Ask LH: How Can I Get Out Of Doing All My Family’s Tech Repair?

Dear Lifehacker, My family is always calling me for tech support when I'm busy and keeps a list of the big problems for when I'm home to visit. I'm tired of fixing the same problems over and over again. They never seem to learn. What can I do?Thanks, Unwilling Tech Support Guy

Photo: slworking2, Flickr

Dear UTSG,

There are a few things you can do and they come down to teaching, practice and tough love. With a good amount of each, you should have no trouble weaning your family off your assistance.

You'll still have to help them sometimes — as you should, since they probably help you with non-tech-related things here and there — but you can use those moments to your advantage. This is what I did with my family and I'm happy to report they're much more self-sufficient. Here's how you can get your family to be the same.

Don't Do: Teach

Every time a family member asks you for help, offer that help on one condition: you show them how to solve the problem and they implement the solution themselves. It's like the old proverb says: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." You need to teach your family to fish.

This can be frustrating, especially at first. Most family members will be resistant to learning any technical skills since they've had you do everything for them for so long. They may ever prefer to never learn because they only use the computer out of necessity. It may be difficult, but you need to be firm. You also need to be patient. They'll get frustrated in the beginning and you'll have to explain things slowly and simply. Eventually they will learn and they'll remember, but that will only happen if you show enough patience and encouragement. You have to forget the years of annoying tech questions and help them understand what needs to be done.

And have them do everything, too. They won't learn as well if you show them how to, say, burn a DVD. Hold their hand through the process so they can do it themselves. The act of doing will make it easier for them to remember.

Make Them Practise The Basics

When you're physically with your family and can help them on the computer, set up some time to practise. You really only need about 15-30 minutes for each session, and you don't need to have these sessions often. Pick some basic skills they need to learn (e.g. copy and paste, sending a photo in an email, updating software, etc) and demonstrate how they work. Watch them practise and answer any questions they have during the process. Have them repeat what you demonstrate several times so they get used to the actions. They might not like it, but they'll remember it.

When you're not around, you can also use screencasting software to make them a video that demonstrates a particular skill they need to learn. You can then watch them practice remotely using a tool like VNC or LogMeIn. Set up a time every week or two to do this and it shouldn't take long before they learn the basics. If you don't have time to make videos every week, we can help you out. Our Lifehacker 101 posts offer plenty of beginner how-tos, often with video, so you can just be there to hold their hand during practice without the need to create the lesson.

Ignore Them

Sometimes you just won't have time to help and you'll need to use a little tough love. In these cases, it's OK to say no. They need to get used to the idea that you won't always be around to help. If you do have some time, however, it's good to suggest how they can try to find the solution themselves. Sometimes this just means telling them what to search for in Google or providing a URL to a site that can help them learn how to solve the problem. Most people get overwhelmed and think they can't solve a problem because they simply don't know where to start. If you provide that starting block, it may still be hard for your family members but they'll at least have a better chance of figuring things out on their own. Ultimately, that's the best way for them to learn and it will save you the most time.

Overall, this process puts a lot of burden on you in the beginning. You'll have to work hard and spend more of your time teaching them the skills they need. The upside, however, is that they will learn and you'll save yourself much more time in the long run. If you're patient and understanding, you'll only end up with tech support calls when the difficult problems arise.

Cheers Lifehacker

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This article has been updated since its original publication.


Comments

    I have been in this situation where not only was I family tech support but neighbor tech support as well. Two things I had to do to stop the insanity. 1. get frustrated in front of them (its awkward I know and strains things a little but the message does get across) and 2. charge them for it, be it a cake, beer, or some other type of consumable. Or for a couple of last resorts, tell them you only deal with servers these days or pretend that you just dont have the time. if its family that you dont see very often then tell them you are here to see and spend time with them not to fuck around with their stuffed up electronics. Gadgets/Computers/Software come and go family will always be there.

    I got to the point years ago where i would work all day in IT and then come home to have to deal with family, friends and relatives who wanted technical support. Mostly wanting me to go around to their houses and fix things. It soon stopped when I started sending out invoices for labour.

    matt and martin have nailed it pretty well.
    Charging for your time is a good way to indicate that your time is valuable. If the time that is being eaten into is your relaxation time, charge more. Mates rates == 2 or 3 times normal rates. That gets the hint across pretty damn quickly.
    Teaching people is a good start. Showing them how to find help and solutions is better. JFGI being a good start.
    I'm always fond of the phrase:
    If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day.
    If you teach him how to fish, he can eat for a lifetime.
    If he can't be bothered to learn, that's fine with me.

    what??? windows?? imac??? sorry.... i only know linux...

    i'm sure that would get them off ya back.

    For each family member, recommend a Mac for their next upgrade and tell them you'll look after them with help changing over. They think they're lining up weeks of your time when it's really only the initial setup. The slightly mercenary approach is to charge for help for any Microsoft products. Yes, you may have to suffer through the myriad of senseless recurring problems, but it's not totally wasted time if you're getting paid. I had a moratorium of one year where I warned everyone I didn't have time to do any Windows support. Now everyone is on Mac, and I have 95% less support requests. I no longer hate Windows as a result. I'm just ambivalent to it.

      This is garbage advice, if your family members are used to windows then changing to mac is just going to confuse them all over again.

      Additionally if you arn't used to macs yourself the few tech support calls you do get will end in frustration for you, and your family when you resort to "i don't know how to do it, it's a mac"

      So either you end up teaching them to search for the solution to their own problem(which should have been done before the whole switch tactic) or you end up searching for the problem on a system you arn't used to.

      agreed, terrible advice (switch to Mac's)

    I treat them like someone from sales and marketing. Nice to get drunk with but they shouldn't be around IT. I give myself remote access (so at least for some problems I don't actually have to physically go there), I set their security software to an UberNazi level (Yes, 10 minutes to boot while it does a full scan is normal), and I give them as few permissions as possible.

      I've started to do this with my parents who are noticeably getting OLD, they used to be reasonably proficient, but recently called me to tell me they have an email from "[email protected]" telling them their email server is full, and should they give him their password to fix the problem?
      Subsequently, i made their usernames User level only but now they call me cause software is bugging them for an update and they don't have permissions!
      I'm at the stage of thinking about activating remote access.

    I like to do things like to change the target of the IE icon to Chrome so they think they are using IE. When they ask why it looks different, I just tell them it's an update (see people don't like to move with the times nor change what they are used). I have done this to many computers. And it doesn't surprise me that I get less calls about computers not working (due to malware or what not).

    The best thing I've tought my Dad is how to backup the files he would really miss, and how to have as few as these files on his computer as possible.

    I did this by repeatedly threatening to format his old computer and do a fresh install because this was the only solution left. (it was a little exageration, but it's what I would have done if my own machine ever got in such a mess).
    He was terrified of losing all his crap and has been pretty good since then. Expecially once I got it into his head that with hard drives it's not IF it breaks but WHEN.

    Next step was to get him to buy a new computer. His was ten years old I think!
    It took some convincing, but the whole "look - it's got 8 times the memory and it's quad core, that means 4 brains! and it costs half what you paid ten years ago, and you have your back-ups now and it comes with the new Windows which is more secure - I'll even set it up for you" finally did the trick.

    Being the tech support is so much easier now.

    wow HTFU - family is everything - they love you, they would do anything for you if you asked - stop being so precious about 30 minutes of your time and help them.

      Well said.. :) Truth is, if you were that good at 'tech support' in the 1st place, you would have it setup for them so that they don't have basic problems anyway. Yes, it is possible.

      Regarding Mac's, they are no better, just different..

        Call me when you're doing 20 hours a week IT support for free for relatives who are all busy when you need help moving or something. It got to the point that supporting my extended families IT needs was a second job - and most of them were completely absent whenever I needed any kind of help from them, or just didn't consider what I was doing a favor. 'You like playing with computers don't you? It's like we're doing you a favor by bringing them to you!'

        Tell them up front, that you're busy and you'll get to it if you have time, but that might be a few weeks, and it sounds like something complicated that might take a while when you do get time to look at it.

    Giving family any IT help at all is tantamount to giving them an addiction.

    At least in my case.

    They used to be alright, only asking for the occasional bit of help for reasonably complex problems. Stuff they wouldn't be expected to know etc...

    But now, they can barely use the internet without a phone call. It's usually once or twice a day that a call comes through about how the laptop has died (my fault apparently, i did buy it for them after all) when they have unplugged it and ignored the battery warnings., or that they can't access their emails (caps lock strikes again).

    So now. I don't do any of it. I Ignore the phone calls, and have directed them to call the support numbers of the relevant manufacturers/isps/etc... for which i provided an easy to understand list.

    I've found family to be generally good about the fact that it takes a while for me to get around to anything. The ones that pee me off are so called "friends" who call you twice a day to see if you've done a Jesus and raised their laptop from the dead.

    What seems to work for me now is to be upfront. I usually say that I will look at their problem but it might take me 4 - 6 weeks to get back to them. Most find an alternative.

    Uninstall all their bullshit programs. Pare the machine back to it's basics, disable stupid Services (Microsoft, Adobe, all that background BS, don't get me started on "Search"), and set them up as a Standard User. Two things are going to happen:
    1. They'll be annoyed with the result because all their distractions from real life have been uninstalled so they may be less likely to call on you for help
    2. They'll have fewer problems with their computer, so they'll be less likely to call on you for help.

    The best part is that it's actually best practice; it's the right thing to do. It's also how mine is setup, so there's minimal hypocrisy.

    Bam!

    Nah, I love my parents and want to help them in a world that sometimes gets a bit too hard.

    I have one rule, though: I will never help with printers. For some reason, they're the hardest for me to fix and I simply will not keep up to speed with them or troubleshoot them.

    I have no family, so I don't have this problem. Go me! oh wait....

    It can be annoying when sometimes you're trying to go somewhere and they're like 'can you just set this up quickly?' and you've gotta sit there for the next 15 minutes explaining why streaming a particular movie through the tv isn't as easy as choosing the movie and pressing pause and play due to Australia's crappy internet. There has been times when I've said no because I have particular plans to do something and they know it and the thing they need fixed/setup will take an hour or two to make sure it's 'elderly-proofed'. But most cases I'll happily help the grandparents out. Hell, they're barely charging me for rent, and I'm getting a cooked meal every night.

      My 65yo neighbour said the 100GB of porn instantly appeared on her computer when she clicked on something, and that was over dial-up!

        It is quite astonishing some of the things they accidentally manage to activate or break.

          Or the scale of fibs that they can unblinkingly tell you

    I tell them it will take all day to reinstall Windows 7 and it won't be like it was.
    I ask them contribute to a solution. I have them tell me how they contributed to their problem.

    What no IT Crowd techniques - Have You Tried Turning It Off And On Again?

    I own that shirt - that has stopped 90% of the "helpdesk" calls. Though I did have a little old lady stop in th emiddle of the street once, have a giggle to herself beflreo leaning into to tell me "I need my computer fixed".

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