Joseph Rooks is on the show this week. We talk about his experience with tech support at Virginia Tech, crafting better error messages, and how screencasts can be your best friend to help customers.

There’s also a story somewhere in there about a student who got smoke to come out of their brand new laptop’s modem (way back when laptops still had those).

Thanks for having me on the show, Chase! You’re a great conversationalist and I had a great time talking with you. Everybody else, check out the great stuff he’s doing at Support Ops.

My Personal Support Toolbox

Over the years, I’ve picked out a collection of tools and practices that make it quick and easy to explain how to do things in detail, without resorting to lengthy technical descriptions or spending too much time thinking about how to explain what I’m looking at. Sometimes it’s best to just show instead of tell.

Here’s my list:

VMWare Fusion

Even though I’m a Mac user, I have Windows XP and Windows 7 installed through VMWare Fusion, which runs them inside Mac OS X. This means they’re available when I need to use them to solve a problem that’s specific to those operating systems.

Link: VMWare Fusion

Adium

Adium is an instant message client that connects to my Google Talk, Facebook, and AIM accounts so I’m readily available to friends and family. Usually it’s for conversation, but when my help is needed to fix a problem, I’m there.

Link: Adium

Dropbox + GrabBox

I never use words when a screenshot will get the point across more clearly. GrabBox is a little menu bar item that uploads screenshots to Dropbox for me and copies the link to my clipboard, so I can paste it into an instant message and add a few words for context.

Links: Dropbox, GrabBox

Skype (Screen Sharing)

When I just want to demonstrate how to do something live and I don’t need to record it, I use Skype’s screen sharing tool to show the person on the other end what’s on my screen while I explain it. This also lets me answer questions about what I’m doing. It’s great for situations where I’m not exactly sure what the other person needs to know, but I’m confident I can figure it out with them.

Link: Skype

Quicktime Player (Screen Recording)

When I want to record a short video of how to do something, I usually use Quicktime Player’s built-in screen recording feature. Most people don’t know this feature exists, but you can find it by opening Quicktime Player and clicking on the File menu. When I’m done, I save the video to Dropobx, right-click it and copy the link, and paste it into an email or instant message.

Link: Quicktime Player (Mac OS X version only)

Screenflow

Screenflow is a full-featured screen recording tool for capturing and editing more complex screencasts. It can trim video clips, add call-outs, zoom, and record video from your desktop and webcam at the same time. When I’m done, I’ll either save it to Dropbox and share it from there, or upload it as a private video on YouTube and link to that.

Link: Screenflow

That’s my list. What’s on yours? If you’re using something that I should know about, shoot me an email – I’m always on the lookout for new and better tools.

What Support Can Be

Customer support isn’t just limited to fixing problem after problem as they roll in. It’s a complex ecosystem of problems, opportunities, and solutions that are all interconnected.

If we look for patterns and recurring problems in support requests, we can find parts of the product that could be better. We can help the team understand where small changes could make a feature easier to use or understand.

If we build more efficient (but still personal and friendly) processes for supporting customers, and find good ways to share those processes with with others, we’ll save time by not leaving other team members to reinvent the wheel on their own next time.

If we make an investment in writing great documentation and organizing it well, customers will teach themselves to use our products. When the only thing between the customer and the product is understanding it, support’s job is to educate.

If we listen in on the social channels where our customers share their thoughts and talk about their problems, they won’t feel like we’re not listening or that we don’t care. This isn’t Twitter for Twitter’s sake. It’s going out and meeting them where they are so they don’t have to go it alone.

Support can make the product better, teach new skills to others, market the product’s features, and show empathy for people who are just trying to get through their day. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys helping others, you can imagine ways to make support so much more than just putting out fires.

Six Reliable Thoughts

These have served me well so far. Maybe there’s something interesting here for you too.

  1. Start with nothing. Add only what is necessary.

  2. Write down everything you might care about.

  3. Judge ideas fairly, not quickly.

  4. Most bad ideas are just incomplete ideas. Save them for parts.

  5. Start and end projects liberally. Only continue down a path as long as the destination matters to you.

  6. Don’t solve made up problems. Don’t help people who do.

3D Printing is the new Desktop Publishing

Learning CAD to do inexpensive, independent 3D printing is going to become the new “learning word processing to do independent desktop publishing,” and it’s going to happen fast.

I think we’re currently in the “crappy dot matrix printer, paper with tear-off holes, monospaced fonts and abysmal clip art” stage of the 3D printing industry.

Or, for people starting to think about the possibilities, for whom experimenting with it isn’t prohibitively expensive anymore, the “well, it isn’t pretty, but I made it myself and I’m proud!” stage, which will eventually become the “wow, there’s demand for this? I see problems I can solve because I’ve been here long enough to notice it — I’m a pro at this!” stage.

Which means a lot more opportunities are about to come over the horizon, for people who can figure out which direction to look in.