Hanging Up on Tech SupportFed up with phone help? Online tools for solving PC problems are getting better.
Anne Kandra is a contributing editor for PC World. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Sooner or later, it happens to all of us. Sometimes there are disturbing warnings: You may start to hear weird clicking sounds, or see cryptic messages that appear, chillingly, out of the blue. Other times your gear simply dies before you suspect that anything is amiss.
Either way, you need tech support, and you need it now.
But if you've ever whiled away half a day on hold listening to pop hits of the 1970s, or had difficulty understanding the patois of a customer service representative from an overseas call center, you know that telephone tech support is broken. And even if you're willing to give it a shot, in some instances support isn't available when you thought it would be. Dell's cheaper PCs, for example, offer only 90 days of warranty support.
But where can you find assistance when you're staring into the depths of PC purgatory and your presentation is due in 6 hours? Well, as long as your problem doesn't prevent you from going online (perhaps using a second computer), the solution might be just a few browser links away. The trick is to know where--and how--to find it.
Room for Improvement
If there's a tarnished silver lining to the sorry state of phone support these days, it's that Web-based support seems to be improving--albeit slowly. People who responded to our annual Reliability and Service survey reported that, in general, the support information they found on companies' sites was more relevant and more likely to address their problems than it had been in past years.
Granted, that's faint praise. The online support experiences of most users I've heard from run the gamut from abysmal to merely adequate. But the trend of companies improving and expanding their online support options can only be positive news for consumers.
Most hardware and software vendors already provide at least basic Web services such as information centers (Microsoft's exhaustive Knowledge Base is one example) and e-mail support; many companies also supply assistance via live chat. Some of the bigger players, including Dell, Intuit, and Microsoft, have implemented more-sophisticated support resources for some products. Among these offerings are expert-moderated user forums and newsgroups, links to product-specific blogs, remote diagnostic and troubleshooting utilities, and even Webcasts.
If your problem seems to be associated with a particular application or device--for example, you consistently see the same error message from your financial application whenever you try to download data--start by visiting the vendor's site and searching the support database there for your error message.
Many sites allow you to search by entering a question or a brief phrase describing the problem (for instance, "system crashes when I begin download"). Search engines have a limited ability to process complex ideas, so keep your search phrase as clear and simple as possible. Include keywords, such as "download" and "install," when you can, but also identify the problem so the query isn't too vague.
If your search comes up empty, fire off an e-mail to the company's tech support address; better yet, look for a link to live chat. Regardless, you'll almost certainly have to complete several fields of very detailed information before you even get to the point of describing your problem--so keep all your system specs, along with any error messages, handy. This is where screen shots and cut-and-pasted documents can be helpful.
If you reach a tech support rep in an online chat forum, try to be as succinct as you can while still providing all the pertinent information about the problem.
Online support reps typically work on multiple cases simultaneously, which can make their response times aggravatingly slow. Though you can't do much about that, try to keep your patience and don't let the support representative end the session until you're satisfied with the answers you receive. Generally, you'll then have the option to get a copy of the chat session, often via e-mail: Be sure to do so, as it may come in handy if you need to pursue the matter further.
Beyond the Vendor
Sometimes, however, you simply cannot get satisfaction from a vendor's Web site. Ian Richards, editor of the Tech Support Alert Web site and e-mail newsletter, puts it bluntly: "Often online support tools represent boilerplate solutions that may be great for standard problems but marginalize difficult ones."
For more complicated issues, independently run tech support sites or user forums may be invaluable. "Volunteer support is expanding, and some of these sites are outstanding," Richards says.
One way of ferreting out useful third-party sites is to repeat your error-message search on Google, Yahoo Search, or another general-purpose engine. Often this leads to obscure newsgroups or user forums where you may gain insights from others who have had a similar problem.
Another site worth visiting is Experts Exchange, where IT professionals provide quick answers on just about any tech topic. There is a catch, however: You must pony up $10 a month to use the site.
Hundreds of helpful online third-party tech support resources--some free, and others requiring subscriptions or service fees--specialize in helping hapless PC users chase the ghosts from their machines. The Web is also home to plenty of product-, product category-, and service-specific support sites, such as Broadband Reports, which focuses on communications and ISP issues, and Fixyourownprinter.com, which posts discussions of particular problems, links to repair kits, and more. Some companies even host resources of this type on their own Web site; Intuit, for example, includes discussions, user forums, and links to blogs where users can look for practical information and advice.
A good place to unearth resources is Richards's site, Tech Support Alert, which serves up a healthy collection of tech support links (including active sites and user forums), reviews, and advice on an extensive range of technology topics.
Of course, some problems are so complex that all the Web resources in the world won't help you escape their toils. And if you can't get online at all, you'll probably have to call tech support eventually. But with a little research, some scrupulous note-taking, and an extra dose of patience, you just might be able to cure your tech woes without having to pick up the phone.