Help! I do tech support for everyone I know!

Here’s an interesting dilemma: How do you avoid becoming the primary technical support contact for all of your friends and family?
Richard “Rich Job” Jobity asked a really good question, didn’t he? I had to think about it for a while. That label fit me for a very long time. In the past year, it stopped, but I never knew exactly why. He made me think about it, and I found I’d done some interesting things on a subconscious level.

There was a time when I didn’t mind. I was 16 and still learning, I had some disposable time on my hands, and, frankly, I enjoyed the attention. You can learn a lot by fixing other people’s computers. And I used at least one of those friends as a reference to get my first three computer-related jobs. But over time, my desire changed.

I think a good first step is to identify exactly why it is you don’t want to be the primary technical support contact for all your friends and family.

In my case, I spend 40 hours a week setting up and fixing computers. And while I definitely spend some time off the clock thinking about computers, I also definitely want to spend some time off the clock thinking about something other than computers.

I have a life. I have a house to take care of, I have meetings to go to, and I have a social life. Not only that, I have bills to pay and errands to run, and physical needs to tend to as well, like cooking dinner and sleeping. And people get really annoyed with me for some reason if I don’t ever wash my clothes.

So if you get into a situation like I got into a year ago, when I had a friend calling me literally every night for a week with some new computer problem and keeping me on the phone for several hours a night while we tried to sort them out, I think it’s perfectly understandable for any reasonable person to be a bit upset. So here are my tips for someone who wants to head off that kind of a problem.

Have realistic expectations on all sides. So the first step is to make sure your friends and your family understand that you have responsibilities in life other than making sure their computers work. You’ll do your best to help them, but it’s unrealistic to expect you to drop everything for a computer problem the same way you would drop everything for a death in the family.

Limit your availability. Don’t help someone with a computer problem while you’re in the middle of dinner. You’ll be able to concentrate better without your stomach growling and you won’t harbor resentment about your dinner getting cold. Have him or her step away from the computer and go for a walk and call back in half an hour. The time away from the computer will clear his or her mind and help him or her better answer your questions. Don’t waver on this; five-minute problems have ways of becoming hour-long problems.

Here’s a variant of that. I had a friend having problems with a Dell. She called Dell. She got tired of waiting on hold. “I know, I’ll call Dave,” she said. “Dave’s easier to get ahold of than this.”

She may have tried to call me, but last week I was everywhere but home, it seemed. She didn’t leave a message, so I didn’t know she’d called. The moral of the story: Don’t be easier to get ahold of than Dell. Or whoever it was that built the computer or wrote the software.

What if I’d been home? It depends. If I’d been home and playing Railroad Tycoon, I’d be under more obligation to help a friend in need than I would be if I were home but my girlfriend was over and I was fixing her dinner or watching a movie with her. The key is to remember your other obligations and don’t compromise on them.

I remember a week or two ago, I was sitting on my futon with my girlfriend, watching a movie, arms entangled in the weird way the way they tend to do when you want to be close to someone. The phone rang. I didn’t move. “You’re not going to answer that?” she asked. “No,” I said. Since when is it rude not to answer your phone? They didn’t know I was home. If I don’t want to talk at that instant, I’m not obligated to. Besides, both of us would have had to move for me to pick up the phone. So I ignored it. She looked at me like I’d paid her some kind of compliment, that I’d rather stay there with her than yak on the phone. Call me old-fashioned, but that used to go without saying.

Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. If it’d been important, either they would have or they would have called me back. (Maybe it was the friend who’d thought of using me as a substitute for Dell tech support. Who knows.)

Don’t do a company’s work for them. If someone’s having a problem with a Dell, or having a problem dialing in to the Internet, I stay away from the problem. If a Dell is having hardware problems, the user will have to call Dell eventually anyway, and the tech will have procedures to follow, and there’s no room in those procedures for a third-party diagnosis. Even if that third party is a friend’s cousin’s neighbor who supposedly wrote a computer book for O’Reilly three years ago. (For all the technician knows, it was a book about Emacs, and you can know Emacs yet know a whole lot of nothing about computer hardware, especially Dell hardware. But more likely he’ll just think the person’s lying.)

And if someone can’t dial into an ISP, well, I may very well know more about computers than the guy at the ISP who’s going to pick up the phone. I may or may not be more intelligent and and more pleasant and more articulate than he is. But the fact is, I can only speculate about whatever problems the ISP may be having. And seeing as I don’t use modems anymore and haven’t for years, I’m not exactly in a good position to troubleshoot the things. Someone who does tech support for an ISP does it every day. He’s going to do a better job than me, even if he’s not as smart as I am.

Know your limits. A year ago, a friend was having problems with OS X. She asked if I’d look at it. I politely turned her down. There are ideal circumstances under which to try to solve a problem, but seeing the OS for the first time isn’t it. She called Apple and eventually they got it worked out. It’s a year later now. Her computer works fine, we’re still on speaking terms, and I still haven’t ever seen OS X.

Around the same time, another friend toasted her hard drive. I took on that challenge, because it was PC hardware and she was running an operating system I’d written a book about. It took me a while to solve the problem, but I solved it. It was a growth opportunity for me, and she’s happy.

And this is related to the next point: If you’re not certain about something, say so. It’s much better to say, “This is what I would do, but I’m really not sure it’s the best thing to do” than it is to give some bad advice and pretend that it’s gospel. Get your ego out of the way. There’s no need to try to look good all the time (you won’t).

Limit your responsibility. If your uncle has a six-year-old PC running Windows 95 and ran out and bought a USB-only printer because it was on sale at Kmart and now he’s having problems getting it running and he never asked you about any of this, how much responsibility should you be willing to shoulder to get that printer running?

I’m inclined to say very little. It’s one thing to give some bad advice. It’s another to be dragged into a bad decision. If the only good way to get the peripheral running is to buy Windows XP and wipe the hard drive and install it clean, don’t let that be your problem.

Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into giving support for free software downloaded off the ‘Net, supercheap peripherals bought from who-knows-where, or anything else you can’t control.

You can take this to an extreme if you want: Partition the hard drive, move My Documents over to the second partition, and then create an image of the operating system and applications (installed on the first partition, of course). Any time you install something new, create a new image. When your friend or relative runs into trouble, have him or her re-image the computer. He or she can reinstall Kazaa or whatever notorious app probably caused the problem if desired, but you can disclaim responsibility for it.

Which brings me to:

Disclaim all responsibility for poor computer habits. Gatermann and I have a friend whose brother repeatedly does everything I’d do if I wanted to set out to mess up someone’s computer. He downloads and installs every gimmicky piece of free-with-strings-attached software he can find, turning his computer into a cocktail of spyware. He runs around on Kazaa and other file-sharing networks, acquiring a cocktail of who-knows-what. He opens every e-mail attachment anybody sends to him, acquiring a cocktail of viruses. He probably does things I’ve never thought of.

Gatermann installed antivirus software on the computer, and we’ve both run Ad-Aware on it (if I recall, one time I ran it I found 284 instances of spyware). Both of us have rebuilt the system from scratch numerous times. The kid never learns. Why should he? Whatever he does, one of Tim’s friends will come over and fix it. (I guarantee it won’t be me though. I got sick of doing it.)

Some good rules to make people follow if they expect help from you:
1. Run antivirus software and keep it current. This is a non-negotiable if you’re running Windows.
2. Stay off P2P networks entirely. Their clients install spyware, and you know about the MP3 buffer overflow vulnerability in WinXP, don’t you? Buy the record and make your own MP3s. Half.com is your friend.
3. Never open an unexpected e-mail attachment. Even from your best friend.
4. If you don’t need it, don’t install it. Most free Windows software comes with strings attached in the form of spyware, these days. If you don’t want to pay for software, run Linux.
5. If you must violate rule 4, run Ad-Aware religiously.

And? This doesn’t mean I never get computer-related phone calls. A family member called me just this past Sunday with a noisy fan in a power supply. I found him a cheap replacement. I went over to my girlfriend’s family’s house Sunday afternoon and fixed their computer. (It made me wonder if the “4” in Pentium 4 stood for “486.” Its biggest problem turned out to be 255 instances of spyware. Yum.)

But I’m not afraid to answer the phone, I don’t find myself giving people longshot answers just to get them off the phone long enough for me to go somewhere or start screening my phone calls. And I find myself getting annoyed with people less. Those are all good things.

7 thoughts on “Help! I do tech support for everyone I know!

  • January 6, 2003 at 7:25 pm
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    For the rest of us, handing the supplicant a copy of “Optimizing Windows…” with a get back to me when you’ve tried this was an occasionally useful strategy – as can be referring folks to the “how to ask for help” advice on the web.

  • January 7, 2003 at 2:38 am
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    Heh. I found another excellent solution to these problems. Of course it is always hard to turn down “support calls” from immediate family, but friends of friends, people at work, etc, I found an ideal solution: I tell them that I take money for my work. This usually ticks people off but I am quick to remind them that solving their computer problems is done in my own free time, which isn’t entirely my free time since I got a wife and a kid that also want a part of my free time. I also remind them that I am taking my work with me home which isn’t popular with anybody I know of ๐Ÿ™‚

    The result is that most people say they understand and don’t bother me no more and others acutally pay for my services, even though that group is a minority.

    /Dave T.

  • January 7, 2003 at 5:37 am
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    Wow.

    All good suggestions.

    The one thing I would change is that I would use Spybot Search and Destroy (instead of AdAware) in a search for spyware nasties. AdAware and its signature file haven’t been updated since September, and version 6 isn’t due out until later this year.

    One other thing I don’t do anymore is troubleshoot pirated software. This is non-negotiable, and actually increases my leisure time. I simply point them to open source alternatives or, if I feel generous, give them a CD with GPL software for Windows. This one, at http://gnuwin.epfl.ch/ .

    As for IE troubleshooting, they seem to disappear once I show them the glories of ad blocking and tabbed browsing in Mozilla/Phoenix. I expect this to continue after I show them Moz spam filtering.

  • January 7, 2003 at 8:01 am
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    Thanks for the excellent suggestions Dave. I have been trying to figure out how to extricate myself from such a tech support situation.

    And of course, I fell compelled to add, this is one of the many reasons I don’t have a cell phone.

  • January 7, 2003 at 9:48 am
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    I just send them to Richard Jobity. LOL!

    Seriously… I just tell them that if it’s serious enough for them to bring their machine to me, then I’ll look at it. If it’s a software issue, and it requires a lot of my time (more than 1 hour), they will be charged.

    It’s amazing what people will do to avoid unplugging their machines and transporting them. To date, after taking this approach, I have only seen 3. Of the 3, only one required more than an hours work.

    The rest, I suspect, are posting questions to Richard… ๐Ÿ™‚

  • January 7, 2003 at 2:32 pm
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    Me– “Sure, I’d be happy to help you with the problem with your x,y,z computer. My hourly rate is $150, and I can get to you for an hour three Tuesdays from now.”

    “What? You need it sooner? Well, my rush rate is $250 an hour, and I can fit you in tomorrow.”

    “What? $250/hour is too expensive? Ok. YOU tell me what you think is fair compensation for my time”

    “Oh? You’ll go to x,y,z for technical support? Well, I think you’re making a mistake… But good luck”

    Either that, or every time they have a problem, listen to whatever problem they have and then say in a cheerful voice “I know the exact solution. Install Linux.” After a while they’ll start shutting up.

  • January 10, 2003 at 12:05 pm
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    I don’t mind helping out the occasional family member but I make it abundantly clear that I will get to it when I have spare time. I also tell them to bring their machine. I’m not going to them to fix it. If I see that it will take more than an hour to fix, I’ll tell them take it to a computer repair place and pay a professional to fix it.

    Of course, if you really want to drive the point home to them, get one of those ThinkGeek “No, I will not fix your computer” T-shirts.
    http://www.thinkgeek.com/tshirts/frustrations/388b/

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