Bob's Blogs

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen

The business of troubleshooting can be tricky. There are tips, hints, guidebooks and articles about various aspects of troubleshooting by the score, but they all seem to miss a key point.

That is: "What does the customer mean by their complaint?" This is the part that technical folks often despair over because the vocabulary that the end user uses often sounds the same as the technical folks use, but the chances are great (bordering on certainty at times) that the meaning is completely different.

Unless you are dealing with colleagues whose technical background you are familiar with and can automatically adjust for, dealing with end users (customers -- whether or not any money changes hands) can be very frustrating for many technical folk who have not taken the time to learn how to properly handle them.

When a customer starts out explaining a problem, let him or her finish. Don't interrupt. It's frustrating to be treated like a kindergartener. If you are unfortunate enough to get a rambler (who starts out on a computer problem, and somehow moves to why his sister now lives in Poughkeepsie), then you will have to interrupt carefully. "Excuse me sir/ma'am" until you have their attention, and then ask them to get back on track with respect to the problem. As long as they are sticking to the problem, though, let them finish. You may be lucky enough to have them identify the actual problem as they struggle to explain it. Think of it as being a guest in someone else's house -- they get to make the definitions and rules. And it's good public relations. As sick as we techies are of dealing with the clueless, they are just as sick or more so, of being treated like blithering idiots.

In the process of listening, you may discover what you suspect the real problem to be. Don't jump in, let them finish. Their continuing on gives you two things:

  • You can better gauge their level of technical knowledge to assess the accuracy of what they are telling you
  • You can think of the best way to ask the questions that may elicit better information from them -- in terms they can understand and relate to.
I've had some embarrassing moments where I assumed that the customer was ignorant and wrong and jumped in with my estimation of their situation. I was half right and half wrong; they were ignorant, but they were right. After bumping my nose into that particular wall a few times, I learned to hear them out. They may well be ignorant and wrong, but they do know their everyday environment, and they know when it doesn't match their perception of reality -- otherwise they wouldn't have called you in.

Get used to asking extentional questions in their area of competence -- their personal universe.
  • When did the problem start?
  • Was there ever a time when it didn't do this?
  • Does it always do this? (Clouds of smoke and the fire engines aside.)
  • Were there any events you can think of that might be related to the problem?
  • Have you or anyone else tried to fix this problem? (I can hear you groaning now.)
  • If so, what did you or they do?
  • If you don't know what they did, would you give me their contact information?
  • Is there any other odd behavior that might be related to this?
  • Does anyone else have this problem?
Up to this point, I've stuck with the completely non-technical, primarily because diving into the technical is what most of us do best, and extracting useful information from non-technical people is not what we do best, but it's much of the purpose of this blog.

One of the key factors in solving any problem is getting the right information to set you on the right track toward solving it. Truth be told, I'm a certifiable tool fanatic. It doesn't matter if it's wrenches, screwdrivers, woodworking tools (my hobby), test equipment, software tools, etc., if there is something made to solve a particular problem more easily, I'll buy it or build it if it helps me (unless the cure costs more than the disease).

In this case, we'll stick to tools that provide information relevant to solving computer and network problems. Some of these tools are free, some are shareware, some cost money, some are built into the operating system or part of the overall environment. What they have in common is that they provide some sort of information to help you narrow your search for the solution to the problem you are facing. If you choose not to use them because you're sure that they would not be helpful, then you're being just as ignorant (and arrogant) as some of your customers.

So here is a simple list -- there are multiple tools available for many of these, but I'll just list one or two.

  • Event or system logs -- comes with the respective operating systems
  • Pop-up messages -- teach your customers to write down the entire message before they dismiss it
  • Process information -- Task Manager on Windows, ps on Unix/Linux systems, ProcessExplorer (
  • Network listening status -- Vision (Foundstone/McAfee), TcpView (
  • Network traffic -- Network General Sniffer, Ethereal, WinDump/TcpDump
  • Registry activity -- Regmon (
  • File system activity - Filemon (
  • Disk drive status (error counters, temperature, etc.) -- DriveLED (OO Software)
  • Chkdsk/Scandisk(Windows) / fsck (Unix/Linux)
  • Startup info (Windows) -- HijackThis (Safer-Networking), Auto-Runs (
  • Antispyware scanner -- Spybot Search & Destroy, Ad-Aware, Pest Patrol, CounterSpy, Microsoft Anti-Spyware, WinPatrol, etc.
  • Logs from possibly related systems and services -- name servers, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, routers, switches
  • Cable tester(s) -- Intermittent cables have caused me a fair number of problems. I happen to like the Fluke product line, but there are many other brands out there that also do a fine job.

This is FAR from being a complete list. Note that there are NO scanners in the list. I love scanners, but they are not all that effective or relevant for solving an individual problem. The key point here is that all of those listed can provide you with information that is much harder to see with your bare eyes and which have all led to solving problems.

The other objective here is for you to think of your jobs (whatever they might be) in a wider sense than what's right in front of your nose. When you widen your horizons and breadth of knowledge, your value and number of opportunities will tend to widen as well. When you show an implied attitude of caring (brought on by deliberately chosen behavior and speech) about your users/customers and treat them with respect, their opinion of you goes up considerably as well.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, none of this happens overnight, but all of this will enhance your skills and your attitude and will hopefully have a positive impact on your professional life. 

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