How to Ask for Tech Support So You Get Good Answers Quickly

Need help with something? On occasion, we all need tech support. Even me. Speaking as the person who is often on the other end of those requests for help, I have some suggestions on how to get the support you need as quickly as possible. This isn’t just to help me. If you provide the information to fix your problem in a single message you’re back to normal faster.

For instance, think about what I have to do if I receive an email message along the lines of “I keep getting a note that my backups aren’t working.” All I can tell from that message is that something may be wrong with your backups. But without knowing what app you’re using, what device this is on, and what the specific error is, I can’t even begin to recommend a solution. We’ll have to go back and forth to figure out what we need to learn to address the problem. By the end of the (possibly lengthy) process, we may both be quite frustrated.

So here’s a simple set of steps you can use to get to the heart of a troubleshooting problem whenever you’re communicating with support.

  1. Describe your setup as it relates to the problem. Whenever possible, be specific about what apps you’re using, what device you’re using, and include screenshots or videos. If you get error messages the exact wording of the message (or lack of a message!) is important. In my example above, this might involve saying, “I back up with Time Machine to an external hard drive. It has been working fine, but now I’m getting this error.” (Obviously, if you’re talking on the phone, it might not be possible to share a screenshot, but you can read it to the support rep.)
  2. Next, explain how you’ve tried to resolve the problem so tech support doesn’t automatically tell you to repeat the same actions. (They may anyway, just to confirm that you did everything properly, but it’s still a help.) You might say, “I clicked OK and let Time Machine try again, but I got the error on the next backup too. I restarted my computer. Then I launched Disk Utility, selected my Time Machine drive, and clicked First Aid.”
  3. Finally, explain what happened (or failed to happen) when you took the actions in the previous step. For instance, “First Aid also reported an error.”
  4. At this point, you may need to repeat Step 2 and 3 for each thing you tried, but you’ve given the support person enough for them to start recommending other courses of action.

The steps are a little different if you’re trying and failing to figure out how to accomplish some task. Try this script:

  1. I want to _____. State what you’re trying to achieve, and as before, make sure to say what apps you’re using and what device. For instance, “I’m using Preview to read a PDF on my Mac, and I want to print it with four pages per sheet of paper to avoid wasting hundreds of pieces of paper.”
  2. I tried ____. As before, explain what you’ve already attempted, as in: “In Preview’s Print dialog, I tried choosing 4 from the Copies Per Page menu.”
  3. What happened was _____. Finally, explain what happened after what you tried, and why it was wrong. “That caused me to get four copies of the same page in the preview, rather than four different pages.”
  4. Again, you may need to repeat Steps 2 and 3 for everything you tried, but in this case, we have all we need to explain that you need to click the Preview menu in the middle of the Print dialog, choose Layout, and then choose 4 from the Pages Per Sheet menu.

One last thing. It’s also important to explain your overall goal, rather than just present your specific problem. In the example above, for instance, saying that your goal was to reduce paper usage was helpful because I could then suggest that you select the Two-Sided checkbox near the top to print on both sides of the paper, cutting your paper usage in half.

A few additional tips:

  • One of the most important things you can do before you spend too much time on a problem is restart all of your devices first. Very often just restarting your computer, printer, router, or Time Capsule fixes the problem. Even if you don’t think it’s related. If you aren’t sure what to restart you can shut down all devices you know how to, then turn off all of your breakers to simulate a blackout.
  • A screenshot is immensely helpful. Especially one of your whole screen. Even if it’s just a photo taken with your iPhone. Sometimes there is some nuance or something outside of the error that I’ll see that you didn’t think to tell me. Maybe your WiFi is down or you’re using a different version of the program than I assume. Or maybe you have some software running that I suspect is interfering.
  • Error messages aren’t always technical in nature or have a code number. Sometimes the error message is as uninformative as something like “Cannot open” but that exact wording is still something that’s useful for me to know.
  • It’s also useful to know when this problem started and if other changes happened around that time. A software update? Change in location? You replaced another device? You changed internet providers? Changed your iCloud password? I’ve even seen a switch to LED bulbs in one office resulted in a solar-powered keyboard that would no longer charge.
  • Explaining your end goal instead of your immediate problem may mean I can give you additional tips to help you, or suggest an entirely different tool to get you there more reliably or easily. Perhaps getting perfect smudge-free output on your color printer at home isn’t necessary if you can have prints made at Walgreens or CVS instead, where the output will likely be better and the process easier than it could ever be on the average printer.

So next time you need to contact tech support, make sure to use these tips, and you’ll likely get better support and a faster resolution to your problem. In short, state what you want, what you tried, and what is happening.

(Featured image by Christina Morillo from Pexels)