Home Computer: Telephone help with no axe to grind : The first place to seek help is the telephone support line. Wendy Grossman cuts through the confusion

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The Independent Online
IF COMPUTERS are the enemy, technical support is the war zone. Only in the computer industry do companies routinely have telephone lines to tell customers how to use their product. Few of them quite understand why they do it, except that it is the only way round the inadequacies of their manuals.

A few years ago, when I surveyed technical support departments for a computer magazine, one software company manager called it a 'black hole that absorbs all the resources you throw at it' and complained that people would not expect lifetime telephone support for their washing machines. True: but you do not have to reprogram your washing machine every time your soap manufacturer 'improves' his formula, either.

The industry's attitude tends to be that people should read the manual, generally abbreviated to RTFM. Up to a point this is fair. Take my favourite fictitious program, Lotosoft's AxeGrinder for Windows 3.4267; it automates the process of writing letters of complaint to the makers of defective products. It includes - besides word processor, database of manufacturer addresses and set of boilerplate vituperative paragraphs - a built-in calculator, for tallying up expenses so you can append invoices for your time and trouble to your diatribes.

If you cannot figure out how to pull the calculator up on screen, your fastest bet may be the manual, where it is listed as 'customising a calculator object'. But AxeGrinder also attaches via a cable to real-world calculators and, of course, the box where you specify which one you have does not list yours among the choices. In that case you call technical support. If you are me, Lotosoft then tells you to call your calculator manufacturer; the calculator people tell you to call Lotosoft and you get back to Lotosoft in a snarling mood, ready to take no prisoners. In the interests of keeping the frustration levels down - on both sides: she has 23 people yelling at her every hour - try following a few simple rules.

The first is, pick your time to call. In businesses, problems tend to develop throughout the day or week. So you should get through quickest first thing in the morning, or after-hours if the support line is open then. But you can never tell: when I called Microsoft's notorious support line at 11am on a Monday, I got through to a Windows 3.1 staffer with no waiting. For any of the main companies, it helps to have a touch-tone telephone to work through the message-routing menus automatically. If you write down the sequence, next time you call you can whip through the whole set-up to the support queue in a couple of seconds.

Technical support people say that the quality of their answer depends on the quality of the question. There is a term for this: blaming the victim. Nonetheless, it helps to have as much detail as you can about your system and the problem ready before you pick up the telephone.

Computers are genuinely complicated, especially running under windows operating systems, which makes it relatively easy to try stuff that no one in their right minds would attempt under basic operating systems like Dos. More importantly, while you are on hold, the woman (usually) on the other end of the telephone is searching the company database of fixes for specific problems. To do that, she needs keywords, which she extracts from the information you give her.

Start by turning on your computer and reproducing the problem. Take notes of everything you do and everything the computer does, including the exact text of any error messages. Get out the manuals and have your registration or serial number handy - many companies ask for this to make sure you are a paid-up user. Some, like Lotus, only send you the hotline number after you send in the cards.

Software companies these days have taken to charging for technical support after a limited free period, usually 30 to 90 days, since they say most problems come up during installation. If they offer to charge you, stop and investigate. You may be able to find a 'third-party' company that will support your whole system for a better price. With one proviso: if it turns out you have discovered a bug - an error in the original program code - you have a right to expect the manufacturer to supply a 'fix'. They may carp at this, but why should you have to pay for their mistakes?

It helps to know the version number of your software and operating system; also check what other programs are running on your system. Have the make and model number of your computer and the details of the system's specification - processor type and how much main memory and disk space it has.

If you do not know these things and do not know how to find out, do not panic: the technical support person should be able to help you. Some of the direct hardware sellers, notably Dell and CompuAdd, have made this easy by storing each machine's entire history in the company database, so all you need to know is the serial number.

If the problem is printing - many are - make sure you know the printer's make and model number. The same goes for any other peripheral device, such as a modem, scanner, or CD-rom drive.

Bear in mind that while it is your supplier's responsibility to help you get the system working, unless you have a special deal, free training is not its job. With AxeGrinder, it is reasonable to call if the built-in calculator is not working properly.

It is not reasonable for you to expect Lotosoft's technical support to teach you the basics of Windows, which it needs in order to run, or to explain how to use AxeGrinder to balance your chequebook, since it was not designed for that. For that kind of inforamtion, sign up for a training course, or join a 'user group' for the machine or program that you use.

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