Remote Support Can Be Tricky

A Computer Can Be ScaryA few Tips & Tricks for Those Who “Support” Family Members [Or Friends] With Computer Problems

Granny has a problem – the Bejeweled game she plays to while away those Texas summer afternoons when it is too hot to do much other than “veg” is not working and that is just not cricket [yes I am an English transplant]. There may be a Help forum or an FAQ on the website serving the game, there might even be chat support but you just know Granny isn’t going to use those; likely she would not know how and if she did she would still more likely turn to you. After all; you are family and she will be much more comfortable talking to you.

Now; before I generate a “granny revolt” and with stunning solidarity all the grannies out there rise up against me and tell me how wrong I am I KNOW there are some of you out there who are computer savvy and looking out for yourself when the cyber world does not want to play. However I also know equally well from experience that there are many of you out there who do fit my example – and I stress that is all it is anyway – just an example to illustrate a point and not my thinly disguised, malicious attack on grannies everywhere.

Anyway - every family has one – the “Helpdesk”. Maybe he or she is an IT professional but more often than not it’s just the individual in the family with a little more computer experience and savvy than the others or even just the one most prepared to try helping others out a little. In any case being the one friends and family turn to with computer problems is not always easy and sometimes just plain hard.

I work in IT for a living so I do have a head start; amongst others responsibilities I assist with remote support on technical issues within our company so I do speak with the voice of some experience. As a not entirely unexpected consequence of my choice of career I am also the family “Helpdesk”. Let me tell you – It is one thing to deal with an issue on a computer sitting in front of you and it is quite another to do it remotely over the telephone. As someone who works a “Helpdesk” from time to time I have come to realize that there are a few things that can help make providing remote support a much easier and less stressful proposition.

So; when the phone rings and it is a call for help from a family member or friend with a computer issue what can you do to make your life a little easier?

First and foremost and to use an oft quoted cliché “patience is a virtue”! Never was that more true than in providing remote support. I have [I kid you not] spent 20 minutes getting someone to power off a computer. You are the expert; or at least you are more of an expert than the person calling you for help. You understand what is going on and what to do – the person on the other end of the phone does not. Becoming frustrated and impatient is your enemy. If you do that will be quite apparent on the other end of the phone even if you think you are hiding it and what will that get you? Most likely a flustered and embarrassed family member who is less likely than ever to be able to accurately describe what they see on the screen and act on your instructions. Make them feel at ease and be patient as you talk them through the issue. Nothing will help more than this.

Have the right tools! If you can see the remote computer screen the “helpdesk” process is infinitely easier. “Now is that not the purview of companies and professionals?” you ask yourself – no I say. “Surely that cannot work?” – most home users have an ISP that issues a dynamic IP so how can I connect. Again I say – no problem. There are many tools out there that allow remote connection to, and interaction with, computers. Some are high powered commercial tools and others less feature rich free tools. What we need here is primarily the ability to see the remote computer – interaction with it is good but if we can see we can most likely guide effectively without ever having to take control of the other computer. I recommend a little program called Teamviewer [which can be obtained here]. This little gem is completely free and fully functional for private use. It works with dynamic IP’s and even without installation if that is the user’s choice. My recommendation though is to install as a service. Install as a service you ask? A service starts when windows starts; even before the user logs in the service will kick up and run. What does that mean? Well when the call for help comes you know the application you need running to allow you to connect is up and running – you don’t have to start by getting it up and running which would only complicate and prolong the whole “support” thing. There are other options – pcAnywhere – big features and, in my opinion, big price. Various VNC applications but they can be hard to get to work with dynamic IP’s or you would need to get “granny” to find the current IP of the machine in order for you to connect – prolonging the experience again.

Teach don’t do! OK – so now you are connected. You can see what the issue is and you know how to fix it. Talk THEM through the process; don’t just do it yourself. Why? If you have them do it some of it will stick – perhaps not all but that is fine. The more knowledge that sticks at the other end the less calls for help you will get going forward. You may not care of course but let me tell you; when the phone rings midway through the final quarter of the final game of the NBA finals you will. I would stress that I am not advocating having them go through long and complex processes; if you need to go into the registry and start changing keys or making detailed changes to an application's configuration it might be best to do that yourself. Oftentimes though things are much simpler than that and in those cases telling rather than doing is the wise path.

“Why” matters! If along the way you figure out why the issue, whatever it might be, arose explain that. You sense a theme? Yep – less calls in the future. Explain what you are doing to resolve the issue – and again I qualify this to the simpler end of the scale; detailed registry work should probably not be explained [if they called you for help they likely should not be allowed anywhere near the registry anyway]. It is generally accepted wisdom that knowledge tends to stick better when someone is told to do something and is also told WHY they are doing it; if all you do is tell the chances of it sticking reduce and what do you get then? The same phone call in the middle of next year’s NBA finals.

You cannot connect! No matter what you try you are not getting connected. Perhaps Teamviewer or whatever application you use is not running. Perhaps the issue you are being asked to help with is no internet in the first place. In any case you cannot see the remote computer and your life just got infinitely more difficult. Explaining what to do when you cannot see what they see can be trying at times. I recall one instance where I kept telling someone to click the start button. They did not know what the start button was [I kid you not]. So I figured be specific – told them to look at the bottom left of the screen and they kept telling me they could not see it. Turns out they had inadvertently moved the task bar to the top of the screen. When you are going with words alone and all you have to go on is what they tell you they see rely on what they tell you they see NOT on what you think they should see; after all they called with an issue – all may not be as you would expect. So, if your step by step instructions to “go here, click this, click that” are not working ask them what they see rather than telling them what you think they should see. In the “Task Bar” example once I asked them to describe what they saw on the desktop to me we quickly identified the “Start” button and we were back on track.

Working with what they see as we just discussed is still not getting us there. Figure out a way to see; and so you ask "and just how am I supposed to do that?" Well perhaps the issue is not affecting everything; how about having them print the screen and emailing you the image? Talk them through it – hit the PrtScn key, open paint and paste, save the file and email it – presto you can see what they see. In this day and age most people have a cell with camera; have them take a photo and send it to you [maybe of the screen, maybe of their modem while you are trying to get them to tell you what lights are on and the conversation is stalling because you don’t know their hardware]. Over all be creative; don’t just assume there is no way forward.

Make a note! During your support activities make a mental or physical note of things like the operating system in place on the machine you were just working with, the brand and model of the machine itself and so on. If you have calls in the future and you are finding it difficult to resolve that information can be helpful in researching an issue online to help in resolution.

OR - as a last resort - Don’t be the “Helpdesk”! If all else fails [or you simply are not of a mind to act as the family “Helpdesk”] nominate someone else to the support role!