Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Who Ya Gonna Yell At?

October 2002

By Mike Gould

"Anything on the end of a mouse is going to get wacky, sooner or later. This applies to both ends of the mouse"
Gould's second law of Cybernetic Mishaps

Sure, it's working just fine now. Your email is sending, your printer is receiving and nothing has crashed, in, geez, hours...days even. But how long will that last? When the contraptions succumb to the inevitable, what's a computer user to do?

Yell For Help
That's what. I should know; I have been on both ends of the yelling, myself. As part of a team supporting hundreds of computers for the U of M School of Ed, I get up front and personal both with irate users and with the vendors they love. So in the spirit of public service (and self defense), here is some advice on how to get things fixed in a safe and sane manner.

First, stop yelling. Then, put the baseball bat on the floor, and step away from the computer. You can always pick it up later if all else fails. Then, count to 10 (or X, if you're a Mac user). Then, pick up the phone and call...someone.

Who?
Ah, the first problem: just who's fault is this anyway, and who knows best how to fix it? Here are some suggestions:

Your friendly computer support person - the guy or gal with the relaxed wardrobe who your company keeps on staff just for occasions like this. This person knows all your equipment and software, probably because she or he bought it for you, and has vast experience in its troubleshooting and repair. Perfect. Or your have a regular free-lancer (like myself, on evenings and weekends) upon whom you can call. If you need someone like this, ask around; you are bound to know someone with a similar system who has found a reliable rent-a-geek.

A company that specializes in this sort of thing - usually a computer store, but maybe a firm that provides support. Check the yellow pages and ask friends for recommendations.

Your vendor - the person who sold you this, um, fine object. If you work from home and you don't have a trained support person on hand, here is where it pays to be choosy about where you spend your equipment dollars. If the vendor sold you all your gear, he or she can't blame the problem on somebody else's doodad. Get a service contract when you get your goods. It's more expensive, but worth it if you work under crushing deadlines and need to be back up immediately.

The Last Resort
The manufacturer. We're starting to grasp at straws, here, as anyone who has ever waited for help at Microsoft can relate.

The Pros:
You will eventually get to someone who is an expert on your particular box.

The Cons:
That person will often point the finger at some other box hooked into your system. Or the phone lines, or the printer, or the modem, or the wind direction.

This is the crux of the trauma: in a computer system teeming with boxes, bugs, wires, mice, software, and the rest of what passes for civilization around here, how do you know who to call? Printing problems can be caused by software (usually the driver provided by the manufacturer, but not always), hardware (bad Ethernet card or something else), a problem with the printer itself (a bad toner cart), the wire between the printer and whatever it is plugged into, static electricity, cosmic rays, or hacking by malicious printer hackers. I've seen it all, including the hacker part. (Well, maybe not the cosmic rays part; that usually only affects circuits in orbit. But it's only a matter of time before some LaserJet on Space Station Alpha goes wonky...)

When Bad Things Happen to Good Printers
Here at J&J, the Check Engine light just went on in that little panel at the top of the Big Honking Master Printer We All Depend On To Print Our Paychecks. It's some obscure warning about some obscure issue that the printer doesn't like. The printer still works fine, but what to do? In this case, Jan called her faithful supplier of toner carts, who recommended a technician skilled in HP Printer lore. He came out and took care of it. (The concerned reader will be glad to know the printer still works, but needs to have its auxiliary memory replaced for only $600.) Generally, though, in a case like this where it is pretty obvious in which box the problem lives, a call to that manufacturer's help line would get the quickest results. They know what the problem code means and can recommend a local tech.

Be Prepared
Some obviousness: save the manual from everything you buy, and write the serial number of the unit in it. Save the receipt for warranty issues and helpful configuration info. Note the help phone line in the manual; highlight it, maybe put it, and the serial number, in a spreadsheet or database.

If you have to make the call to the manufacturer, be prepared with the following information:

  1. The model number of the unit in question, and the serial number.
  2. The exact symptom: "When I do this, it does that". The more information you have on hand, the better. It the problem is intermittent, note what you are doing when it crops up.
  3. The version of the Operating System (OS) you are running. The version of the software involved. For instance, I am writing this on a Mac G4 dual processor at 1Ghz, running OS 10.1.5, using MS Word X. I have one gigabyte of RAM and 2 hard drives at 80G and 100G. Stuff like that.
  4. Any recent changes to the system, especially adding or upgrading software.
  5. Some basic facts about the configuration of your system; how much RAM, size of the hard drive, speed of the processor, etc. If you don't know this, spend a little time reviewing the manual or sales receipt of the box.
  6. Have your system up and running (if possible) when you make the call, and have a pencil and paper handy for notes. Take lots of notes. Write down the phone number, the person you spoke to, and any revealed information that is relevant to the problem. You will need this for the next time it breaks.

And it will, trust me.

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