Computer and software manufacturers provide technical support in multiple ways, starting with the documentation that comes with the product. Most manufacturers offer web sites with support information. Some of these web sites are outstanding. Support may also be offered via email, live chat, videoconferencing, and telephone. These last services may or may not have a price tag.
User's manuals, troubleshooting guides, and help files
The first step in solving a problem is to check the documentation that came with the product. Such documentation usually consists of some combination of user manual, troubleshooting guide, and help files.
- Printed manuals and guides. A user's manual may be included in the box with the computer or product. The user's manual may include a troubleshooting section or it may be a separate manual. The troubleshooting section or guide usually contains solutions to some of the most common problems.
- "Virtual" manuals and guides. Many manufacturers no longer include printed documentation with the product but put the manuals and guides on the computer's hard drive, on a CD/DVD or both. Some computer manufacturers put an icon on the desktop or an entry in the program list. For some software, you may find the manual in the program folder.
- Help files. Most software comes with help files that are accessed from within the program itself. Some hardware items also have help files. These may be accessed from an entry in the program list, the installation disk, or through the associated software.
- "Readme" files. Some software products also have a "readme" file. This file usually contains information that didn't make it into the user's manual. It may contain troubleshooting information, particularly for installation issues. For some software, the readme file is all the documentation that you get.
Websites — FAQs, knowledge base, manuals, tips, forums
A support website usually identifies the type of support that is available. Much of the support available through the website takes the form of self-help. Here are some common ways such online support is delivered.
- FAQs. Many support sites list Frequently Asked Questions (or FAQs). These may be in just one list or grouped into categories. As the name implies, these questions and answers usually cover the most common issues. Browsing is an excellent way to review FAQs.
- Troubleshooting tips. Some sites have a list of troubleshooting tips and how-to's. This usually provides step-by-step instructions for resolving an issue or how to use a feature or function.
- User's manuals. User's manuals may be provided online. These may be an exact copy of what was provided with your product or it may be updated. There may be updates to your manual available as well. You may find additional manuals.
- Knowledge bases. "Knowledge base" is just a fancy name for a database that contains articles and Q&A's. A knowledge base is sometimes provided when the FAQ list or the number of tips gets too large to manage easily. Many sites provide a search capability for the knowledge base.
- Forums and discussion groups. Forums or discussion groups are sections of a web site where you can post a question and get an answer from fellow computer users. The forums may or may not be monitored by a company employee. You can also read through the questions and answers already posted to see if your question has already been answered.
Some websites, particularly those of computer manufacturers, provide the capability to e-mail a technician. Many promise a response in 24 to 48 hours. If you e-mail a tech, you usually get an automated response indicating that your message was received and giving you an estimated time for a response.
For a growing number of manufacturers, the phone appears to be a last resort (even if customers would prefer to talk to a live person). Check the manufacturer's website for the appropriate phone numbers and any applicable fees. If the company provides an 800 (or 888, 877, or 866) number you may or may not have to pay a fee. Some companies charge a per-call fee (it can be $25 or more). Some companies don't charge a fee but don't provide a toll-free number so you may have to pay long distance charges. Some companies use a 900 (or 976) number—these are always toll calls. If a 900 support number doesn't tell you upfront the fee for the call, hang up immediately.
Some companies provide a limited number of days of free telephone support. This can be as short as 90 days (which is common with software). Some give you 30 days free support from the time you place the first phone call.
Other Support Methods
Technical support is continually evolving. Some companies are using support alternatives such as chats, instant messaging, video conferencing, or social media. Others take advantage of features in operating systems or software programs to fix your computer as if by remote control. How can you tell if the manufacturer you're trying to work with offers such options? Read your documentation and check out the manufacturer's website.