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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.