Avoid the tech-support time sink

A botched mail-server upgrade reminds me to always have a workaround and not to expect tech support to work miracles.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
2 min read

Let me begin by stating that most tech-support staff know their stuff and exhibit the patience of Job when dealing with us dumb, short-tempered users. Let me add further that on some occasions in the past I have had a less-than-pleasant demeanor when seeking the assistance of help-desk helpers.

Even though support staffers have saved my bacon on several handfuls of occasions, I feel like I have lost untold hours of my life on tech-support lines in a futile effort to troubleshoot some PC problem or other.

My most recent exchange with tech support occurred after a mail-server upgrade went awry, knocking out the remote access I rely on when I work outside the office, which is often.

(I must note that the IT folks at the company I work for--which is not CNET, by the way--were more victimized than I was; the conversion was "handled" by an outside contractor.)

I never did find out the particulars of the problem, though I believe it was related to caches that didn't clear when they should have. The lesson of the experience for me was knowing when to stop looking for a fix and start looking for a workaround.

Gmail to the rescue
In this case, the workaround was Web mail. By using my Gmail account rather than my work mail account, I was able to receive and send all the messages and files I needed. I met all my deadlines easily.

It helps that our office has a contingency plan in place for server and phone outages. It helps even more that ours is a small office, so I can reach everyone I need to reach with just a couple of phone calls.

Still, after my last 75-minute phone session with the contractor trying to restore remote access to the server, I found I was more troubled by the time I lost than by the frustration of the problem we were fixing. I decided then and there that the next time I was tempted to call tech support, I'd start with the workaround and leave the troubleshooting to the pros.

Great sites for PC troubleshooters
For a great overview on how to avoid the tech-support blues, read Jeff Bertolucci's Never Call Tech Support Again. And for tips from decorated veteran of the tech-support wars, see Prashant Patnaik's Tips for Getting Good Customer Support. Lastly, a good site for doing your own Windows troubleshooting is the Tech Support Guy.

Even with the many work-hours I lost over the last two weeks attempting to make contact with the recalcitrant server, the problem didn't really slow things down much, thanks to our various Plan Bs. One of the nice things about overlapping technologies is that you don't have to rely on any single one. Now if the coffee machine ever breaks, we'll be in real trouble.