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Technical Support: What to Do Before You Call

by Bill Santry
March 23, 2003

Oh no! Not again!
Yes, it seems that you have hit yet another technical snag. Once again, the modern marvel that is your PC has chosen the absolute worst moment to fail. You're going to have to call tech support.

Computers have helped put a man on the moon, but your particular PC refuses to print out your report. All your hard work has now been reduced to a collection of electromagnetically-coded data on the hard drive. This is not going to go over well with your boss, professor, etc. Not to mention all the money you spent on this box of microchips.

You loathe the idea of contacting Technical Support and waiting on hold for half an hour. Worse still is the language barrier you always encounter when trying to explain your problem to the "tech" on the other end of the phone. There has to be a way to make this process easier. Read on to find out what you should do and know before you pick up the phone.

In this article, we will cover:

  • Simple fixes for general PC problems
  • A quick summary of Technical Support
  • Information you will need to have before making a call to Technical Support

First: A Word of Warning

This article is in no way an endorsement for "do-it-yourself" computer repair. Technical Support offices are made available to you for the express purpose of helping you resolve problems. If you are unclear or unsure about the nature of a technical problem, take the safe way out and call the experts. The ramifications of "fiddling" with your computer can be severe. The advice provided in this article is just that: advice.

Fix #1: The Almighty Reboot

Your computer is constantly sending bits of data back and forth between its devices. Between Hard disks and RAM, CD-ROMs, printers, disk drives, the monitor, and on and on. Eventually, a time will come when the data sent from one point will not match what is expected at the other point. Your computer may not be able to make sense of this discrepancy and decide to shut down the trouble-making program or return an error about the device you are trying to use. We live in an imperfect world and these failures must be expected from time to time.

In many cases, when that annoying "general protection fault", "illegal operation", or "unable to print to the specified port" message appears, you can correct the problem by simply shutting down the computer and rebooting. Rebooting allows your computer to reset and remove itself from the trap into which it has fallen. You should always save your work whenever possible, or be willing to sacrifice your data.

Rebooting should only be used to correct an infrequent problem. If you notice that your word-processing program always crashes when you save documents or that your network connection drops out several times a day, the problem is chronic and demands the attention of Technical Support staff.

Fix #2: An Ounce of Prevention

Two common sources for technical problems are virus infection and hard drive errors. There are several software programs available on the market that will scan your computer and report possible infection, allowing you to remove the virus before it can do damage. These utilities will also monitor Internet downloads and files on diskette, catching infected files before you access them. See our articles on viruses (virii) and the leading anti-virus software for further information. One drawback to running anti-virus software in the background is that it may interfere with some legitimate computer activities.

Like anti-virus protection, there are utility programs available that will analyze your computer and give you a fitness report. These programs can find physical damage and data corruption, repair and recover damaged files, or optimize the computer's use of your hard drive. Please review the Help2Go's material on utility software for more information. Used properly, these software packages can prevent problems and save you some aggravation.

Of course, you should ALWAYS back up your data to a safe diskette. You never know when you'll need it, but eventually, the time will come.

Fix #3: Know Your PC's Limitations

The newest programs available for your PC, from office productivity to games, often have one common element: resource greed. The latest version of any program invariably requires more memory, hard drive space, and processing power than its predecessor. I will never forget the troubled laptop owner who asked my colleague why his computer was so slow and crashed so often after upgrading Windows 3.1 to Windows 95. It was soon revealed that he had installed the new operating system on an aging computer with only four megabytes of RAM and a minuscule hard drive. The demands of the operating system were too great for the hardware. The lesson is this: the System Requirements printed on software packaging should be treated as bare minimums. The chances for better performance and error-free operation increase with a newer, more powerful PC.

The Purpose of Technical Support

Having worked in the tech support field, I feel qualified to defend the oft-maligned group of technicians who must face these difficult problems on a daily basis. A few things that need to be stressed about Technical Support:

  • It's a two way street. Technical Support cannot help you without a complete and proper description of the problem. Simply saying "I can't print," will not produce a solution
  • Techies are people too. Support staff are there to help and most enjoy their work. This does not mean they will always have the answer to your problem. Treat them like human beings and they will go the extra mile to try to help you out.
  • The squeaky wheel DOES get the grease. As much as I hate to admit it, you do sometimes have to take a firm stance with tech support. Do not be afraid to ask for a supervisor if you feel you are not receiving proper treatment. This should not be taken as an invitation to be rude, but don't allow a tech to treat you in a dismissive manner.
  • Do not call for hand-holding. Technical Support staff should not be expected to walk you through program installations, formatting a document, installing memory, downloading files, etc. You can find detailed instructions for most tasks in the Help menu of an application or other documentation (like Help2Go!). Your calls should be for assistance with specific errors and problems with hardware or software. If you are unsure about how to use a computer, see if you can find a training class in your neighborhood, or even on-line!

Knowledge is Power: What you should know before calling

You're stumped. There is no obvious reason for the problem you are experiencing. Like it or not, you will have to call Technical Support. Before you pick up the phone, be sure you know the following:

  • Error messages. The defaulting program or operating system will almost always provide an error message to "explain" the problem you are encountering. It is not important that YOU understand this techno-babble, but be sure to write the error message down EXACTLY as it appears on the screen. This message will provide Technical Support with important clues as to the nature of the problem.
  • Be ready to work with Technical Support. Calling the tech support staff when you are away from your computer or about to leave makes troubleshooting the problem very difficult. Have your computer running and be prepared to follow instructions from the tech.
  • Know the circumstances. What were you doing when the problem occurred? You should be able to tell the tech what programs were running and what activity you were performing at the time of the error. You should also let the tech know if this is a recurring problem. Also let the tech know if you have changed anything recently in your computer. Like detectives, they need all the information to figure out where the culprit lies.
  • Know your equipment. The operating system, amount of memory, processor type, and amount of free disk space of your computer may all be factors in causing the problem. Have this information handy.
  • Try not to speculate. It is tempting to try and diagnose the problem yourself, but this can often mislead the tech and turn a simple problem into a baffling mystery. Providing only the facts is the best policy.


You don't have to be a computer expert to get expert help. By following these general guidelines, you will reduce the frustration associated with calling Technical Support. By making the tech's job easier, you allow them to do their job and they'll reach a resolution that much faster. And since you have to pay for most technical support, having the information in front of you BEFORE you call will save you time and money.

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