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How to get your way when dealing with tech support

In our line of work, we spend more time emailing, chatting with, and calling tech support people in a week than you might in a lifetime. We have encountered all manner of tech support people: The utterly brain-dead non-geek who types what you say, verbatim, into a terminal and repeats, verbatim, what it replies. The know-it-all who is right just enough to convince him that he's right all the time, and thus won't listen to logic from your end. The talented, underpaid geek who would rather be playing Company of Heroes than talking to you… we know them all.

And we've defeated them all.

That's right, we have an amazing record for getting exactly what we need from tech support, no matter how resistive, stubborn, or bizarre the rep might be. It's not always easy, and it requires a surprisingly large amount of social engineering, but it is possible and that's what matters.

Now we've compiled a list of ten tips, many of which we refer to every single time we contact a tech support jockey. The reason doesn’t matter – whether our Internet service is down, a hard drive won't spin up, a laptop stops working after 20 minutes, or we need a replacement cooling fan for one that has ceased to spin.

We suggest you work these tips into your own personal strategy, too. We think you’ll be pleased with the results.

Tip 1: Be prepared

Before you make contact, you should know exactly what you hope to accomplish by contacting tech support. Do you need a replacement part? Do you need actual help getting something to work? Knowing what you want beforehand will make the encounter much easier.

For example, if you turned on your PC and your hard drive made an ugly, clunking, clattering noise, you can be pretty sure it's dead. Troubleshoot it beforehand; toss it in the freezer for a couple hours and see if that temporarily cures it. If it does, get your data off it and wait for it to fail again before you call.

When you know what you want – say, a replacement hard drive – spend the entire encounter focusing on getting what you need. Don't allow the tech support rep to steer you off subject with questions that don't pertain to your situation (such as, what type of optical drive you have, or whether there are any USB peripherals plugged in).

If you're replacing a part, ask that the company cross-ship. In other words, the company might ship a replacement part to you before it receives your defective part. Sometimes they need a credit card number for "collateral" when a cross-shipment is requested. Keep an eye on that account and make sure they don't charge it if you ship the item to them on time.

No matter what the situation, be prepared. Write down a list of questions you have for the tech support rep before you call. Do web research and see if anyone else has encountered your problem, and if there's a known solution. Try, in essence, to know as much about the problem as you possibly can before you contact the company.

Tip 2: Decide how to get in touch

Sometimes, you'll need help right away. Other times, you can wait. It's really up to you.

Most companies provide tech support via both email and the phone. Note any charges for either method, and of course take into account any phone fees (and higher charged numbers). A third way some companies offer is web chat; that can be useful, too.

Which is right for you depends on your situation. Obviously, if the RAID array in your SMB’s only computer is dying and you're losing virtually all of the accounts billable data, you should make a phone call. Alternately, if the power supply on the rear of the PC chassis has started to make an annoying, but rather quiet, buzzing sound, you can probably get away with an emailed request. Assess your situation and do what you need to do.

Tip 3: Be pleasant

We don’t care if you’re a bigot by nature. We don’t care how much you love your country. It will not help your tech support cause if you berate the representative for being in India, for his thick accent, or for the fact that his name is probably not really Steve, as he told you it was.

Always be nice to the tech support people. They are employed to try to help you, so that’s their primary mission. Don’t antagonise them.

Even if you proudly mention your A+ certification whenever you possibly can, don’t flaunt it to the tech support people. They probably have one, too, and they’re unimpressed by yours. Don’t compete with them unless you want their jobs, and don’t talk down to them. It’s just as unpleasant when you berate them as when your customers berate you at the drive-through window. Get over your attitude and work with them to get faster, more pertinent help.

Tip 4: Record the encounter (if you can)

If you have a way to record the tech support call, do it. Not for quality and training purposes, but to make up for your lousy memory.

We have a lousy memory, too. Sometimes, tech reps can spit out suggestions faster than we can write them down. If we use our handy mini-voice recorder, we can try all of the tech rep’s suggestions later.

You can always go through tech support emails.

If you use a chat interface to communicate with tech support, ask for a log, or take regular screen shots.

One thing, though: If you do record the conversation, be sure to inform them just as they inform you. Simply say, “this call is being recorded” and move along. In some places, this is a legal requirement.

Tip 5: Don’t jump through hoops

Earlier we said not to be a jerk to the tech reps. While we stand by that advice, we also say: Don’t dance for them, either.

In other words – tech support people often simply read scripts off the terminals in front of them. They’re instructed to take you through the most basic troubleshooting techniques. If you know one won’t help, don’t bother doing it.

We’ve had tech reps tell us to do all kinds of crazy things: “Remove the graphics card and clean the contact edge!” (Something far more likely to do harm than good).

Sometimes, they’ll tell you to do things you’ve already tried, which didn’t resolve the problem in the first place.

Just say no!

The easiest way to stay out of the hoops they’ll want you to jump through is to say: “I’ve already tried that.” So if they claim that a contact must be bent in the monitor connector (even though you’ve explained that nobody has touched or reconnected that connector in five years), and they want you to inspect the pins (even though that can’t possibly be where the problem is), just say: “Done. They’re fine.”

Tip 6: Don’t argue!

We presented tip 5 to help you avoid arguments. You shouldn’t bother arguing with your tech support rep, even if you know you’re right. It’s easier to claim you already tried something than to explain to a tech rep why she must be wrong about it.

If you feel an argument coming on, ask for a different rep. Hang up, close the window, or close the email program, and return to the matter a little later. Grab an iced tea and relax for a little while before you go back to it.

Arguing will only antagonise the tech support jockey, who you’re calling on to be your ally. It’s not worth the bother. Keep a cool head and just do what he says, or claim to have done what he says.

Tip 7: Elevate

Sooner or later, you’re going to stump someone. If you have one of those really strange problems that no tech support rep has ever heard of, you might leave the poor dude with nothing to say.

If that’s the case, elevate to the next tech support level. Most companies have several levels of tech support. You start at the simplest, which really isn’t designed to help anyone except the extreme techno-noob who forgot to plug something in or doesn’t know which way the DVD goes in the tray.

Generally, if you stump the entry-level tech support guy, you’ll go up to a “level 2 tech” or “senior tech” or “specialist” or something like that. Thank the low-level tech for his help and get your notes back out: You’ll have to explain everything from the very beginning.

Tip 8: How can you ask differently? Why should you?

If you’re still not having any luck, you need to be more thorough in your attempt to get answers. Here’s a trick most journalists know – it’s a basic interviewing technique:

Try not to ask “yes or no” questions. You’ll get much more information from your subject if you ask “how” and “why” questions. It works while we’re interviewing tech industry celebrities, and it works while you’re talking to tech support reps.

Rather than ask, “Are you stuck?” ask, “Why are you stuck?”

Rather than ask, “Can I return it?” ask “How do I return it?”

Rather than ask, “So I can’t return it?” ask, “Why can I not return it?”

You’ll get a heck of a lot more information from your tech rep if you force her to explain everything.

Tip 9: Get something different!

Sometimes, you’ll identify a defective unit. Other times, you’ll stump the tech support representative to the point where he’ll stall by claiming the unit is defective.

For example, we’ve done that with a NAS product that was purported to work with Windows 7, but did not. The tech couldn’t figure out why not, so she claimed it was defective.

If you end up in a situation like that, try to exchange the product for a different one – one that you know will work. Do this even if you have to pay a balance. In some cases, better companies will waive the balance if it’s small, and if you’re righteously annoyed by a large amount of aggravation it’s put you through. The NAS company did this.

Tech support reps may have to transfer you to a different department to furnish this request. That’ll mean more hold time if you’re doing this over the phone, but the end result will be worth it.

Tip 10: Rage against the fees

Less personal companies might try to hit you with restocking fees, shipping charges, and so on. Don’t go for it. While the cost of shipping a defective unit to the company is unavoidable, absolutely refuse to pay for them shipping a new unit to you, and never pay a “restocking fee.”

The restocking fee might come into play if you end up returning something rather than exchanging it. Since you were inconvenienced by this product, it doesn’t matter that it’s a return – and you shouldn’t be subject to a restocking fee. Fight it, and if the current person can’t waive it, ask for his supervisor. Fight it all the way up to the CEO if you have to.

Restocking fees are bogus about 90 per cent of the time, as are shipping charges if you’re exchanging a defective unit for a new one. Don’t get screwed.

Final thoughts

Tech support is an annoying, but necessary, evil of modern civilised life. Whether it’s your mobile phone, HDTV, personal computer or car, the increasing complexity of the technology we use on a day-to-day basis means we’ll someday have to call tech support. We hope these tips will help you get the most out of that necessary experience.