets around.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

more often than I have time for. And I'm too often asked by 'repeat offenders'. Lately I dish out a lot of no's for the simple reason that I haven't the time. Of course, in winter I have more time than in summer. :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... Microsoft telling them that this is the new way they can "do more with less".

Jaqui
Jaqui

you brought it, but was it a waste working with windows? ;)

RayJeff
RayJeff

If you wanted something done that bad, hound the person every chance you get and they fix your probelm. You should offer some kind of resitution. Doesn't matter if I decide to accept it or not, the person should still offer, even if it wasn't discussed. I mean...come on. Let's say that a friend of your's asked you to install a new engine in their car. Even though nothing was discussed, you would still assume that your friend would offer to pay you something right? All the time and effort you put in. Like others have said in their comments, that shows the difference between a friend and an acquiantance. Was I too naive to think that my friend would offer to pay me, rather than us talking about it up front? Maybe. Am I wrong to except something? No, of course not.

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

Common sense dictates that if you never discussed a fee or asked for payment, you can't expect anything, either. Common courtesy, on the other hand, is what should have made her offer you something for your trouble. Common sense should tell you that you owe no debt to someone simply for introducing you to someone else who became a good friend. Common courtesy says that if you do somehow feel indebted to her, and that you would have done (and did do) the job for free because of that debt of gratitude, then you shouldn't be feeling any animosity about it simply because she didn't offer you something.

RayJeff
RayJeff

the friend/my friend should've known that for the work I did that I should be compensated. That's just common sense, period! And with the time and effort and the crap I took from her trying to save her laptop, again common senese says she should've offered it. And it's to me to decide to do it for free of charge or not. As far as reconsidering my friendship with her. Ye, I could consider her more of an acquaintance. The main reason I consder her a friend is because because of a mistake she made, she brought together one her best friends to me and she and I have became very close friends over the years. In a way, because of feeling somewhat indebted to her for causing that friendship, I would've been inclinded to do the work for free. But, free don't make me money. But, that is neither here or there and it's past in the past.

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

Having been on the butt end of a couple bad "friendships" of my own, I'd say you need to seriously question whether either of your friends are really friends, or should they be considered just casual acquaintances, or maybe they shouldn't even be considered at all. You also need to rethink your own viewpoint. Had you asked for something in return, and were snubbed off, you would have room for complaint; but if you did the favour without asking for any compensation, you've got no right to be bitter just because they didn't offer you anything in return. A person has an uncanny way of attracting the same type of "friends" as what they are. As with anything else in life, what you get out of it is directly related to what you put in. Just food for thought. And it's free of charge, so you won't hurt my feelings if you don't like my observations.

jdclyde
jdclyde

your definition of what a friend is. Just because you know someone does NOT make them a friend, and NO ONE that is a friend would treat you like that.

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