We recently ran a story
on how to survive common technical-support nightmares
, such as support reps who speak only eight words of English and 30-minute hold times. Our advice is all good, if I do say so, but I'm here today with an extreme, alternative perspective: Just say no to tech support. Go rogue. Secede from the union and run your own tech country, as it were.
I didn't realize it until recently, but I've been moving in this direction myself for years, dodging tech support whenever I can. After spending a few too many hours listening to synthesizer variations of "Song Sung Blue" during interminable holds, something in my limbic system must have finally switched from tech-support fight into tech-support flight. It's been working out great for me. I can't recommend that a tech novice (Hi, Mom!) follow this route, but I've found that building a support-free computing setup is actually rewarding, if you have the patience and the knack for it. So here's the plan:
Don't ask for trouble
Some products will need tech support, and some are much less likely to. Your task is to actively avoid the former and try to acquire the latter. For example, I'm in the market for a printer, in particular a networked, color all-in-one. I had my eyes on the HP OfficeJet 7410, to which we gave a good review to and that has all the features I want. But the user feedback on this printer is running two to one against, mostly because of an unwieldy software suite that many of CNET's users have said doesn't install correctly, necessitating calls to tech support. Others complain about finicky duplexers, leading to more of the same. I really want this printer, but I don't want the trouble. I'd rather give up some features than use a product that's going to force me onto the tech-support lines.
Avoid the truck roll
Stay wary of tech support on wheels, too--that is, the guy or gal who has to come to your house to install your new high-tech product or service. For example, when I first installed DSL at my house years ago, three guys showed up in three separate trucks, none expecting to see the others. It was a convention of butt cracks, I'm not kidding. But since then, DSL has become a support-free solution in many places: The phone company sends you the DSL router and some line filters, and you install the whole thing without having to listen to some lackey in a hard hat critique the wiring work of the last installer. Given the choice, when installing a service (such as broadband Internet, a new telephone line, or television service), go with the DIY option.
A clean system is a support-free system
Budget PCs are incredible deals. For less than $500 these days, you can get a well-built system with the hardware to handle just about any basic online or computing task, save running some high-end games or graphics applications. The problem: many of these systems arrive loaded down with software that you don't need and don't understand, which means if there's any problem, you'll have to call...guess who?
Seven years ago, I bought a Gateway PC that crashed the first time I turned it on. Tech support was stumped, and I was angry, which made it an unpleasant phone call. In my frustration, I reinstalled the operating system from scratch and loaded up only the software I needed. The system worked fine after that. Likewise, on my new home-built computer, I'm running only what I need. You'd think a collection of parts bolted together by an amateur system builder would be an unstable mess. But on the contrary, this machine is the most stable PC I've ever worked with. There's nobody to support it, but it doesn't need support. I had one installation issue with this machine, but I solved it with the help of the Internet community (see final tip)--no vendors were involved.
Fight the man
Our internal CNET tech-support team is responsive, helpful, and knowledgeable. Even so, when the laptop I was using here at CNET began running slowly (10 minutes to boot and another 10 to launch Outlook, no joke), our IT guys didn't know what was wrong with it. I was also stumped, not to mention frustrated, and since I didn't have a good feel for how the system was put together, I couldn't do much tinkering myself to fix it.
Nonetheless, I had to take action. In a radical step, I rebuilt my corporate laptop's hard disk from scratch (since it's an IBM, it had the factory default configuration stored in a protected area on its hard disk--very convenient). This is a radical step, partly because I had to find my own source for application and security software; corporate machines don't come with installation discs. And I did need to make just one itty-bitty call to get my system back on the corporate network after I nuked its setup. But in return, I now have a superclean and fast system for my day-to-day use, and it doesn't have any of CNET's generation-old software, our slow corporate antivirus app, or the inventory control system our IT guys install on systems here, which users can't even turn off.
Very few corporations will let a rogue laptop such as mine onto their network. After they complain about the security risks, corporate IT will say that they can't support a system they didn't build. But that's precisely my goal, and I'm here to say (knock on wood) that a carefully built custom system might actually need less support than the one running the catchall build you're likely to get from your central PC fleet manager, although the job of keeping the machine secure and virus-free does then fall to you.
Tap the wisdom of the crowd
Sometimes, as smart as you are, as clean as your systems are, and as much as you want to avoid asking for directions, you're going to have to pull over and seek advice. But, of course, you don't have to go to official tech support to get it. I've found, in fact, that for almost every product I've ever needed support for, I could get better and more knowledgeable help from other users like me. I've found incredible resources--people who have answers and are happy to share--on CNET's forums, Usenet newsgroups, and other online forums. Often, I'll post a query on a message board and have a workable answer in less time than I would otherwise spend on hold on an official tech-support phone line.
So that's how I've managed to keep my tech-support calls to a minimum: I use solid products, I don't junk up my computers with useless software, and I go out of my way to avoid encounters with official or corporate support reps of any kind, even if it means some extra work or expense. It's tragic that the state of official support is such that I want no part of it, but the silver lining is the satisfaction of being technologically self-sufficient and the productivity gain that comes from being able to solve my own problems.
Next thing you know I'll be growing my own vegetables and building my own garage addition. Come to think of it, that's not such a bad idea.
Are you a tech independent? What are your tips for getting to this state, and what do you do when you reach the limits of your own expertise? Sound off in TalkBack!