When you’re providing in-person or on-the-phone tech support, you can fall into the trap of overanalyzing a problem if you’re not careful. You can wind up spending an hour solving a problem that could have been resolved in seconds if you’d approached the task differently.

This week, I’d like to share some of the commonsense rules of thumb I use in supporting my friends and consulting clients. I invite you to add to this list of rules by posting your favorite “rules-of-support sense” below.

Rule #1: Rule out the obvious first
The problem with some technical support professionals is that they’re too smart for their own good. They focus too much on possible explanations and fixes instead of getting to the business at hand.

Here are some examples of what I mean by ruling out the obvious first:

  • Is it plugged in? You’ve all heard this one. The user says, “My computer won’t work.” Did you check the power switch? “Oh, I thought the ‘O’ stood for ‘On.'”
  • Is it connected? Looking at the back of a device isn’t good enough. Reach out and touch the cables and plugs to confirm that your connections are tight.
  • Is it grossly abnormal? If smoke is coming out of the device, or if the device is making loud noises, rebooting is probably not the best first line of defense if the device contains data that hasn’t been backed up elsewhere.

Recently I showed up at my chiropractor’s office, and he asked me to help him with his computer. For a week, he hadn’t entered any data because he was afraid the hard drive was going to go out. “Do you have a backup copy of your data anywhere?” was my first question, and he produced a week-old Iomega disk. When I asked what the still-under-warranty, Windows 98 PC was doing, he told me:

  1. The PC was going into ScanDisk every time it was turned on.
  2. ScanDisk always ended abnormally, displaying an ominous message about having tried 10 times.
  3. Loud, fast, clicking noises were coming out of the area of the hard drive.

Chkdsk told us he had a relatively small number of bad sectors, 16 KB or so, but Windows couldn’t fix or work around them. We ran an antivirus check, which stopped on the bad sectors as well but was able to ignore that area and check the rest of the disk, which came up clean.

Folks, I didn’t have to search the TechRepublic forums, DejaNews, or Microsoft’s KnowledgeBase to get information to support my opinion that this hard drive was hosed. “If it’s still under warranty,” I recommended, “get it replaced.”

On my next appointment, the user told me, “I should have listened to you.” He had paid a local tech support company to send out an A+ certified technician. The bill for three hours and $300 came back with this notation: “Ran ScanDisk, installed Windows twice, still can’t fix. Recommend replacement.”

Next time, I guess I should charge $300 for technical advice, even if seems pretty darn obvious to me.

Rule #2: Double-check your facts (and your drivers)
I have weekly support visits scheduled with a nonprofit agency. On a recent visit, the director asked me to take a look at her Lexmark printer. “The network guys came out and did something, and now it won’t print my thank-you notes anymore.” Specifically, the text for the thank-you cards was starting in the middle of the form and printing off the margin. In addition, before each print job on regular paper, the device was spitting out a “garbage page” with a single ASCII character at the top.

I suggested what seemed to be the obvious explanation: The printer driver needed to be updated. The agency’s executive assistant told me she had already been to Lexmark’s Web site and installed those drivers. “It must be something they did to the network,” she concluded, “and I’ll have them back tomorrow to look at it.”

Relying on Rule #2, I decided to double-check the assistant’s facts and surfed out to Lexmark’s site. I noticed that there were several drivers available for this particular printer, each specific to a different operating system. I downloaded and installed the one for NT, and the director printed a perfect card the first try.

The executive assistant was embarrassed, having been absolutely certain she had downloaded the right driver. In hindsight, she could have resolved this problem very quickly. As soon as the first printer tests failed, she should have immediately said to herself, “Maybe I grabbed the wrong file. I’ll go try it again.”

Rule #3: Don’t assume that input from others is 100 percent accurate
This rule is closely related to #2. In addition to being willing to double-check your own facts, pay close attention to what others say, especially when you’re working the phones. Many users get so nervous about talking about computer problems that they omit important details when they describe the problem.

Here’s a problem you might run into when you support clients who use FrontPage. The first time some users try to update a Web page, they’ll call in a huff, saying that none of the changes are “sticking.” Chances are, those users have opened the page with a browser instead of with FrontPage. Be gentle with those users when you ask, “What do you see in the top left corner of the main window?”

Lend your support tips

To share your favorite commonsense support tips with fellow TechRepublic members, please post a note below or write to Jeff.