Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 131 / JULY 1991 / PAGE 80

Tech Knowledge - Ten Ways to Get the Technical Information You Want and Need
by Rosalind Resnick, Susie Archer

In business, time is money. For most business people who depend on computers for their livelihood, few things are more maddening than waiting on hold for a computer-company technician. Few things, that is, except having the technician come on the line talking in some weird computer lingo and offering "assistance" that's impossible to comprehend.

Getting technical support for your home office doesn't have to boost your blood pressure. Although few hardware or software warranties guarantee much beyond the right to return or repair a product if it turns out to be defective, computer companies value your business and are usually willing to talk you through your problem over the phone. The store where you made your purchase, on the other hand, rarely offers more than a limited refund or exchange.

Keeping this in mind, here are ten time-tested ways to help you get the technical information you require--and turn a potentially frustrating experience into a fruitful one. When you learn the language computer technicians talk, you'll get more out of your calls to technical support. And once you master the basics of troubleshooting your own computer problems, you'll rarely need to ask for technical support again. And that the biggest time saver of all.

1 An cunce of Prevention

When you buy a program or a piece of equipment, you enter a relationship with the manufacturer. Start your relationship off right by sending in the registration and warranty cards enclosed with your purchase. Telephone support is offered by almost every manufacturer, but the staffer fielding the call may ask you to identify yourself before directing your call to a technician. If you're not in the company's database as a registered user (or if you don't have your registration number readily available), you may get the cold shoulder. You'll also miss out on any notices, newsletters, or other product information designed to keep you abreast of changes.

You should also consider buying a one-year maintenance contract on your computer hardware -but only if it costs less than ten percent of the product's purchase price and you feel reasonably certain that the company will survive the life of the contract. On-site contracts normally don't cost much more than a standard contract; some companies throw them in free as part of a package deal. An on-site contract will let you stay at home by your phone during business hours while a technician comes to you. It can save taking a morning off to lug your machine to the computer store.

2 Read the Directions

No matter how user-friendly your computer claims to be and no matter how many pull-down menus your software possesses, it's still a good idea to read your user manual carefully before throwing in the towel and calling the company for help. If you have time or patience for nothing else, make sure that you study the chapter that tells you how to set up your computer and install your software. Make sure that you have followed directions to the letter and that you are using the equipment specified.

If a problem pops up, check the troubleshooting guide in the back of the manual for common problems and frequently asked questions (you may want to look in a local bookstore for the books listed in the tech books section). Remember that few technical support lines are toll-free, and, for most home computer users, Silicon Valley is a long-distance call.

3 Reach Out and Ask


Unless you're a seasoned computer user, there's probably a limit to what you can do on your own. There comes a time when it's best to pick up the phone and call for help. Demand assistance right away if your computer won't start or your program freezes up on the screen and you have to reboot or exit your application unexpectedly.

Call, too, if you find yourself having to repeat a particular task or keystroke sequence again and again. It could be that a new device driver has been introduced that better supports your printer or modem or a software guru has come up with a keystroke-saving macro that will save you time and aggravation. Or your software may have been updated to correct a problem while the package you bought was sitting on the shelf.

A technician can let you know whether you have the latest version. Even if there isn't a fix for your problem, phone calls are what spur companies to make improvements.

4 Be a Do-It-Yourselfer

Ultimately, the best source of product support is you, the home user. If your manual provides more confusion than help, log on to an online database or bulletin board and look for answers there. Microsoft, Tandy, IBM, and other hardware and software manufacturers provide nocost bulletine boards, called forums on CompuServe and roundtables on GE-nie, where the company's technical staffers are assigned to read users' questions and leave detailed answers.

It's a good idea to browse through these forums before sending in your question; chances are your problem is not unique. Another nice thing about forums is that you can leave and receive messages at any time of day or night. Remember that though there is no extra charge for many of these forums, use of CompuServe itself is neither free nor inexpensive.

It also pays to know your limits. Whenever a problem occurs, it's wise to back up your data on a floppy disk using the DOS BACKUP command. Often a support technician can repair or restore a damaged file if you haven't tried to fix it yourself first. This backup file can also help the technician diagnose an obscure error. The smartest thing, of course, is to back up your system on a regular basis. That way, your programs and data can be salvaged in case of a hard disk crash--the home computer user's darkest nightmare.

5 Know the Lingo

Reaching out for help won't do you much good if you don't speak the same language as the technician on the other end. We're not suggesting you dash out and take a crash course in C, but knowing a little bit about the hardware can make your interaction with a technician much smoother.

Familiarize yourself with the following, and you'll be on your way:

* Memory-resident programs (also known as terminate and stay resident or TSR programs), the most popular being Sidekick and PC-Tools' PCSHELL, reside in your computer's random access memory, enabling your system to call up or enhance other applications. Some may even load automatically every time you turn on your machine. They make it possible for you to call up a program with a keypress or speed up your system in some way, but they may also be memory hogs and sometimes prevent other programs from running. If you have problems, a technician may suggest that you remove all TSRs from your AUTOEXEC.BAT and reboot.

* If your screen freezes up, you may have to warm boot your computer by holding down the Ctrl-Alt-Del keys or cold boot it by pressing reset or turning your computer off and and then on again.

* The CHKDSK command tells the technician how much disk and free memory space you have available.

* You'll also need to know the contents of your AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files. To view these files, type CD\ to enter the root directory; then enter TYPE AUTOEXEC.BAT. You can repeat these steps for the CONFIG.SYS file. If either file scrolls off the screen before you can read it, use Ctrl-S to pause and Ctrl-Q to resume the scrolling. You can also send a screenful of information to your printer by pressing the PRINTSCREEN key. The CONFIG.SYS file sometimes contains a command to load a memory manager. Often these managers have names like QEMM.SYS or EMM.SYS. These memory managers give access to RAM beyond the conventional 640K. Technical support people will need to know whether you have one of these memory managers running because they sometimes are the source of conflicts that prevent programs from operating properly. You might try deleting these commands or putting REM ahead of them and rebooting. if your memory manager is the problem, that could clear it up.

* The setup is a part of memory that contains important information on what peripherals are attached to your computer. PCs and XTs have this information coded by setting switches on the motherboard, but ATs and more advanced machines store this information in a CMOS RAM that is maintained by battery power. If your At fails to boot properly, it could be because the CMOS battery has run down. Therefore, you should always know what is contained in your setup. Different machines use different methods to reach the setup, but the two most common ways are by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Esc or by pressing Del while the machine is booting. Don't change the settings except under the supervision of a technician, but you should take the time to write down all of the setup information and keep the record close to your computer. Then if your setup fails, you can reenter the information and be back to work in minutes.

* A technician may ask you to identify your DOS version, your BIOS type, and your graphics display. You can easily determine your DOS version simply by typing VER at the DOS prompt. The BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) type and display type (usually Hercules, CGA, EGA, or VGA) flash on your screen when you boot your computer. Some common BIOSs are AMI (American Megatrends) and Phoenix.

6 Work the System

It's easier and faster to get help if you know what it's take for the technicians on the other end. On any given day, the peak volume period for help-desk calls is from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. EST (most software companies are on the West Coast and there is a three-hour time difference between the Eastern and Pacific time zones).

Many companies hold support staff meetings on Monday morning in order to compare notes on problems. Generally, you can get faster, more personal service if you avoid peak periods and call when the support staff is most likely to be available.

It's also important to know who will be answering your call. At a small company, the person on the other end of the line may be a programmer or software developer, while at a large organization, it may be a receptionist who will take the basic information and route your call to someone else. At a midsize company, you are likely to land a generalist with good people skills who has enough expertise to ask the key questions and diagnose your problem. A specialist may be called in, but it's usually the call-taker's job to get the answer you need.

Generally, computer technicians will record their discussion with you on a trouble ticket or problem report and assign it a level of priority. Priority Level 1, for example, will susually get you an answer in a couple of hours. Priority Level 2 will generate a response within a day. Be honest about your urgency. You don't want to earn a reputation for crying wolf.

7 Put It in Writing

It's a good idea to keep a detailed call-history journal in case you can't resolve your problem in one phone call and must explain your problem again to someone else. Your log should include the date and time of your call, the problem symptoms, the phone number and extension you called, the person who took the call, and the diagnosis and any troubleshooting steps required.

8 Clean Out Your


A support technician will frequently fix your problem by giving you instructions on how to alter your system files or copy certain types of files or device drivers into certain sub-directories. That's why it's important to know how to access the AUTOEXEC.BAT file that automatically loads programs into your computer's memory at boot-up every time you turn on your machine. If too many memory-resident programs are being loaded in automatically, you may not have room to run other programs that require at least 512K of RAM. A support technician can help you edit your AUTOEXEC.BAT file using a text editor or the EDLIN program that edits ASCII files. Normally, RAM space can be freed up by inserting the letters REM in front of any command that loads in a driver or TSR.

9 ReCONFIGure Your


Common problems such as system freeze-ups and insufficient memory can often be solved by letting the technician edit your CONFIG.SYS file. This file usually contains the statements BUFFERS = X and FILES = X. The CONFIG.SYS file also lets you add device drivers to your system that can control a modem, a mouse, or an optical scanner.

The more buffers you tell DOS to use, the more data it can store in memory. The greater the number of files you set, the more tasks your system can perform simultaneously. To solve your immediate problems and help your computer run more efficiently, set the buffers statement somewhere between 10 and 25 and the files statement at no less than 20.

10 Take It to the Top

Captain Kangaroo notwithstanding, the three magic words are not please, thank you, and you're welcome, but please, thank you, and may I speak to your supervisor. If you can't get the help you need from the support technician, ask to speak with someone further up the chain of command. This person, typically called the support manager, will probably be able to steer you to technician who can better help resolve your problem.

If a problem recurs, try to remember whether you've installed any additional hardware or software since your last call or if you've recently entered a large amount of data on your hard disk. Even if the answer is yes, don't be shy about calling back for more help. Don't assume that you'll get the same technician on the line. This is where more call-history journal can come in handy. In addition, problems labeled by a technician as chronic normally get higher priority.

If you're still not satisfied, it may be time to write a letter to the company's president or ask for a refund. After all, time is money, and you got to know where to draw the line.

Tech Support Is Only Human

Above all, remember that the person at the other end of the line is a human being who must deal with dozens of dissatisfied users at all levels of expertise. If you are patient and cooperative--and if you've done your homework--he or she can be much more helpful to you.