by Tonya Engst -- TidBITS Editor
I've earned a living through supporting or selling computer software and hardware in one capacity or another for almost five years now, and I've always been bothered by the paucity of materials about the field. Some professions have large libraries devoted to them, but I've never run across a So-And-So Memorial Library of Technical Support. This may be because support folks are so overworked that we never have time to write about what we do. At any rate, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Peachpit Press's "Help! The Art of Computer Technical Support" and read it from cover to cover in short stints over a period of two days. One of the problem with being a tech support person is that you may end up with your productive time broken up into about fifty two-minute blocks over the course of a day, which does weird things to your personality after a while.
Written by Ralph Wilson, "Help! The Art of Computer Technical Support" could have been yet another pop-business book about using cute psychological tricks on your customers (Don't sit across from them at a table; sit next to them or sideways from them to make you seem friendlier.) or it could have offered tired, simpering maxims such as "The customer is always right" and "Never make excuses." I learned these at a support seminar, but I promptly discounted them because I know darn well that the customer often doesn't have a clue. ("I don't need a PostScript printer; I only print from PageMaker.") As for not making excuses, just try working for an educational reseller of Macintoshes and not make excuses when Daddy calls from Long Island to find out why his daughter cannot purchase a computer until she actually registers for college. This book assumes that the reader has a brain and has mastered the basics of spitting out the chewing gum before answering the phone.
"Help! The Art of Computer Technical Support" will help everyone involved in computer support from high-level managers to the most overworked techs in the cubicle trenches. It's for people involved with consulting firms and internal help desks, as well as software and hardware companies that support what they sell. Wilson offers ideas and examples about improving support on all levels, with plenty of real life examples and quotes from leaders in the support profession.
For suit-types, the book discusses what personality traits make for a good support person, how to train support personnel, how to keep techs from burning out, and how to cost-justify your existence. For those managing phone support centers, it discusses various ways of charging (or not charging) customers for support. You'll find out WordPerfect's rationale for providing toll free support, why Ashton-Tate provided some support for the cost of a phone call, and the argument for and against 900 numbers as the emerging phone support method. Help Desk managers may be interested in the discussion of the pros and cons of "outsourcing," or making someone outside the company do some of the work. One chapter analyzes and explains the main features of several commercial databases used to store technical information and track customer information.
People who actually talk to customers and provide support will find useful suggestions for most aspects of their jobs, from assisting difficult customers to graciously accepting feedback. Wilson has done his homework here, with suggestions for dealing with all sorts of customer situations including skeptics, four-letter abuse, and "Novice Users and the Terminally Confused." He discusses important issues for any support person to be aware of, such as taking charge of the support situations and active listening to customers. A particularly valuable chapter is the one on developing trouble-shooting skills, which provides many ideas for becoming better at trouble-shooting, a skill which is rarely mentioned but plays a key role in providing support. Wilson discusses the difference between internal and external support and even looks at alternative methods of support such as fax and email. I had the most fun with the last chapter, though, which discussed how to behave as the recipient of technical support. Now if only my callers would read this chapter before calling me!
Ralph helpfully included a bibliography of related materials, which I hope to look up in the future. After reading the book, I had some new ideas for working with users and a better understanding of the different aspects of providing support. Peachpit's books tend to be fun and informative, and "Help! The Art of Computer Technical Support" lived up to my expectations. Unlike some other Peachpit books that feature extreme brevity, this book is a solid 200-plus pages, and is worth the $19.95 sticker price. If nothing else, your employer should buy it or you can write it off as a business expense. Highly recommended.
Peachpit Press -- 800/283-9444 -- 510/548-4393