Get (or Give) Great Tech Support

Every month I get loads of letters from readers seeking help with a computer problem. Time doesn't permit me to answer them all (and I'll admit I don't always have an answer), but I do my best.

Consequently, I need you to do your best as well. That means asking the right questions, supplying the right information, and, most of all, being courteous.

Today, for example, a reader sent me this e-mail:

Subject: I tried your fix but the

Message: Default contains no info to delete. I [sic] says value not set.

That was it. That was the entire thing. Needless to say, there's absolutely nothing I can do to help this person because I have no idea what she's talking about. What fix of mine did she try? (I've literally posted hundreds of them.) What program is causing trouble? When did it start, and what circumstances trigger it?

If you want help, you need to go about it the right way. Here's how to get the best possible results when you're contacting me, an online forum, or a company's tech-support department.

1. Learn the lingo. A while back, a reader asked for help "deleting the bootlog," which makes no sense. What he really wanted was help with the boot menu. If I have to spend extra time figuring out what you mean, I won't have time to respond.

2. Share important details... What version of Windows are you running? What steps have you already tried to resolve your problem? What triggers the problem? Also, if you're referring to something I've written before, tell me what that is. Someone once wrote that he'd "followed my recommended procedure," but didn't say for what. I can't help if I don't know what you're talking about.

3. ...but don't go overboard. If your e-mail is the length of a small novel, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to read it. I just don't have the bandwidth. Keep it short and to the point.

4. Include a useful subject line. You'd be surprised how many people don't. "Slow Internet after installing IE9" will get my attention. "Windows 7" will not.

5. Learn to use Google. Glad as I am to help when I can, I should be your last resort. If you're getting a funky error code from, say, Windows Update, type that code into Google and search, search, search. I'd wager that any problem you're having, others have had as well--and probably solved.

I want to help, but, please, help me help you!

How Can I Help Family Members Fix Their PC Problems?

Long before I donned the Hassle-Free PC cape and unitard, I was the tech fixer for a much smaller group of users: my family members. And if there's one thing I learned in my many years of troubleshooting from afar, it's that the telephone is the worst tool in your arsenal.

The best tool? Screen-sharing software, which allows you to take control of another person's PC (with their permission, of course). That enables you to work your tech-support magic while sitting in front of your own computer; it doesn't matter if the other person is across town or across the country.

There are lots of remote-control options out there, but I think one of the best is Join.me. Though created as a collaboration tool for business users, Join.me offers super-easy screen sharing that's perfect for remote tech support.

It works like this. Let's say you're helping out your mom, who lives in Florida. All she has to do is start her browser, go to Join.me, and then click Share. That will download a tiny client program that she'll need to run. (You might need to help out with this part over the phone.)

Upon running the program (which doesn't install anything), she'll see a nine-digit code that she reads to you over the phone. The client also provides options to copy the code to the clipboard or send it via e-mail.

At your end, you're at the Join.me site as well. Type the code into the Join field, click the arrow, and presto: you're connected to the other PC. You'll see your mom's desktop, just as though you were sitting at her keyboard. Now she just needs to enable remote control, which she can do by clicking the little mouse icon in the Join.me toolbar at the top of the screen.

It really doesn't get much simpler than that. Amazingly, Join.me is free. It has built-in chat features and can even give you a conference-call number. (Like I said, it's really intended for business users.) The only thing it doesn't allow is remote file transfers, though that's rarely an important option when you're doing a support session.

If you've got a hassle that needs solving, send it my way. I can't promise a response, but I'll definitely read every e-mail I get--and do my best to address at least some of them in the PCWorld Hassle-Free PC blog. My 411: hasslefree@pcworld.com. You can also sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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