Getting the Most from Tech Support

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With technology being such an integral part of our lives these days, the chances are that, at some point you will need technical support for something. It might be your internet, your cell phone, your car or your computer. Your tech support experience will probably be based on one of two things; how well the company is at supporting their product and how well you are able to communicate the problem to them and understand their response.

As an Engineering Technician for Parallax Inc., a big part of my job is providing technical support for Parallax products. As a consumer and end-user of technology, I have also found myself in need of tech support before from various companies, and in this article I will share with you some of my suggestions for how to get the most from tech support, should you need it.

Different Types of Tech Support

There are five main types of support that I am familiar with. Phone, e-mail, forums, web and service call. I won’t be covering the last two as they’re not as common, and with the last option, the technician is right there to assess the situation and so communication isn’t usually an issue at that point. Also, with a few exceptions these types of support aren’t as common in the field of electronics and microcontrollers. So that leaves phone support, e-mail support and forum support for the typical hobbyist, experimenter, engineer, etc.

Common Issues

Regardless of which type of support you’re trying to get, here are some common things that apply in almost every situation:

Be prepared to answer some questions or try some things out. You might get asked seemingly simple questions like, “Have you tried turning the device off and on again?” or “Have you verified the battery or voltage level?” and these may seem ridiculous, but you would be surprised to find out that more often than not it is the simple things that are overlooked.

When asked about battery voltage I have been told many times that the batteries are “new”, however a quick check with a multimeter often shows low voltage, perhaps due to a bad cell. Just because the power LED is on does not mean the circuit has sufficient voltage to operate. LEDs can light up with a few volts, but often the main circuit has a minimum functional voltage and you can’t be sure until you check it with a meter. Don’t check the individual batteries, but instead check the voltage where it enters the circuit. This can often reveal other issues such as damaged power cables or battery holders.

If your device was working and suddenly stopped working, ask yourself what changed. Perhaps a connection came loose or a lead on your breadboard is touching something else. If you can’t solve the issue with a circuit built up, break things down into simplest terms. Remove everything that has been added to take additional possibilities out of the equation. If the device is battery powered, it may simply be low batteries. Batteries should always be tested under load.

Many of you reading this article have some technical knowledge and / or interest, and it is always a good practice to go into a tech support situation well armed. You do this by trying the seemingly obvious things. Take a voltage measurement just to be sure. Make a note of the voltage in case you’re asked for it. Try “rebooting” the device. If it connects to a PC, try re-installing the software or drivers if the device is not recognized. If you have access to another PC try the device on another PC to rule out the original PC as the problem. Often with driver and Windows updates this can be an issue with devices that rely on, or are programmed via a PC. The more things you have tried and the more knowledge you have, the less time it will take to work out a solution.

If you are in a situation where you have access to more than one of a product you can try swapping out the device to help narrow down the cause. I deal with this all the time with sensors, for example. A customer may say that one of their IR sensors is not working. At this point it is easy to swap the sensor with the working one to see if the problem follows the sensor. It may have been a related component actually causing the problem.

Be sure of the part number of the product you’re asking for support on. I have often been given a product name and started troubleshooting only to get to a point where I realize it is not the product stated. This is usually due to the wrong name, possibly because of a similar product name. A product number or model number can often clarify the correct product. For example, at Parallax Inc it matters whether we’re troubleshooting a Board of Education Serial or Board of Education USB. Often times we’re only told that it is a Board of Education.

Phone Support

When it comes to phone support, you usually get an automated system, a human on the other end or both. I have dealt with some companies that have completely automated phone support systems with what is essentially a voice interface knowledge base. You navigate a series of menus, or in some case, you ask questions or state your problem and are presented with pre-programmed responses. These are often frustrating to deal with, but there’s little you can do about that. Even when there is a human, the common thing these days is to try and direct the customer to the website to solve the problem. When you do get a human for technical support there are some important things that can help you.

You may have spent considerable time trying to get your product working and now you are frustrated. Don’t take your frustration out on the support person. Whether it is due to the problem you are calling about or the wait to talk to them, the support person isn’t at fault. They are there to try and help, and a frustrated customer can be difficult to assist, especially if their focus is on time lost or other things that don’t contribute to solving the issue you are calling about.

Cursing is something you want to avoid when on a tech support call. You may be comfortable with it in your personal life. The tech support person may also be comfortable with it in their personal life. But not everyone is comfortable with someone they don’t know using a lot of curse words to describe their issue. It can come off sounding like excessive frustration toward the tech support person which doesn’t help them to solve your issue.

Try to limit your information to the details of the issue. The tech support person is trying to get the information necessary to help determine how to best solve your issue. Describing your use of the product or previous experiences often cloud the details the support person is trying to acquire, and in some cases contribute to the wait time of the next person on hold waiting for support.

Give your first name when you call. Not only does this help with communication, but it can also help if you have to call back with a follow-up so the tech support person remembers you. I log as much information about each call as I can, such as date / time, name and what the issue was, as well as any information I might need if the customer will be calling back. So giving your first name can sometimes save having to repeat what you are calling back about. Sometimes it also helps to give the state you live in or location. This tells the tech support person what time zone you’re in so that if they are returning a call you don’t get that call during dinner, or worse, before you would normally wake up for the day. Technical support typically crosses time zones.

When getting phone support, try to have your product set up and ready to go. Calling for support on a product while driving, at work or in any situation where you can’t try the suggestions the tech support person gives you can be frustrating for the support person, since that essentially limits their ability to help you. If you’re driving, at work or even on your lunch break, you’re often distracted, and this can also delay things. Be ready to troubleshoot and preferably have some basic tools available if they apply to your product.

E-Mail Support

With e-mail the conversation essentially goes from full-duplex to half-duplex. Essentially in one direction at a time. E-Mail has both advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is the ability to attach screen shots, code, schematics, etc., and the support person has these immediately. One disadvantage is that, depending on the communication, it can take longer to reach a conclusion, though sometimes it happens quicker due to the information attached. E-Mail is often necessary when schedules or different time zones prevent phone support. Here are some tips when submitting an e-mail request.

Your subject line should clearly summarize your issue and / or the product you are contacting support about. The subject line can directly affect how fast you get a response. For example, when I respond to e-mail, I do it in the order it was received unless the message has come to the wrong department. These I immediately forward to the correct address. But if the subject was, “Help!” or “It’s not working!” at a glance they look like typical tech support messages. However I will often get to these at some point during the day only to find the message is about the website or an order and could have been taken care of faster had it been sent to the right department sooner.

In the body of your message, you should clearly describe the issue, including what you have tried and the results you are getting. Simply saying it isn’t working doesn’t provide any information that can help the tech support person determine what your problem is, to begin helping. Attaching photos, screen shots, source code or schematics can help troubleshoot the issue, often without having to ask additional questions. For some things a video is even a great help and a tool I have used many times.

Speaking of source code, you should always attach the source code, if that is what you are contacting support about. Never paste it into the message as the formatting usually gets lost, making it more difficult to spot errors. Also, when possible, send only a snippet of code that duplicates the issue you’re experiencing. Sending an entire application can mean hours of time pouring through code and many places won’t support custom code for these reasons. However, even if they don’t, some places will still look at reasonable blocks of code to solve some issues. You can help the tech support person by keeping it small and in the original format.

If the tech support person replies with some questions, try to make sure you have addressed each question before sending a reply. I often send a series of common questions or things to try to save time only to get a reply to the last question only or the customer only tried the last suggestion. Then I have to go back and forth several times to get all the information, only to sometimes have the customer become frustrated at the time it is taking to get their problem solved. It is common for tech support to provide a list of possible things to try as well as a list of questions in an attempt to get as much information in one reply as possible.

Check your spam filter. I have had calls from customers who assumed nobody was answering e-mail, when in fact the e-mail had been answered, but the reply ended up in the customer spam folder, or blocked by their company firewall because the message contained links or an attachment, which is common with tech support e-mail, but also common for spam filters to use in determining a message is spam or contains malware. It could also be that somehow the sender was inadvertently blacklisted. This also happens sometimes.

Forum Support

Forums are a community environment with social interaction. This has some advantages and some disadvantages. One of the main advantages is that you are now potentially getting support from an entire community of people who probably know the product and how to troubleshoot it. I say potentially because, it really depends on how well you can communicate your issue and if anyone can answer your specific question. But the odds go up with more numbers and you can often get more points of view on something than a single person can provide.

A disadvantage to forums is that, as social communities, you often have different types of people and sometimes personalities clash or people are misunderstood. Members can misread replies and assume someone is being short or abrasive to them, and sometimes the answer is something like, “Google is your friend.” But I find that on forums there are just as many people willing to help as there are that don’t. You have to sometimes look past those who don’t want to help. But you also have to remember that most people won’t solve your issue for you necessarily, but will help you to help yourself. You have to have thick skin on forums, but you should not be afraid to post looking for support or assistance. The forums are there for that very purpose in most cases.

As with e-mail, a proper subject line can be the difference in getting answer to your questions on a forum. Subject lines such as, “Noob here!” often get ignored, because members generally notice things they know something about. If the subject doesn’t interest them, they move on. This type of post doesn’t get a lot of attention, especially on a large forums with a lot of messages being posted per day. Members often don’t give your post attention if you don’t draw them to it with a helpful subject line.

Also as with e-mail, you need to describe your problem in detail, including what you have tried and what the results were. The more details you provide, the more likely someone will be able to help you, because you have reduced the effort for them to help you by providing information up front. Attach code, provide schematics and if you’re asking for help on a product, link the datasheet so others don’t have to go looking for information to help you.

Can’t find your problem answered already? Don’t rely on a search alone. Just because your search didn’t turn anything up related to your issue doesn’t mean the information is not there. Sometimes it is not there, but some problems are unique, and in either case you may just have to post to find out.

When posting code in a forums, you usually don’t want to paste it into the message body. As with e-mail, formatting can be lost, making the code very difficult to read. Some forums have special “code tags” designed to help you paste source code and maintain the formatting. But if not or you don’t know how to use them, your best bet is to attach the code, not paste it.

Don’t mark your post as urgent. To the members of the forum, your post isn’t any more urgent than anyone else’s post. If you’re on a deadline, then you will no doubt be told you should have posted sooner. Also, don’t post your phone number or e-mail address and ask members to reach you outside the forums. The whole purpose of the forums is that, as a community, everyone benefits from the dialogue. So members will expect you to follow-up and get your replies in the same place the question was posted. This also helps when someone else is looking for the same information.

Finally, don’t cross-post your support request in multiple sub-forums. Some people think this they will get help faster by posting in every sub-forum, but that has the opposite effect, as most members won’t try chasing down what things were already covered in other duplicate threads you may have and moderators usually remove or merge these threads anyway. On the same note, if you post in a forums, you probably shouldn’t also send a support e-mail and then call tech support. This can quickly diminish support resources while multiple support techs are all handling the same issue via different venues or worse, the same person has to answer the forum post, e-mail and phone call.

Tools of the Trade

In electronics and microcontrollers, the chances are you have some basic tools for working on your device and / or projects. One instrument I highly recommend for anyone interested in electronics or microcontrollers is a multimeter. This one tool can help solve a lot of common issues in electronics from verifying voltage levels to checking continuity and more. Many multimeters have additional functions such as frequency counters, ammeters, components checkers and more.

In the November 2014 issue of Nuts and Volts magazine I talked about the tools I commonly use on my bench. If you haven’t yet read this article you might want to check it out. I have spent many years evolving from a hobbyist to an engineering technician, and have used almost every tool available in my trade. Working with tools from companies such as Fluke, Saleae, PanaVise, Tektronix and Teledyne LeCroy, I have had the opportunity to both use and review the Tools of the Trade and to share my experiences and even usage tutorials with others.

In the coming months I will be posting more reviews and usage tutorials, as well as some upcoming diagnostics videos to help hobbyists, experimenters and others get the most from their tools, as well as to help you decide what tools you may want to acquire. The right tool for the job can often be the difference in whether you have to contact tech support. And even if you do, you will do so armed with more useful information.

Final Thoughts

Basic test and diagnostic tools can make a big difference in your support experience. A positive attitude and willingness to try things out are always helpful. Patience is a must. The aforementioned information is the culmination of my experience on both getting, and giving technical support. Perhaps we will meet at some future tech event and exchange thoughts on this subject. Or perhaps I will have the pleasure of providing technical assistance to you in the future. Take care!


Tools of the Trade – Blog

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This project was published in the February 2015 issue of Nuts and Volts Magazine


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