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; 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 actually 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 found a remote-control tool you like better, tell me about it in the comments!
Contributing Editor Rick Broida writes about business and consumer technology. Ask for help with your PC hassles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or try the treasure trove of helpful folks in the PC World Community Forums. Sign up to have the Hassle-Free PC newsletter e-mailed to you each week.