Ask LH: How Can I Get My Friends To Fix Their Own Computers?

Dear Lifehacker, I find I'm always fixing my friends' or relatives' computers. I don't mind helping, but I'm getting called out for the same problems over and over. How can I get people to learn how to fix their own problems? Sincerely, Off and On Again

Dear Roy and Moss,

There's an old saying in the tech support world: Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life. Or something like that. While many of us feel useful and valuable when we fix other people's computers, it can create a system of dependency where you get called in every time Windows needs to update itself. Instead of doing everything for your friends, teach them the steps they need to solve problems on their own.

Give Them Common Solutions To Follow First

If you find that you're repeating the same steps over and over with the same person, it may be time to write them down. You can also create a checklist of all the common problems that you find yourself fixing and the easy solutions for them. Create a canned email, add some solutions to your text expanders, or just print off a few copies of a 3x5 index card listing intiial steps. Here are some basic things you can insist someone try before they ask you to come look at their PC:

  • Reboot your computer: When a computer exhibits weird behaviour, one of the first steps everyone can take is to restart their PC. If you teach your friends nothing else, this first step can reduce the number of support calls dramatically.
  • Unplug your router for 10 seconds: The most common internet service problems can typically be filed into one of two categories: the kind that can be fixed with a simple router restart and the kind that require a call to your ISP. There can be other problems, but these two options will go a long way.
  • Perform routine maintenance: Instead of performing a house call every six months just to spend your first two hours running a malware scan because no basic maintenance has been performed. This can even be done while the user is sleeping, so there's no reason not to.

Send Them Basic Computer Education

If you're seen as the computer expert of your social circle, chances are you know a bit more than those around you. Otherwise, they wouldn't be asking for your help. You're not going to be able to transfer all your experience to everyone around you, but you can get them started.

Not everyone needs to understand how to tweak the registry or create custom Autohotkey scripts. However, there are some things that everyone should know. For example:

  • 10 simple computer skills everyone should know: Tautologies may be tautological, but from file-sharing to fixing your Wi-Fi, this list of guides can lead your less tech-savvy friends down the road to self-reliance.
  • Avoid online scams: In addition to protecting their online identity, knowing how to avoid scams online will go a long way to prevent the kind of malware that causes the kinds of recurring problems you keep getting called to clean up.
  • Speed up a slow computer: Few things are more stressful than the complaint that "My computer is slow", because it can have a hundred different causes. Fortunately, there are at least a few things your friends can do before you head over to their place.

Being responsible for educating your friends and family can be a bit overwhelming, particularly if you're sharing the same collection of a dozen links over and over. To make it a little easier on yourself, you can use a URL shortener service like to share multiple information sources with a single link.

Compile Contact Info And Forums They Can Check

No matter how much you know about technology, there are always going to come times when you need to get help. Frequently, when we help out a friend, the solution to the problem can be quickly found via Google, forums or just calling a support line. While you're teaching your friends or family how to use their computer, show them the basic sources of information they can use to find answers.

  • Learn the deep magic of Google: Why are so many people unable to use Google to solve simple problems, you ask? Because using Google is a skill. Show others your secret tricks to finding information and watch the number of calls you get drop.
  • Get better customer service: Giving your friends a list of tech support numbers they can place on the fridge will make sure they know who to call before you. It couldn't hurt to give them a couple of tips on how to butter up the customer service reps.

The most important thing of all you need to do is just say no. You don't have to be a jerk about it, but once you've given your friends and family the tools they need to figure out how to fix their devices, insist they use them. Say things like "Before I come over, have you run a virus scan/tried rebooting/plugged the dang thing in?" Only, you know, a little more tactfully than that.

Over time, one of two things will happen: either your friends will learn to fix their computers themselves or they will call someone else to do it for them, which means you may lose out on the reputation of being the go-to fixer. But if you're writing in on how to get them to stop, you might not miss that reputation anyway.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    Get the t-shirt from thinkgeek which has the words, "No. I will not fix your computer".
    It actually works! :)


    Last edited 16/01/14 9:49 am


      Just assume they meant that they were going to pay you, and respond with something like "Sure, no problems. I'm $110 per hour, and I think that's going to take about 2 hours. I'll be able to come over [tomorrow]. Does that work for you?"

      If you ever get any push back like "oh, I thought you would do it because we're friends", just say naah, your computer is work. I mean, If I were a plumber, would you expect me to come around and unblock your toilet "as a mate"?. If you need a hand moving some furniture, I'm your guy...

        If I did that people would just assume I was broke and super desperate for money. That opens up a much more annoying problem of having to prove that I pay my bills on time and still have plenty of leftover cash, and if I manage to succeed at that I look like a jerk for asking for money to begin with.

          In that case... If they ask you to fix their computer, tell them to drop it around so you can look at it.

          Take it to work. Keep it for at least 3 weeks. When you're asked how you're going with it, Say you'll look at it as soon as you get a chance, until they start asking you to give it back anyway. Make sure you "forget" to bring it home after being asked at least twice.

          Bring it back home, don't drop it back to their house.

          Never turn it on. When they pick it up, tell them you've fixed it.

          If it came with a power cord or any peripherals leave them at work & repeat the process.

          They'll never ask you again.

            That's way too much work. Right now my standard operating procedure is to take their computer, fix it, remove admin privileges from their user account and give it back. I don't normally hear back from them until it's a proper breakdown, they need to install new hardware or something won't run without an update.
            I actually thought it would create more hassle because they can't install programs without me logging in as an admin but it really seems like people either don't install programs anymore or don't care enough about having a program installed to bother sending their computer over. As long as I install the standard applications and get the file type associations sorted before locking them out it seems to be smooth sailing.
            It can be annoying having to do something as simple as installing a program, but it's just running through a wizard so it's not nearly as annoying as the 'clean up my mess' jobs I'd normally get stuck with.

    I have a few rules which have helped me over the years. But the core rule is to make the inconvenience for the person with the problem greater than the inconvenience to you.

    If someone is trying, and just needs a pointer, then I'll help them straight away.

    My personal guidelines
    * Friends of friends can go elsewhere.
    * Machines get delivered to me. I only travel for modem issues, and only have the telco has been called. General networking issues will make me travel eventually, it helps if favours have been banked, or beer is provided.
    * If parts are needed. Stop until they pay for them. Do not try to make a struggling machine faster if more ram/cpu/etc is what it really needs. If they bought a $400 laptop and complain that its slow, explain that they need a better laptop.
    * Do not offer a while you wait service. They can pick up the machine when its ready.
    * Don't do anything for someone, that you wouldn't do for yourself. I find its quicker to wipe out and rebuild the OS rather than fixing disasters/nasty viruses etc. Those that don't want to lose their pirated software can take it to the shop.
    * No sympathy for those who don't pay for anti virus/internet security software. If you can't afford $40 for safety, then learn how to fix the damage.
    * No sympathy for those who don't look after passwords, or have horribly weak passwords.
    * Advanced setups are for advanced users. If you can't set up media servers/geo blockers/air play without apple tv etc, then you can't fix it when it plays up.
    * Have been lucky enough to switch to macs before windows 8 came out.
    * Be slow.

    But these days, my biggest problem is passwords. Some family get REALLY cranky when they can't log into facebook/pintreset/instagram/whatever. Or have such weak passwords that they keep losing control of their email accounts. Although watching someone lock themselves out of their email while trying to reset the itunes password is funny, it just cause a mess to fix up later.

    It has got so bad for me that I save family users passwords into my 1Password, and put my email address into their email account security areas so that I can fix things in my own time.

    Anyone with password problems usually has no idea where they've filed "a 3×5 index card listing intiial steps".

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