Has this happened to you? Your third cousin twice removed
phones you, in a panic, that his computer is on the fritz.
He thinks he may have picked up a virus, or maybe one
of his kids messed things up sharing music with friends
over the Internet, or maybe he shouldn't keep forgetting
to shut down Windows before turning off the power. Can
It's inevitable that anybody who knows enough about
computers to be able to install a new program will be
looked upon as a computer guru by those who don't and
will be called upon for help. This happens in the home,
and it happens in office settings as well, particularly
with small businesses that don't have a formal information
technology person or department.
And it's happening more and more, said Anne Kandra,
a columnist for PC World magazine (http://www.pcworld.com).
"As more companies ramp up their prices for tech
support, it's natural that people will look for less
expensive options," she said in a phone interview.
In addition, as anybody who has used it knows, official
tech support can be unpleasant. You often have to wait
significant periods of time in a phone queue, you may
get shuffled from one support technician to another
or even one company to another, and you may wind up
talking to a third-party support technician in a low-wage
foreign country who has a difficult time understanding
you or your problem.
Giving phone support can be a real challenge. Without
seeing things for yourself, it can be difficult to figure
out the person's problem let alone offer a solution.
Fortunately, there's a better way. You can empower family
members, friends, and co-workers to prevent and solve
many of their own computer glitches themselves.
In her column for PC World magazine, Kandra
has shared some of these techniques, and she shared
them with me as well. Among the general-interest newsstand
computer magazines, PC World does the best
job of reaching both experts and average computer Joes
with easy-to-understand advice on both buying and using
Kandra stresses the basics. Make sure people who might
call upon you with problems are set up with problem-preventing
software, including programs that provide virus protection,
firewall safeguards, spam stopping, and pop-up ad blocking.
Though free programs provide these features, the more
robust and easiest to use are the commercial programs.
Some experts such as Kandra recommend using individual
programs from different software companies, and there's
a lot to be said for choosing the best tool for any
But I find the utility suites, which bundle together
utilities from the same company under the same interface,
more convenient for most users. Symantec's Norton Internet
and McAfee's REDZONE suite (http://www.mcafee.com)
are both well-regarded comprehensive programs. Among
other things, you can download updates for the various
modules in one step.
Wisely, Kandra recommends that you show users how to
download bug fixes and security updates using Microsoft's
Windows update and, if they're using Windows XP, how
to check for and install these patches automatically.
Also show users also how to use the System Restore
feature of Windows XP and Windows Me to return to a
previous setup after installing new software or otherwise
making changes that cause problems. Kandra recommends
using Symantec's Norton GoBack for older operating systems
or if you find you need more robust features.
Make a list of troubleshooting steps users can take
themselves, from closing and reloading a troublesome
program or turning the entire computer off and then
on again to using programs' online help features or
going online to find answers.
For free online support, Kandra recommends About.com's
Focus on PC Support section (http://pcsupport.about.com)
as a good place to go, and I agree.
Another option is to set up the person with a third-party
support service. As one example, GE Service Protection
costs $19.95 per month, though you can try it out free
for 2 weeks to see if you like it.
The service, a part of General Electric Company, provides
support for PC and Mac hardware and software. And though
it supports only 16 software programs, these include
the ones most commonly used, such as Microsoft Windows
XP Home Edition, Microsoft Office, and Norton Internet
Security. Local area networks and offices with 25 or
more employees aren't covered.
Technicians first try to solve problems over the phone,
providing 24/7 access. If this doesn't work, they may
send somebody to you. If the problem is caused by a
broken component, they'll have it repaired or replaced.
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org