Best Practice Ezine #112  Help!  Where can you get support?

Help!  Where can you get support?

Problems come in many sizes; this article is designed for the larger problem packages with decidedly awkward dimensions.  What I would like to do is give you strategies for the next time a disaster strikes a computer near you.

Topics for Help and Support

7 Problem Solving Tips

Let me start with 7 tips for troubleshooting problems of all sizes.

  1. What were the last three things that anybody did to the system?
  2. * Split the search area in half.  For example, is the underlying cause hardware or software?  Is it client or server?
  3. What is the scope of the problem?  What similar systems are, or are not working?
  4. Check not only the System event log, but also the Application log.
  5. Draw diagrams.  Physical or conceptual maps will help you pinpoint the error.
  6. Would it be better to focus on a cure, or do you need to discover the underlying cause.  For example, should you just ruthlessly re-install a program, or buy new hardware, rather than fixating on the underlying cause?
  7. Think – what is the commonest, most likely cause of this type of problem?  Start there.

Two Golden Rules Before You Start

a) Backup before you make any changes, preserve what you have.

b) Once you decide upon your plan of action, be methodical, change only one item at time; write down the settings before and after each change.

Microsoft Self Support

One feature of the ‘Alpha’ male is that they won’t ask for help, thus if you fall into that category, I want to break you in gradually.  Let us begin by seeking self-support.  If it’s a Microsoft product that’s giving trouble where better to start than at the site.

I expect that you may have already used TechNet.  What I find is that not all TechNet articles get to the top of regular browser searches, therefore it’s worth entering your error messages or keywords in Microsoft TechNet’s internal ‘Search’ dialog box.  If that does not work, by all means try the opposite approach, a search of Google, Yahoo or MSN for the same keywords may unearth additional solutions from private individuals and forums, which are not covered by TechNet.

Microsoft Product Support

If you get a true product ‘bug’ then you may get free support from Microsoft, as I did when the Windows Update service misbehaved.  For once I was squeaky clean, did everything by the book, but still I could not receive Windows updates.  I phoned the number given at ‘Microsoft Assisted Support’ and the technician took me to places in the registry that I had never seen before, under their expert guidance I deleted settings.  We rebooted and Eureka Windows Update problem solved – no charge.

Microsoft Assisted Support

For serious, urgent, or intractable problems I recommend Microsoft Assisted Support (and I am not on commission here!)  As I mentioned in an earlier ezine, the feature that made me sit up and take notice was that Microsoft run their support service at a loss.  The reason for this heavy subsidy is because Microsoft is committed to reversing the ‘joke’ image, which their support service gained in the 1990s.  The result has been spectacular, this really is a case of Microsoft Support going from zero to hero.

I have tried Microsoft Support twice myself.  The first psychological hurdle that I had to overcome was to admit that I don’t know, or could’nt find out all the answers on my own.  The second hurdle was even tougher, agreeing to pay their $300 charge.  (Rates and currency for other countries will vary.)

Now if you overcome these and other problems when asking for help, then you are in for a treat.  What you get is unlimited phone support until your problem is solved.  Your Microsoft Support technician stays on the line advising you of different strategies to try until the issue is closed.   Incidentally, one trick is to get them to phone you back and thus save you a hefty additional phone bill, one job took us about 6hrs to solve.

In each of my cases the Microsoft staff had all the qualities you normally only dream of in tech support.  My contact had people skills, research skills and of course, technical skills.  Add to that list they employed a well thought out methodology and if all else fails, they have access to the Microsoft guru for your particular problem area.  I talked my friend ‘Mad’ Mick into using the service and he reckoned that his support technician got in touch with the person who wrote the code to sort out his problem.  He too got a quick result – problem solved.

Incidentally, for lesser problems Microsoft offer an email only support option at $100.

How do you cost your time?

When you weigh up the alternative help avenues, it comes down to how you value your time.  Numerous readers contact me in desperation after they have spent 3 to 5 hours on a problem; worse they are still no nearer a solution.  To me, avoiding of 5 hours of frustration and fruitless work is worth more than $300.  Another insipid problem is that as we experience failure after failure, so we seem incapable of believing that we will solve the problem.  With help at hand the cloud of doom lifts, to be replaced by a ray of hope and a new expectation of success.

Why Guy has discontinued his advice service

I would like to digress for a minute to explain why I have stopped advertising my own $10 – $25 advice service.  Firstly, I enjoyed helping people solve their problems and I also learnt about all sorts of obscure configurations.  However, it was not cost effective as it often took 3 hours for me to get up to speed with the problem and test a solution.  Some problems just need thinking or gestating time before you suddenly see the answer. 

My advice service became a victim of its success, the result at my end was more and more time consuming projects that took me away from my day job.  My biggest worry was giving faulty advice.  What could happen was the client and I could get ever more desperate, I may suggest steps that were risky, or in the case of email and SQL databases, could actually lose data.  With the present culture of ‘blame anyone, sue at the drop of a hat’, a nagging worry is that my well meaning advice could end in a law suit if my advice did not solve the problem.

Uncle and Nephew Story

To give you an amusing insight to the internet advice business, I will tell you this uncle and nephew saga.  It started when I got an email asking for really basic sever help from a lad on work experience.  I obliged, but as is so often the case, this opened the flood gate for more requests.  After a while I said to the lad, ‘I have willingly answered your questions for free, but any more I will have to ask for a $10 payment’.  ‘No problem’ came his reply, ‘My Uncle has given me the company credit card right here’.  Trust me, I really did not abuse the situation, all I charged was $50 for sending 37 emails over 5 days, during which time I made the lad a minor expert on Windows Server 2003.

Well the next week when the boy’s uncle returned and after checking his credit card statement he decided to dispute his nephew’s transactions.  The upshot was that not only did I lose my hard earned $50, but also I had to swallow a $20 bank chargeback fee.

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One door closes – another door opensOne door closes – another door opens

I am convinced that to be successful in business you have to fail a few times before you eventually hit on a winning formula.  My point is it is evident that there is a demand for an online help service and one day I may return to this field with a better business model.  Meanwhile, if you have the inclination and seek to work from home, then you could set up your own internet help business, or maybe an online school for pupils who cannot attend regular classes.

To let you into a secret, much of my best work was by acting as a sounding board.  By listening to people’s problems, asking simple logical questions, making the occasional suggestion, I helped many people solve their own problem.  Perhaps you could distil this effect and create a lucrative little business.  I was not obsessed with making money.  However, asking people for a small payment makes them value your advice, plus it drives away the time-wasters.  To finish this paragraph as I started, my idea is to plant the seed of an idea for you to set up an internet advice service.

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Another idea that I have flirted with is setting up a forum.  I am sure that I don’t need me to tell you about the problem of spam email, however, a less publicised problem is spam in forums.  Once again it’s the numbers game, if people or spambots can plant links in forums, then a percentage of readers will click and a percentage of those will buy the goods.  The only problem is that such postings are annoying to the forum faithful who just want to exchange ideas or get answers.  My friend ‘Barking’ Eddie runs a forum and he say’s 90% of the would-be-posts are spam.  Moreover, he says the spammers and their robots are getting ever more sophisticated and it’s a full time job keeping up with their ploys.

Good source of Forums

The good news is all  that it is not doom and gloom on the forum front, there is a rich seam of good forums at: 

These forums are patrolled by MVPs (Microsoft Valuable Professionals) who selflessly offer free advice for the common problems.  One unsung advantage of posting in a forum or writing an email is that simply by writing down the problem, a solution may suddenly crystallise in your mind.

* I thank Carol-Anne Ogdin for her idea of ‘Dichotomize’.  This is Carol-Anne’s example.

Look at the (relevant) system as a whole. Think of it in sequential blocks (e.g., user, desktop, LAN, WAN, LAN, server). Now, pick a point near (or at) the middle (e.g., the LAN/WAN interface). Now, devise and execute a test (or examine logs, etc), to decide whether the problem is upstream or downstream of that point. You’ve now cut the scope of your problem in half.  Recurse

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