by David Strom (June 1996)
Are you tired of trying to make sense of poorly-written computer manuals? Frustrated with spending hours on the phone on hold waiting for a harried support person who often knows less than you do to help solve a computer problem? Perhaps it is time to finally get connected to the world of electronic support where you can find out how to get your answers and still leave time to finish that memo to accounting or properly format the latest figures in your spreadsheet.
To make the most use of online resouces, you'll need several skills: the ability to operate under stress like a good emergency room physician, a dogged persistence of the best reference librarians, the ability to stay calm and sometimes just plain luck. However, it can be rewarding: Online support areas can save you lots of time if you know where to look."I was trying to find out the specifications of one of our Seagate disk drives. I used my web browser and went to http://www.seagate.com, and lo and behold!: on this site, they had full specifications for all of their drives, including our two-plus year-old model," says David Fisher, who is Media Manager, Paradesa Media, San Francisco, CA. Fisher uses a variety of sources for his electronic support, including Compuserve, the Internet and America OnLine. "The Internet has really become a lifeline for me."
"In most cases, had I not gone online, I would have spent hours on hold trying to get through to technical support personnel who may or may not have understood my question," says Jon Arnold, who is Director of Information Services, Edison Electric Institute, Washington, DC. Arnold has used Microsoft Network, Compuserve, and now the Internet for his support needs. His is a key point: online is where you can find the experts.
It can even be useful for such mundane tasks as reading the manual: "I find it often more convenient to access Novell's online documentation library over the Internet than mounting a CD on my local PC!" says Chip Rubin, a Senior Systems Analyst for the City of Los Angeles. Rubin has used a variety of support sources for many years.
And sometimes online is the fastest way to obtain new products: "I went to one web page to download a new product release instead of dealing with the copious paperwork that the city required," says Rubin.
But where to start? With thousands of places to turn to, the online support world can be a confusing jumble to navigate. Here are some tips from those who have found their way around.
First off, use triage methods like an emergency room doctor: separate your problems into critical, immediate issues versus others than can be fixed later. Are you missing some important piece of software, such as a new video or sound-card driver? Or is what ails your machine more involved and requires further research into the interaction between two or more components? The key question: what did you change or add to your machine before it stopped working?
The two best places to find online support are the Internet and Compuserve. Which is better depends on what you are trying to do. "We find the Internet is mainly good for file retrieval for drivers and patches. Compuserve is much more effective for getting technical support help," says Brian Moura, who is the Assistant City Manager, City of San Carlos, California. Moura is a big fan of Compuserve's forums for electronic support. Compuserve's strength is in its "forums," or discussion archives where you can view questions posed and answered by other users. In some cases, these answers come from vendor representatives themselves.
"Typically, if I have a problem with some software package, I'll log onto a Compuserve forum and scan messages for someone else who has had a similar problem. This method yields a solution more than 50% of the time," says Lloyd Slezak, of Brown and Caldwell Consultants Ltd. in Burnaby, BC Canada. Slezak has been using Compuserve for electronic support for over five years.
"We find CompuServe forums very effective for product support. In some cases, vendor reps provide answers (Turtle Beach and IBM/Lotus' cc:Mail) while in other areas, the users are the most help and sometimes they can figure out or swat a bug before the vendor can," says Moura.
In many cases, the balance of usage for many corporate computer users is shifting away from Compuserve and towards more Web and other Internet-based resources. "At one time we probably used Compuserve 80% of the time for electronic support. Now it is 80% Web and 20% Compuserve," says Arnold. Why? He gives two reasons: "First, while everyone implements things differently on the web, they are similiar enough that getting to most information is fairly intuitive. Second, we use a high-speed connection for our Internet access. So there are no modems and no funky communications setups."
"I think a lot of people here have given up on traditional online services like Compuserve, Prodigy and America OnLine because the support on those services doesn't compare with what you can get on the Internet," says Jason Perlow, who is a Systems Software Programmer, Canon USA Information Center, Lake Success, NY. "Its not uncommon now for companies to put things up on their Web site BEFORE it gets onto CompuServe," he says.
"Most companies have set up sites on the web that have the same information and downloadable software as their Compuserve areas did, says Fisher. "In general, computer vendors are getting smarter about putting information on the Web and it is getting better every day," says Arnold.
An alternative to Compuserve's forums on the Internet are discussion groups called Usenet newsgroups. "I use these to see what people are talking about and if they are encountering the same problems with the products I am using, and what solutions they have to these problems," says Perlow. "Usually within a couple of minutes I can get my questions answered or will get leads on getting my questions answered."
What about other online services, such as Microsoft's Network (MSN) or America OnLine (AOL)? These are better for more specific purposes than either Compuserve or the Internet. For example, "graphics-based vendors, such as Adobe, tend to have a strong presence on AOL," says Fisher.
You would think that MSN, being only available to Windows 95 users, would be a good place to find information relating to that particular operating system. That isn't always the case: "Before the fall of 1995, MSN was the exclusive place to get any information or support on Windows 95. Since then, Microsoft has put all of that stuff on their Web site," says Perlow. Slezak also wasn't completely happy with MSN: "I tried MSN for troubleshooting some Windows 95 issues. I quickly found that Compuserve has more people and forums who can give hints to solve problems. MSN has too many folders nested inside of other folders that makes finding things painful."
Also, keep in mind the history of a particular online service and its other customers: Compuserve has attracted technically-saavy users who like to help others. "AOL doesn't have as many computer vendors or as much content as Compuserve," says Moura. "Also, most AOL users tend to be novices and not as helpful with answering technical support questions."
What about electronic bulletin boards? Before the Internet became popular for support, an alternative was an electronic bulletin board (BBS) that was maintained by the vendor. These systems, mostly huge PCs with many modems that users could dial into directly, have lately fallen into disfavor: "Using BBS's is far more complex and burdensome as each vendor's BBS interface is different and requires an investment of time to register and navigate," says Rubin. Plus, most vendor-operated BBSs require a long-distance phone call, which is not generally the case with most Internet connections.
Some vendors have decided to remain neutral in terms of access method: Compaq, for example, uses the same structure for all of its online resources. If you find a file that you need on Compaq's Compuserve forum, you can quickly locate it on the company's BBS or Web server with the same name.
What about email? Email is fine for one-to-one communications, but not as useful for answering general support questions when you don't have a specific contact at a particular company. "The problem with email for technical support is that it makes a question/answer dialog very difficult and time consuming," says Fisher. However for other tasks it can be very useful: "We ordered one of our software upgrades via email. Within 15 minutes, the vendor had emailed the upgrade and registration codes, and we were up and running with the new version within a half an hour," says Fisher.
"Email is good for things like asking for pricing and availability information on IBM Thinkpads with our local computer dealer, or getting our Internet account status and balance information," says Arnold.
How do I find stuff? But trying to find your way around the Internet can be intimidating, since there are so many places to check out. However, there is some method to all of the Internet's madness, especially when it comes to figuring out a company's web address: "It isn't rocket science to figure out a lot of web addresses," says Arnold. "If I'm looking for a specific company's product information, my first attempt at locating them is always on the web at http://www.[company name].com. This works 99% of the time with computer industry companies," says Fisher.
"Usually most of the advertisements these days in trade magazines now have the address for a company's web site," says Perlow. "Often, using plain common sense is an excellent guide to locating resources online," adds Rubin.
Search engines. To help you zero in on the right resources, it helps to trade in your doctor's demeanor for a librarian's searching skills. Think carefully about the kind of information you are looking for, and try to ask your question in several different ways and in several different places.
It helps to understand the nature of your problem that you are trying to solve: "Once you decide to contact someone, make sure it's the appropriate vendor. If you install new software and your display goes freaky, you might consider trying to get help from your display card vendor in addition to the software vendor," says Fisher.
Compuserve, AOL and other online services all have relatively simple built-in "finding" tools that do a fairly good job of tracking down information: if you subscribe to one of these services, spend some time learning how to use these tools. Often, the "find" option is merely a menu choice or a fill-in form. The Internet has a variety of searching tools, including sites such as Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, InfoSeek, AltaVista, and others that you employ to locate information. Current versions of many web browsers come with pointers to many of these search sites as well, making it even easier these days to track down a company's web site. Arnold suggests: "Don't try just one search engine. No two are alike and they all have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to locating information."
Once you find the web site, spend some time looking around until you find the right area -- which often is simply labelled"support." Your next step is to fill in a form with one or more keywords and then press a "search" button to obtain the results. Barry Gerber is Chief Information Officer for the UCLANeuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital, Los Angeles, CA. Gerber is a big fan of Internet-based resouces and says he often groups terms in a search to get better results: "For instance, some search engines want you to put quote marks around groups of words so that they will find that particular sequence."
Perlow has several places on the web that he suggests as good starting points: "For operating system problems for Windows NT and Windows 95, go to Microsoft's Support Online on their web site (http://www.microsoft.com/kb). For OS/2, try IBM's web site (http://www.austin.ibm.com/pspinfo) or one of the third party web sites like Team OS/2 (http://www.teamos2.org). Novell (www.novell.com) is the best place for updates to client software and patches to NetWare."
Finally, become a frequent visitor at the sites and make it a part of your routine to see what is new. "Downloading files and drivers is an everyday practice. I check web sites of Novell, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, and Lotus on a weekly basis for software updates," says Perlow. Rubin agrees: "My primary uses are the Microsoft and Novell forums where I can also access upgrades, patches and fixes for products we use."
How long does it take to get an answer to your question? "One day is typical. Lotus can take longer," said Slezak. Rubin generally gets answers in less than 36 hours.
Which vendors offer better online support and which don't? Expect that the quality of online support to vary depending on the vendor and the product. "Sometimes Microsoft never responded to my queries," says Slezak. "Some contacts within Novell never respond to email," says Arnold. Perlow agrees: "With Novell I don't even TRY to send them email, because they don't answer you."
"Lotus, HP and Microsoft are among the best. The documents that you pull down are EXACTLY what you are looking for. It is gratifying to see these vendors take the time to document hundreds of thousands of bugs and then put them on line," says Arnold.
If you do have to call somone, remember this tip from Fisher: "I always try to speak to a real person as quickly as I can. Often, I pretend I am calling from a rotary-dail phone and don't press any numbers in reponse to the voice prompts. This way, I avoid the phone-mail maze and get to talk to a human immediately."