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What's the average non-technical computer user to do when faced with incompetent technical support?

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This is Leo Notenboom for

Last week I posted an article detailing my experience calling Microsoft customer support in order to activate my copy of Windows XP Home.

Besides the usual anti-Microsoft comments, the pro-Mac and Linux comments and comments from people who've had similar experiences, there were a couple of folks who took me to task for even bothering.

Their reasoning went like this: there are workarounds and hacks to activation - why should we bother wasting any time if a problem arises? If it doesn't work right away, hack it.

And, I gotta say, it's tempting. Any technology that gets in the way of otherwise legal and legitimate users is bound to push some of them over into more legally questionable approaches. Any form of obtrusive DRM can have that effect.

But this wasn't my goal. Left to my own, I probably would have "just made it work". I certainly have the technical expertise to either know, or know how to find the non-obvious fixes and work-arounds, legal or otherwise, that would've allowed me to solve my problem.

But I'm not normal.

And that was my goal in calling customer support - to take the road that the majority of non-technical, "normal" people would have to take in that situation - to take the road that I so often advise.

And in this case the results were extremely disappointing.

Yes, some, though not all, of the customer service representatives were clearly located in India. I don't consider that a problem in and of itself. I've had excellent customer service through other companies where it was clear the individual I was speaking to was on the other side of the planet. What matters is: can they get the job done? Can they resolve my issue? The answer here was clearly no. I did have trouble understanding them at times, and clearly they had no clue as to what was wrong in my situation.

And that's bad no mater where they were located.

So what do normal people do?

Yes, yes, some might leave the platform, moving to Mac or Linux I suppose, but while activation might be considered uniquely Microsoft (even though it's not), shaky customer support isn't just a Microsoft problem, it's an industry problem, and no platform is immune.

So what, normal people just hope for the best? Have techie friends. Learn enough to use Google to find any of the hundreds of support sites like Ask Leo! and know enough to interpret what they find?

What do you think? What would you advise the "average" non-technical computer user to do in the face of situations like the one I've described?

I'm not sure.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit and enter 12297 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for

Article C3321 - March 16, 2008 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

March 16, 2008 5:02 PM

As what I might call a middle user, a person who dabbles with the computer enough to reinstall the OS and swap parts on occasion I have my own protocols for when things don't work. After web sites, Google and my techie friends, it ends at paying an "expert" to fix my machine. Usually it's something that I would have been able to fix with a little more time or a little more experience. On occasion it's something that only the master's know.

This last time, the pro's couldn't solve my problem and I wasn't going to throw good money after bad. More importantly, I had no more time to play with the machine (grad papers to write etc).

What do normal people do if they can't fix it themselves and tech support and computer shops fail to help? They scrap the machine and they go spend 400 bucks on the Uber-mart special. Garbage machines that they know will die in a year or two (or at least I hope they know). Turning what should or could be an investment into a disposable good. In my case I was slightly more choosy, but not as much as I would have been given the lack of time. I needed a machine that worked and I needed it in a weekend.

My guess is that a more average user skips my first steps and takes it to a shop, being far less likely to spend time and money trouble shooting and paying more money than they need to because "do it yourself computing" hasn't quite arrived yet. Until my computer is as simple and easy to use as my Cd Player, this will continue to be the case. I believe that much of this, sadly, has to do with Microsoft. I am hesitant, however, to blame them entirely.

March 16, 2008 7:02 PM

As I see it, you have to know what to research or what questions to ask in order to find a solution. Presumably, one calls customer support because you DON'T know what to research or what questions to ask. If customer support doesn't know what to do...

I searched Yahoo for "xp home activation failed". The # 1 listing was to a Microsoft forum. Exact same search in Google and their # 1 listing was an archived blog about Defender Pro - Activation Failed. Not even close to xp home.

So what is an average person, or in my case a neophyte, supposed to do?

Dave Ball
March 16, 2008 7:05 PM

It is an interesting dilemma. My neighbor has told me that if I move, I must find a location that has two houses side by side so that he can move next door and I can continue to be his computer guy. Its actually a symbiotic relationship; he does my gardening.

What amazes me is how many people assume that if there is a problem with a computer, it is their fault as if the machine couldnt make a mistake. I dont know how many times Ive told friends, You didnt do anything wrong! Usually they dont believe me and ask that I just do my magic binary voodoo to make the machine gods happy again.

As for alternatives to Windows, I agree that Macs are a good solution. However, I take issue with the Linux path. If my Mom cant figure out how to install a driver for Windows, shes not going to figure out how to navigate to /etc/modules.conf, run tar to unpack a module, and get it to install. I have a five-year old laptop downstairs that still wont connect to my wireless using Ubuntu and dont even start with getting Samba to work with my Windows boxes still, I work with Linux because I think its cool.

What do real people do? They either have a geeky friend (often a teenager) who fixes it, or they pay vast sums of money to geek-in-a-box joints.

March 17, 2008 2:06 AM

I am tech support to most of my family and friends and I must say that when confronted with this problem, none of them would be able to figure it out and fix it (or crack it for that matter).
Without my help, their only option would be to find another tech guy to fix it for them (paid or unpaid).
But I don't mind helping people out and I can only hope that most people have someone, somewhere who can somehow help them.
It's nice to know that when I need advice on graphical design, I can turn to my girlfriend ;-)

Big Dan
March 17, 2008 6:08 AM

As a 'tech guy', for me 95% of the times a quick Google finds a fix to my problem. The other 5% I have success with posting to a forum or two and getting an answer from a person with real world experience. The problem I think with tech support is lots of them don't have real world experience half the times their reading from a script instead of speaking from memory, which is better from a tech support point of view.

One of the things I cannot stand about Microsoft is the constant pushing of paid telephone tech support. This is mostly pure profit for MS, they're paying some guy in India $10 an hour to answer questions at $20 or $50 a pop!

The other issue with paid tech support is from the jump MS is saying, hey it's not our fault.. You're the stupid user so now you pay when often times it's a Windows error causing the problem not the end user.

With Linux, Ubuntu more specifically it's great because all the documentation is online free to read and with literally 1000's of forums and blogs on the topic of tweaking and fixing system someone is bound to of posted about it somewhere.

Starting with Linux in 2005, I've found Linux users are the nicest they seem to understand that computers and command lines aren't always easy for people to understand. Whereas a lot of Window's people don't bother to help or make you feel like an idiot for asking.

Ken B
March 17, 2008 10:20 AM

What's a "normal" person supposed to do? Why, come to me, of course! :-)

I'm in a similar situation as Leo. No, I never worked for Microsoft, but I did help beta test Windows 1.0 way back when.

My problem with online searches is that I tend to use the "wrong" keywords, because I "know too much" about the problem.

Honestly, the first thing the "normal" person should do is not treat the computer as an infallible magic box, and at least learn to recognize when the person on the other end of the phone is just blowing them off, or reading a script. Learn some basic computer care. (You don't need to know how an internal combustion engine works to drive a car, but it wouldn't hurt to know how to check the oil.)

Dick Berman
March 21, 2008 7:29 PM

I guess you'd call me an intelligent intermediate when it comes to trying to get a computer problem you noted, tech support is a good 1st could get lucky and find yourself connected not only to someone whose speech you can understand, but who can actually help with your problem...but after you exhaust your own known sources for help, it's up to you...USE GOOGLE!!!!
Have never seen a problem, which when typed into Google's search bar, didn't produce many web sites with info about your problem...thats when you go to work....look at the sites...make notes of the details, and its more than likely you will find either the fix you need or a link to a place where the fix can be found.
Just learn to use will be your very best friend.

P. Sal
March 21, 2008 7:38 PM

Ive experience situations similar to what youve described. Often persistence is your best friend, although a LOT of patience and more importantly unlimited time are also required. Ive found that calling tech support only after youve done all the on-line research ie: askleo, Microsoft assistance, and similar sites, helps the normal user to sound slightly more informed and moves the process along much faster. Document everything youve already tried. A little polite desperation never hurts either. Three times Ive managed to get exactly what I needed by conveying precisely how desperate I was. First was an overnight replacement of a video card and a walk-through on the phone to install it the next day. The second time, after a crash during a particularly important project for work, the tech stayed on the line for hours and walked me through transferring files from one computer to another in safe mode. The third incident was after Id ordered a new laptop. I was told the step-by-step process for getting a replacement for my brand new laptop that wasnt behaving well, after being told more than once that that would not be possible. Failing the power of persistence, I am fortunate to have a tolerant and very knowledgeable son-in-law. I always hate to resort to hassling him if I can work around something on my own, but as a normal person, its good to know you have someone in the background. My only suggestion for other normal people would be to NEVER let tech support disconnect you until you have a solution hence the need for unlimited time. And I have to say that ultimately, the majority of my experience with tech support has been positive.

Richard L. Broberg
March 21, 2008 8:05 PM

Whats a normal person to do?

First, do maintenance on your machine. Buy a third party maintenance, firewall and antivirus software. I have Norton SystemWorks with a version that supports Windows 2000 that is supported by Norton.

That is a problem that needs to be talked about; third party software makers usually only program for the latest Windows version. But if you look around you can find a solution.

Keep the maintenance software updated. Yes it costs money to do that but the alternative is to have a PC that wont work.

Defrag the hard drive(s) regularly I do it once a week. Repair the registry. Delete temp files (start, settings, control panel, Internet options, settings, view files and then delete them all. You will have to re-log into websites, but nobody will be able to track your Internet usage (theoretically).

Run the anti-virus once a week (mine runs automatically usually when I dont want it to). Keep Ad Aware (either the free or other versions) and Spybot updated and run them whenever you want to buy something on the Internet.

Repair Internet Explorer regularly. Usually from control panel, add remove programs, double click on Internet explorer, choose repair, and follow the prompts.

And dont buy the latest OS that hits the market. Wait at least for SP1 to come out. Now with the extreme complexity of Windows, wait for SP20. :-)

I still use Windows 2000 and it is extremely reliable. I have found that third party software that requires XP or Vista will usually run on 2000, sometimes on any NT platform. NT is anything above Windows ME.

Experienced airline travelers do not fly on a new model airliner unless it has been in service for at least a year.

Whenever someone asks me for tech support, I Google the problem or error message. I have either always found a resolution or told the person it cant be fixed without reinstalling the OS.

You might also want to reinstall the OS every year or several years. That will fix any problem you have, although reinstalling requires a lot of advanced planning. An average use will have to have a geek do this for them.

I used to do tech support and the primary goal of tech support is to keep call times at a minimum. Call times is, or used to be, the only criteria for grading techs. The lower an average call time the better. The good techs can do a good problem resolution with a low call time, but the good ones always seem to move on to something better once they learn the OS.

And keep the operating system updated. Keep automatic updates turned OFF. (Control panel, automatic updates, click the turn off button). On the weekend, run Windows Update and only get the critical updates. Microsoft releases new updates on Tuesday and by the weekend they have usually fixed the problems with the updates that third parties have reported.

I am sure I have left something out, but it escapes me at the moment.

March 21, 2008 10:11 PM

As an "intermediate" user, I often try to help friends (who know I have some idea, so call me), sometimes successfully, sometimes not (often my suggestion is a "next step" to take). Most often the issues relate to our own local ISP who has been notoriously short on support since day one. But as an almost-monopoly, he can get away with it (as, I suppose, can Microsoft).

When it's my own machine, Google (and sometimes support forums for a particular piece of software or hardware) is certainly the first source for help (after a quick look-see on the machine to see if something I installed recently is the source of the problem) and helpful 95% of the time if one is patient enough to scroll through many "hits" to find the actually helpful one. Tech support for me in most cases is a last-ditch option, based as much on reported issues for a given product's tech support as on personal experience.

But I have to say that not ALL tech support is unhelpful. While I normally avoid it, last year I bought a D-Link router that I just wanted to act as a "switch" on my home network. Bought the router with future connections in mind, but COULD NOT get it to listen to me when I wanted to change settings to make it act like a switch. And since this was all to finally connect my kids computer to the Internet (promised for a very long time, and she adding to the pressure), I took a deep breath, called tech support (who sounded India-based), and he was the most patient, helpful person I could have imagined. Stayed on the phone with me for close to 30 minutes while we determined it was probably my firewall interfering, but couldn't get the firewall to shut down enough to allow access, and finally plugged the router into my kids computer, which finally allowed me to talk to it (and he waited while I made sure the fix worked). I was EXTREMELY impressed. D-Link had clearly set up a series of steps for their support personnel (no matter where they were located physically) to step through, and in my case at least, it worked.

I suspect that many "normal" users who have problems with software or hardware eventually migrate to something that works better for them - probably Macs. I have a neighbour who did this recently but my kid reports that their kids, who were so excited about the new Mac to begin with, are now completely disgusted as it won't run any of the software (read games) they have grown accustomed to. I could have told them that (had they asked) but oh well.

The bottom line is that probably most "normal" users end up with something that doesn't work as well as they would like (or were led to believe by advertising or whatever), but live with it as they can't afford either better/different hardware/software or repeated (expensive) visits/consultation with an expert who could actually help them.

Maybe what is needed is a site somewhere that is devoted solely to rating tech support for various products (hardware AND software) that buyers could use as part of their decision to buy something (or not). You find this info in reviews of products (if you look hard enough) but wouldn't it be nice to have it all in one place? This might not help the "average" buyer but would be useful to anyone who actually does a bit of homework before buying a particular piece of hardware or software.


Natalie Kehr
March 22, 2008 12:52 AM

When someone adopts Lelani's suggestion and sets up a site which rates technical support, please can they also accumulate statistics about how much money companies are making through not staffing their technical support. I don't know what the situation is like in other countries but in the UK almost all technical support is on premium rate telephone lines where the company makes money from forcing the public to navigate long menus and then either keeping people on hold, or telling us that "We are currently experiencing abnormally high demand. Please phone again later. Your business is important to us"

My ISP, Tiscali/Pipex offers several different packages, each with a different download limit. I wanted to know my actual usage over the past few months so that I could determine if I was on the best package. The company refused to provide me with this information by e-mail or to put it on my My account page, referring to security and data protection issues (My My account page has far more sensitive information than the number of Gigabytes I downloaded in February, so I didnt find this excuse convincing. As far as I am concerned they can publicize my broadband usage on prime-time TV, just as long as I dont have to pay for the advertisement) They were prepared to give me this information if I phoned a premium rate line. All they were prepared to say by e-mail was Thank you for expressing your deepest interest in our service. We understand your frustration. We apologize for any inconvenience.

After I had incurred considerable costs through abortive phone calls I tried to get Pipex to agree to refund the cost of abortive calls. They refused, saying that they told me in advance how much per minute I would be paying for the calls, and that was what the law demanded. They did not feel that they had any obligation to actually have sufficient staff available to answer calls. I complained to the regulatory authorities and trade bodies. In the UK they include Ofcom , PhonePayPlus, The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) UK, and Otelo

Pipex have eventually agreed that when I receive my phone bill and can quantify how much I spent on abortive phone calls, I should let them have the figures. In the UK it still appears to be legal for companies to have a machine answering revenue sharing phone numbers, and not actually have staff available. Should I emigrate, and if so, to which country?



Terry Hollett
March 22, 2008 6:32 AM

I'm not a 'tech expert', just the computer guy next door'.

My question 'How do you fix a problem where all your messages have disappered from favourite?'. This was an actual call I got.

The solution; This guy called me before, and was having trouble with Internet Exploerer. I tried to clear it out but couldn't, so I installed Firefox, and then I set up a few shortcuts in the 'Favorite' or bookmarks of Firefox. One was of course was his hotmail account.

And it wasn't working. The problem turned out he was using the 'History' menu instead of the 'favorites' menu.

It isn't the first time I didn't understand what the problem was until I saw it for myself. And trying to explain to some people how to fix a problem, thats another story altogether.

Sally Davenport
March 27, 2008 5:43 PM

When I encounter problems understanding tech support folks, I say so immediately : "I can't understand your English. Get me someone who speaks better English." I repeat this statement until I get someone I understand. Then, if this person can't help, I ask him to escalate the problem to the next level. If they start with their canned comments, I repeat the request. Most of the time when they realize that you will persist, they will get you someone who probably can help you solve the problem. If not, then I Google the problem. It is faster than going to individual sites. Try rewording the problem, if there are few hits. If there are tons of hits, then you know the problem is not your fault.

April 1, 2008 10:11 PM

quote>>>What would you advise the "average" non-technical computer user to do in the face of situations like the one I've described?

Charlie Griffith
May 13, 2008 11:37 AM

At age 77, my main complaint against MS is their circular-thinking-catch-22-maddening instructions and 37-procedure-steps to get things working which should not need any detailed attention. Those advocating "Google" as a newest best friend are exactly right. And, this website is invaluable. Pity those of us not accustomed to truncated, verb-omitting computerese laden with bafflegarble.
Rant ends here.
A big, generalized, thank you!, Leo.

Barbara J. Wovas
May 16, 2008 5:14 AM

Leo, You've helped me more than anyone w/your site information. You explain things in terms that I - as a Dummy out here - can understand.
The high Techie parts, I just figure I will/can learn about them later! So far, so good. And I am glad to hear you say that NO ONE has all the answers...pc's seem to be like Doctor's anymore...
each one does it a different way.
THANK YOU for all your help and I'm very satisfied w/your "walking the fine line" to reach each and every one of us.
Very sincerely,
Barbara J. Wovas

May 16, 2008 11:29 AM

Hash: SHA1

Thanks. But I know that I'm definitely not reaching
everyone, not could I. I regularly get feedback from some
people that I'm being too technical, and from others that
I'm not being technical enough :-).

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