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Your PC, Internet connection, and cell phone may save you tremendous amounts of time, but it's easy to forget that when you're spending hours on the line with tech support. Here's how you can streamline the tech support process and make sure you get the fixes you need.

Computer Crashes

The scenario: Your PC is having issues. Maybe it's randomly crashing or devouring your data. Maybe it just won't start up. Depending on your level of expertise, calling tech support could be either a really good way to fix a problem you would have never solved yourself, or a really good way to waste your afternoon.

Research and test: If you can, start by figuring out for yourself exactly what isn't working. The more details you can put together about what part of your computer isn't working, the better--especially if you have a smartphone or an extra computer handy that you can use to plug those details into Google. Chances are, any problem you have with a piece of technology is one that someone else has had as well, and if you're lucky, they've posted extensively about it on a forum or company's support site. Also, don't forget to keep your stress level low while you're troubleshooting.

You should also perform a few basic tests yourself: Reboot into Safe Mode (press F8 while your PC starts up) and see if the problems persist, and try booting from a recovery disc (read "Six Downloadable Boot Discs That Could Save Your PC" and "Make Your New PC Hassle-Free" for more information) and run Windows' included diagnostic tools to check the state of your hard drives, RAM, and system install. Also, make sure that all connected devices are firmly seated in their ports; if you've been fiddling with the insides of your PC you'll want to make sure a RAM chip or video card hasn't come unseated.

Ideally, you'll be able to figure out which component of your PC is acting up; this would make the call process much easier because the phone tech won't be able to refer you to another company because it's a problem with that third party's product, not with theirs. Generally speaking, if you weren't able to fix the problem with Windows' built-in diagnostic tools, the first-level techs aren't going to be able to fix it by asking you to reboot or reinstall Windows, and you're probably calling tech support because your problem is so bad that you need someone to authorize a warranty replacement part.

Illustration: Stephanie Dalton-Cowan
Prepare for your call: Gather together whatever product information you can find. Your computer model name and number ("Lenovo ThinkPad T500"), your computer's serial number (typically found printed on a sticker on the back of a desktop PC and on the bottom of a laptop), and any relevant extended warranty, receipt, or other proof-of-purchase information (in case the company loses your warranty information). Also, make sure you know what name, address, phone number, and e-mail address the computer is registered under, so you don't have to spend your phone time figuring it out.

You'll also want to have a system specification list and a crash report handy, if possible. Type msinfo32 into the search bar to bring up your system specifications, and type problem reports into the search bar and choose View All Problem Reports to bring these two up.

During the call: First, make sure to get a call-back number and a case number--you don't want to have to wade through ten minutes of menus and the first two-thirds of the tech support script again just because you accidentally got disconnected.

The amount of time you spend on the call depends on how many details you could pull together and the complexity of your problem. If your computer simply doesn't turn on, most of the phone tech's tests won't work. If you were able to figure out a specific component that isn't working, the support process should be fairly straightforward, though the phone tech will probably run you through a few basic tests anyway before transferring you to someone who can give you a replacement part or point you to a software fix.

However, PC problems that aren't so easily traceable will most likely mean that you'll have to run the gamut of tests from the first-tier support rep (the person who originally answered the phone) as well as the second-tier (the person you get transferred to if the first person couldn't fix your problem). Set aside some time where you won't be interrupted.

Bonus: Depending on how old your computer is, the warranty return might end up with an unexpected upgrade. I've had iPods and hard drives upgraded under warranty simply because they didn't have any of the parts of my capacity in stock any more, and if the manufacturer messed up your warranty coverage, as one company did for one PCWorld reader, it might end up throwing in an upgrade anyway.

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