1. When in doubt, reboot.
Before you consider an issue a real computer support problem and call your computer consultant, always reboot first. Exit out of whatever files and programs you're working on. Then run through a Shutdown and Restart sequence to reboot your PC.

If you suspect the problem involves something hardware-related, such as a network card, modem, mouse, keyboard or sound card, go one step further. Shutdown your PC. Turn the power off for a minute or so and then power your PC back up again.

2. Protect against viruses with a strong defense.
Adopt a strong defense to guard against expensive emergency computer support service calls for virus-related problems.

Make sure every PC, notebook, and server in your office is licensed for antivirus software, has antivirus software installed and properly configured -- and most importantly gets refreshed at least once every two to four weeks with up-to-date virus definitions, also known as signature files.

3. Take a hard line on unauthorized software installation.
Many end users in offices of all sizes mistakenly assume a personal computer (PC) is their personal asset and that they can install whatever software they like. However, since installing unauthorized software can lead to enormous piracy liability, virus infections, and major operating system and application instability, it's in your best interest to take a hard line with your staff and coworkers.

Make one person in your office in charge of installing and maintaining all software -- period. And while you're at it, have this same person keep all software diskettes, CD-ROMs, license agreements, and installation codes locked up.

4. Install power protection before you need it.
Are your computers ready for brownouts, blackouts, surges and sags? Do you have adequate surge protection measures in place? Do you have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) fully charged up, tested and ready to go? If you answered "Not Sure"or "No," you're certainly not alone. Your computer and phone systems may be a lot more vulnerable than you realize.

Make sure every piece of sensitive electronic equipment in your office has some kind of surge protection or battery backup power. Also, regularly test your uninterruptible power supply and monitor its related software log files.

5. Learn how to use your backup/restore software and tape drive before you have an emergency.
Don't wait until your CEO inadvertently deletes a folder of important Microsoft Excel files to learn about and test your backup/restore system. By then, you'll likely be in a panic and need an expensive computer consultant service call.

Set aside time to ask questions now and take good notes. Learn how to check if your automated backup routines are running properly and if data is making it onto the tape as expected. Be sure that you can handle any required manual backup and restore procedures. Also, add a recurring event to your electronic organizer or Microsoft Outlook calendar to test your tape backup system, at least once a month, to make sure you can successfully restore a group of files.

6. Schedule proactive maintenance well in advance and during normal business hours.
The best way to protect against emergencies is to prevent them in the first place. Don't procrastinate. Schedule your computer consultant to come in and run through basic proactive maintenance. If at all possible, have this done during normal business hours, to keep costs down and to let your computer consultant see end users in action.

Ask lots of questions and take good notes. If you believe that a picture is worth a thousand words, you may also want to capture screen shots of key configuration settings. If you're not watching over your computer consultant's shoulder at least 25% to 50% of the time, you're probably not getting maximum value out of the visit.

If your computer consultant refuses to share his or her knowledge with you, find another small-business computer consultant. Knowledge transfer is just too important to your company's success when it comes to technology.

7. Launch your Web browser to get solutions for common problems with software applications and operating systems.
For example, with popular Microsoft products like Microsoft Office and Microsoft Windows, you can search Microsoft's online Knowledge Base at http://support.microsoft.com.

This is roughly the same information that's used by both Microsoft support professionals and most computer consultants.

Many of the major hardware vendors, such as Dell Computer(http://support.dell.com), also have similar computer support resources available for their products.

8. Use built-in Help features in your software applications.
Don't overlook integrated Help functions available in most software applications.

For example, in the Microsoft Office family of applications, you can always reach the Office Assistant from the Help pull-down menu. In many cases, pressing the F1 key on the keyboard also launches a Help screen.

9. Visit a newsgroup for free advice.
For example, Microsoft has online newsgroups where you can post questions and get answers from peers and "official" volunteers (called Microsoft MVPs). Find out about available Microsoft newsgroups at http://support.microsoft.com.

Again, many of the major hardware vendors also have similar newsgroup resources available.

10. Take notes, lots of them!
Chances are, whatever computer support problems and resolutions you tackle this week will be relevant at some point down the road.

Logging computer support problems also gives you a great paper trail for documenting your most common computer support issues and challenges. In addition, the logs become a great tool for planning training programs and resolving vendordisputes.

The Bottom Line

It's great to have a local computer consultant who can take care of all of your IT needs. However, don't waste your precious IT budget on the easy stuff; you can handle yourself. Conserve your technology budget for high-end projects that command professional expertise (firewalls, routers, database development, etc.). Use these 10 tips to plan how you can lower your computer support bills.

Joshua Feinberg (joshua@smallbiztechtalk.com) helps small businesses save moneyon computer support costs. His latest book, What Your Computer Consultant Doesn't Want You to Know ($19.99, Small Biz Tech Talk Press), exposes 101 money-savingsecrets of expensive techies. To order Joshua's new book, visit http://www.SmallBizTechTalk.com or call 866-TECH-EXPERT (866-832-4397).

© Copyright 2003, Joshua Feinberg Small Biz Tech Talk is a registered trademark of KISTech