“Everything customers tell me over the phone is a lie,” said my friend in regard to troubleshooting calls. He’s an electronics technician for a major print finishing equipment manufacturer and in the course of his job he fields help-desk calls.
Their equipment is big, complex and heavily computerized so troubleshooting can admittedly be an overwhelming task for a bindery equipment operator struggling with what he considers to be an electronic problem. He continued, “In decades of doing this I discovered that when I arrive on the scene, the problem is never what was described over the phone…never! So now when I take a call, I don’t bother to ask what’s wrong; I just tell them I’ll see them in the morning.”
His take on fixing problems got me thinking about why troubleshooting can be so difficult. We all troubleshoot something nearly everyday, both at work (especially in printing businesses) and at home. Troubleshooting is complicated by two levels of knowledge: on one side a client who may or may not have knowledge of the equipment, and on the other side the manufacturer’s technician with a thorough working knowledge of equipment systems and operation.
Why is troubleshooting so hard?
- Numerous variables. Even basic single-purpose machines might present you with 20 or 30 variables to examine. A complex printing press or folding machine can have thousands of combinations of variables.
- Lack of patience in an instant-gratification culture. Narrowing down the symptoms means trying one thing at a time until you get to the root cause. It doesn’t mean you try 5 things at a time to get it done faster.
- Lack of critical thinking skills. Not only do basic skills seem to suffer these days, many want to be told what to do rather than think something through.
- Various levels of product knowledge
- Insulated employees. Often the technician isn’t allowed to speak to the operator but must speak with a supervisor or owner. Playing phone tag doesn’t help communication.
When both client and vendor have a good working knowledge of the product, you typically have a short troubleshooting session. More common however is the scenario where a client lacks some product knowledge (they could be new to the product and still in the learning phase) while the vendor knows the product thoroughly. Or in the case of my friend with his electronic troubleshooting calls, most operators won’t have much ‘product’ knowledge regarding electronics. They may have plenty of knowledge about the machine’s mechanical operation but the difficulty arises when they present symptoms (mechanical in nature) too broad to narrow down the root cause (which are electronic in nature.)
This is when the ‘lying’ starts. ‘Lying’ is inaccurate since it indicates intent to deceive and usually this is not the case. ‘Lying’ is better interpreted as an inability to provide a complete and accurate description of the symptoms of the problem. The frustrated client, often under intense pressure, just wants his product to work right now while the vendor just needs to find out the exact nature of the problem before he can begin to offer a possible solution.
Obviously the more product knowledge the client has, the easier the troubleshooting mission. It’s the vendor’s job to thoroughly educate in order to make the client’s life as easy as possible. When the vendor is willing to educate and the client is willing to learn, good things happen.
The reality again is somewhere in the middle. Educational materials can always be improved and the clients can always take a little more time to avail themselves of the educational material supplied. (I think the genetic trait of men to take it out of the box, plug it in and turn it on might never fade. Who needs directions?)
Yet the basic steps to troubleshooting are simple:
Start with what you know. As Dragnet character Joe Friday used to say, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Make a list of what you know if that helps.
Figure out what changed. If there’s a problem where none existed before, something changed, even if it’s not readily apparent. This is the hard part where we usually miss the small item that made the difference. Take a deep breath, think and then think again. If you come up dry, go back to the “what you know list.” There is probably a missing item.
Now check those items that changed, one at a time, to get to the root cause. Then test the fix to be sure no other gremlins are lurking.
In all of this I never forget the time-saving 80-20 rule. The majority of problems (80%) will be traced to a small number of possible causes (20%). Those will require simple fixes. Why else do you think the question “Is it plugged in?” is on almost every FAQ page that involves an electric component?
Happy troubleshooting and as always please feel free to share your stories, suggestions and experiences below!