How to Survive Holiday Family Tech Support

Wednesday Nov 24th 2010 by Mike Elgan

This year, when Uncle Harry complains, “My PC is broke and tech support couldn't fix it over the phone!" you have some options.

‘Tis the season: time to gather with friends and family and answer an endless barrage of hideous tech support questions.

You’re reading this Web site. That means you’re the most technical person in your extended family and therefore know off the top of your head why your mother-in-law’s PC won't print, right? Your uncle is convinced that if he can corner you between dinner and pie, you'll solve the riddle of that obscure error message he gets every time he boots his PC.

And your cousin wants to buy her husband the latest gadget. She has a Black Friday coupon for something, but doesn't remember what it's called. Should she buy it?

Ugh! Where's that eggnog?

You're a nice person, and you're happy to help. But what your newbie relatives don't realize is that such questions cannot be intelligently or satisfactorily answered without a lot more information. Worse, if you try to help, you could unwittingly give them the confidence to really foul things up -- and now their tech issues are not only your problem, they're your fault.

I might be able to help you help them. But first, you've got to accept the situation for what it is. You're not going to be able to solve their problems over dinner. And you're not going to fly back with them and spend three days trouble-shooting their problem.

Don’t try to solve their problem as if it were your own. You can't. Instead, your objective here to should be to give them a process they can understand for solving their own problems on an ongoing basis -- without setting yourself up to be blamed for something that isn't your fault.

And don't accept the "terms" of your friend or relative. Some people insist on a free solution. They don't have such expectations for their car, their roof or their plumbing. The expectation that a PC can always be repaired free of charge is unreasonable. Let them know that they might have to spend some money. If they don't like the cost of your solution, just tell them that's what you would do and that's your advice.

Note that these are incredibly broad-brush solutions you'll be offering, and that's exactly the kind of advice you need to be giving in this situation. The last thing you want is to be sucked into the minutiae of detailed trouble-shooting.

It's also a good idea to give non-technical people the least number of options. Instead of telling them to choose, say, from any of 20 different anti-malware packages, just pick one and tell them to download it.

And finally, a new solution to many problems exists this holiday season for the first time ever: Tell them to buy an Apple iPad.

Many of your relatives are using a full-fledged PC for nothing more than surfing the Web, answering e-mail and poking around on Facebook. An iPad is a cheap PC alternative for some people, and one that needs little to no support help. If you can convince your loved one to buy an iPad this year, you won’t be answering tech support questions next year. When the person is right for an iPad, the iPad is the solution to all their ongoing support woes, as you'll see below.

So here's my fool-proof "script" for how to navigate those awkward family tech support sessions that you'll face this holiday season. (Note that you can also copy and paste the scripts below and e-mail them.)

Q: "My PC is broke and tech support couldn't fix it over the phone."

A: PCs are incredibly complex, and any number of things could be causing your problem. It's impossible for me to simply tell you the answer.

However, I can tell you about some products and services that might help solve the problem for you. And even if they don’t solve your problem, you should be using them anyway.

And if those don’t work, I have a couple more things for you to try.

1. Get Carbonite. The first thing to do is save your data. Download Carbonite, which is an automated backup tool. It's free at first, but later you'll have to pay $54.95 per year to keep using it.

It might take anywhere from several hours to several weeks to back up all your data, depending on the speed of your Internet connection and how much data you have. But it’s very important that you back up offsite before proceeding further.

Carbonite usually backs up all normal user documents, such as Word documents and Excel files. If you want to backup unusual files, you may have to select them manually by right-clicking on them and choosing the Carbonite menu item. Carbonite puts an orange dot on every file icon it plans to back up.

2. Get System Mechanic. Once your data is backed up, download and install System Mechanic, which is an all-purpose fixer and optimizer of PCs. It costs $40.

Once installed, click on the Toolbox menu item, and go through each of the "All-in-one Tools" and "Individual Tools." These processes systematically do most of the things an in-person PC repair person might do. System Mechanic might solve your problem. But even if it doesn’t, it will maintain your system and improve its performance.

3. Get Anti-Malware. A lot of mysterious problems are caused by malware. After running all System Mechanic tools, download the free version of Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware software. Make sure you accept the default option to update the software during the installation process. For ongoing protection, pay for the full version, which costs $24.95.

4. If all that fails to solve the problem, check with your PC vendor and see about upgrading your warranty. Often, a better warranty can involve a trouble-shooting house-call, and guarantees of resolution, even if the company has to replace the entire system.

5. And if that doesn't work, you might want to think about replacing the PC. How about an Apple iPad? First, it's cheaper than most full-fledged laptops. Second, it has a solid-state drive, which eliminates some hard-disk-related issues. Third, it's very buttoned down and user-proofed. Unlike a Windows PC, it doesn't continuously become fouled up by use. And fourth, it can be easily carried to an Apple Store, where a real-person at the Genius Bar can give both help and feedback.

If you need full-fledged PC, make sure you get a laptop with a solid-state drive and the maximum warranty and support package. Since you’re frustrated by tech support issues, you need to emphasize reliability and support for the next purchase.

Q: "My Internet connection won't connect."

A: Wireless routers are great for people who know how to trouble-shoot and configure them. But since you're not one of those people, you'll either need help or an alternative. If you've already called your Internet service provider without getting a successful result, try switching to another. If you're dealing with the phone company, talk to the cable company, or visa versa.

If you've got only one PC in the house, think about getting a laptop with mobile broadband. It's more expensive, but there are advantages. First, you can go anywhere and you'll always have a connection. From a tech support perspective, everything relating to the connection is inside the device. That means it's supported either by the cell phone company or by the same people who support your device.

And finally, have you thought about buying an iPad? They have a version with mobile broadband, which means you don't need a wireless router at all. If it doesn’t connect, for some reason, you can take it to either the AT&T or Apple stores.

Q: "What gadget should I get someone as a gift?"

A: Get them an iPad. The reason is that the iPad isn't a single gadget. It's thousands of devices, depending on which apps you download. It's a fool-proof gift because everyone can use it, and because it can be used to pursue any interest. If that's too expensive or big, get them an iPad nano, otherwise known as an iPod Touch. It's a great gift, and for the same reason.

So there you have it: My holiday family tech support survival guide. Good luck, and happy holidays!

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