Am I the only one who puts tech support into two different categories? As I see it, there are generalists and there are specialists. Like many of you, I am a little of both. I know what I know about computers and I think I know what kind of knowledge is specialized. I have people that I rely on for that specialized support.

End-user or client expectations when it comes to “computer stuff” can be a tough animal to manage. To some of our co-workers or clients, all computer knowledge is specialized. They don’t recognize when they are asking a simple or a complex question. To them, it’s all complex. They just want their problem fixed.

Installing vs. supporting software

I currently support a couple hundred employees in the Small to Medium Business where I work. If you are a tech support generalist like me in this kind of environment, then you have probably installed dozens of various kinds of software packages over the years. Most software installation tasks today are easy.

Now just because you know how to install a piece of software, doesn’t mean you are an expert in knowing how that software works. Am I wrong here? This is the point of my little rant. I sometimes get a little irritated at co-workers who don’t distinguish this. But because I’m a professional I don’t show that irritation. Hah!

AutoCAD is specialized knowledge

Twice in my career I worked for manufacturing companies that had dozens of engineers who designed parts using AutoCAD. If you know anything about AutoCAD, you know it is a complex program. It can even be a bit complex to install for an experienced tech. You can go to school just to learn how to install this product.

I considered it part of my job to know how to install AutoCAD and so did my managers. But neither the engineers nor I ever assumed that I was the expert in AutoCAD. I know some of you are, but that’s not my area of expertise. I have too many other products to support, some of them almost as complex.

Managing end-user expectations

It’s always an opportunity to increase your knowledge when someone asks for support on a product that you don’t know in depth. Because of this, I have learned more obscure things about Microsoft Office products than I ever would have discovered from my own everyday use. That knowledge comes in handy.

Since we’re paid to provide tech support I suppose we should just dig in and figure it out when we’re asked something that might be considered specialized knowledge. What do you think? Am I off-base here? Is it ever OK to say, “I don’t know that product?” Yes, it is, as long as you add, “But I know someone who does.”

Defer to the specialists

In particular, what if you are asked how to do certain functions in an accounting package and your knowledge of accounting procedures is limited? In cases like this I am glad to be able to call the company that sold and installed the system. They are all CPAs and know much more about debits and credits than I ever will.

Even though I am a network engineer, I have other engineers that I call when I need help. There’s no way I can know all the ins and outs of the Cisco IOS. I just don’t install that many routers, firewalls or switches. Most server issues I can handle but I still like to bounce things off another engineer in certain situations.

Tech of all Trades

Back to the point of this essay. A small business usually can’t afford to have more than one or two techs on staff. In fact, some of them have none. They rely on outside consultants to support their computers and networks. So that one tech becomes a Tech of all Trades. Hey, that’s the title of my blog!

I contend that it takes a special skill to be a Tech of all Trades. We have the added challenge of knowing how to manage user expectations of support that go beyond our own knowledge base. Educating your co-workers or clients about what knowledge is in-house is an important part of doing SMB tech support.