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As offices grow increasingly automated, equipment failures and system problems become commonplace. In larger work environments, daily struggles with technology are routine. Rapid technological advancement has its price. Learn to defend yourself!

The never-ending push to replace manual activity with automation results in an increasing variety of intelligent devices. As the variety of devices becomes larger, the focus changes to consolidation of functions resulting in fewer, but more complex, devices. As a simple example, consider the attempts to combine mobile phone, personal digital assistant and calculator. The results have been less than thrilling to date.

It's not just end users and managers who are stymied. System vendors are equally frustrated because many external events beyond their control result in problems with their systems. Consider these all too common customer scenarios:

Vendors also face a variety of internal issues that make supporting their products more difficult than you might think. Supporting products in the field boils down to managing three major areas:

1. Hardware Changes - Companies will continue to improve the design of the hardware long after the product ships. Changes can be triggered by significant safety or reliability problems, the need to reduce manufacturing costs, or components that become obsolete and no longer available making it necessary to substitute a different part. These changes cause support problems because ultimately there will be several hardware variations in the field and they will likely not behave identically.

2. Software Updates - The need to patch security vulnerabilities, make improvements, or fix bugs generates software changes. Events beyond the control of the vendor often force such changes. For example, many vendors employ a software module licensed from a third-party software house. When the software house releases an update, the vendor must decide whether or not to distribute the update to its customers.

3. Customer Support Inquiries - Regardless of how simple or complex the device, support will be needed. The inquiry may be prompted by anything from a DOA (dead-on-arrival) unit to a simple user error. Support centers generally find that call volumes increase whenever changes to existing products occur or new products are rolled out. This can cause severe fluctuations in the number of support personnel needed during any given time period.

So how do vendors manage these three areas of change? The typical vendor operating model for maintaining and supporting products in the field revolves around the following functions:

You can help your vendors with their ongoing efforts to improve quality. Every time you make a support call, the information you provide is entered into a database that helps identify weaknesses in the product. This insight can then be used to prevent recurrences and ensure that similar problems don't show up in future products. Here are six tips for getting help that will benefit both your company and the vendor.

6 Tips for Getting Help

1. Be polite and courteous. Control your emotions. This is a business conversation, not talk radio. Support staffers are not perfect and only human. If you give them an attitude, they will have to waste time dealing with you, not your problem.

2. Be prepared and concise. Before the call, take the time to write down pertinent information about your equipment, configuration, software, and the chain of events leading up to the problem. If there appear to be multiple problems, break them out separately. Minimize attempts at diagnosing the condition(s) and just stick to the facts.

3. Let the support staffer control the call. Basic information about you and the equipment must be gathered before troubleshooting can begin. There is always a process that must be followed and it is best to follow along rather than argue. Answer questions with adequate detail but don't ramble. Give the staffer time to type notes. Ask your questions after the staffer has finished asking questions.

4. Listen carefully and take notes. It's important to follow instructions during and after the call. Read or repeat back your understanding of the instructions. Do not second-guess the support center. Even if you believe you have already tried something, the sequencing of steps can make all the difference.

5. Be understanding on callbacks. Chances are you will get a different person should you need to call back regarding the problem. Give the staffer time to read the call history. Ask if there are any questions regarding the history. Proceed to explain what actions you took and what results you observed after the last call using your notes.

6. Persist in getting the problem solved. In most cases, the support center will have dealt with similar problems before (even if the person you are speaking with has not). There will be other times when your problem is particularly complex or obscure. Most support centers use a tiered system whereby the front-line responders can escalate the call if they cannot resolve the problem. Once you've done what the front-line support staff has asked without success, ask for escalation. Be polite and persistent.

Information technologies will not get simpler any time soon but having a general idea about how vendors support your needs puts you in a better position to help yourself. And these days, with so much competition around, you need to give yourself all the help and support you can.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He is an expert in leveraging open software to drive growth. DAMICON provides Freelance Technical Writing, IT Disaster Response Planning, and Network Security Management services to firms throughout New England.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in March 2005.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.