Whether you’re on an enterprise help desk supporting 10,000 users or on-site with a client using a single PC, you owe it to yourself to document what you do to the machines. More importantly, you owe it to your customers and to your fellow IT pros to maintain a support diary. This week, I’ll give you four good reasons why documentation is so important and share a real-world story where a little documentation would have saved the tech and the end user time and effort.

The tale of the missing QuickBooks data
On Dec. 27, 2002, I received a call from a small-business owner. “My QuickBooks is losing data,” she said. “I log in and enter some data, then I log out. The next time I log in, everything I entered since Dec. 6 is gone.”

The first time the client noticed this apparent loss of data, she re-entered the missing transactions. Then she backed up her data to diskettes before closing the QuickBooks session.

Each time she opened her QuickBooks database after that, all records were lost back to Dec. 6. For three weeks, the client restored data from diskettes after each login, and then backed up the database again before each logoff.

By the time she called me, she had had enough of shuffling disks and worrying about why the data wasn’t “sticking.”

What has changed?
For more than a year, the client had been using the same desktop shortcut to launch QuickBooks, and nothing in her routine had changed. When asked if anything unusual happened on Dec. 6, she said that was the day when a tech support consultant came in and worked on the computer.

All the business owner could tell me was, “Well, he was supposed to set it up so no one could log on to the computer but me. He said he had to trick it [Windows 98], and he moved some things—but I’m not sure what he did.”

The slacker didn’t leave behind any documentation of his visit. For a variety of reasons, the client didn’t want to call him. So, I set up an appointment to go to the client’s office.

How it turned out
In the end, we figured out that the new entries in the QuickBooks database had not been disappearing at all. On startup, QuickBooks by default was pointing to the “old” copy of the database. Restoring the database from diskette forced QuickBooks to use that restored copy, which resided in a different location.

The user testified that she had always used the same desktop shortcut to launch QuickBooks. The shortcut’s properties revealed its target was the file last saved on 12/6/02. For whatever reason, the previous tech support analyst had apparently copied that QuickBooks file to a new location on 12/6/02. That day, the backup set was created based on that copy’s location.

The problem was that a mission-critical file had been copied to a new location, but the consultant neglected to update the desktop shortcut. The poor client’s shortcut pointed to the old version of the file. I nuked the old shortcuts and created a shortcut pointing to the most current version. Granted, it wasn’t rocket science, but the mystery of the missing data was solved, and I was the hero. It would have been easier to troubleshoot if the previous consultant had put in writing somewhere: “On 12/6/02, copied the QuickBooks company database to a new location because….”

A note on the desktop
The last thing I did before leaving the client’s office was create a document on the Windows desktop called “Notes from Jeff.” In it, I entered the date and time of my visit and a brief description of what I’d done. I told the client, “Now, in case I get hit by a truck, your next support person can look in there to find out what I did.”

Four reasons to just document it
There is simply no reason not to document your work. Here are four reasons why you should:

  • The customer deserves the information. When you get your oil changed, the shop leaves a note in your window as a reminder of what it did and when you should return. Even if your client won’t fully understand exactly what you write, the client deserves to have a written record of it.
  • You deserve recognition. In enterprise help desks, support activities are usually documented in a central database of trouble tickets. By documenting your support calls, you’re literally documenting your worth to the company. For small-business clients, a support diary can double as the Description of Services Rendered section for your invoice.
  • You might forget something. If you get called more than once to support the same client’s PC, good documentation is invaluable. Leave a note on the computer or a printout (in case the computer is down), and you won’t have to wonder, “Now what did I do to fix this the last time I was here?”
  • You’ll spot trends. Don’t rely on your memory to figure out that certain problems occur at a regular interval or that other problems occur only when the user is performing a certain activity. A support diary helps identify trends, which makes for more effective troubleshooting.

Keep it simple
If you don’t have a trouble ticket database, create your own tech support diary. Just create a Word or Notepad document on the client machine (or on your machine) called Support Notes or the like. After each support call, write a short narrative that includes at least these details:

  • Date and time of visit
  • Nature of problem
  • Troubleshooting steps followed
  • Resolution

You don’t have to write a book. Just summarize what was wrong and what you did to fix it. It’s the last step in quality tech support. Don’t overlook it.

What have you documented for me lately?

Do you agree that all or most support activities should be documented? Add your opinion to the discussion by posting a comment or writing to Jeff.