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Tech Support Dilemmas

When I first began selling hardware to other vintage computer collectors, I never gave tech support much thought. I imagined I could design something, build it, sell it to somebody, and they’d happily go use it. End of story. Reality has proven different. Today I spend more time answering tech support questions from customers and potential customers than on any other aspect of the business. I get large amounts of mail, often with questions that are long and complex and need considerable time to answer properly. It’s a challenge for which I’ve yet to find any good solution.

A portion of the tech support is really sales support – questions about ordering and shipping. If you’ve been through the BMOW store in the past six months, you may have seen there’s a new person helping with these kinds of inquiries, which has been a huge help. But even after these are filtered out, the tech support load remains high.


Can I solve the tech support problem with more documentation? I’ve put a lot of time into the BMOW product documentation, particularly for the Floppy Emu. Every customer receives a printed one-page quickstart guide covering the basics, with a link to the full instruction manual on the web. Whenever the same question gets asked two or three times, I add the answer to the instructions or the quickstart. At least in theory, everything anyone would ever want to know should be covered in the documentation.

Yet I can’t escape the basic fact that there’s a lot of inherent complexity with these old computer systems and the products designed for them. In the case of the Floppy Emu, there’s a ton of ground to cover in the instructions between three different computer families, a dozen different drive emulation modes, different types of disk images, different operating systems, different ways of connecting to the computer, interactions with other drives, and much more.

The wall of documentation can be daunting. Even with the one-page quickstart that’s bundled in the box, it can be too much for some people. They throw up their hands and reach out to tech support (me) for assistance. In many cases I’m able to gently point people back to the relevant section of the manual: “It sounds like you may need to select a different disk emulation mode. Please see section 3.2 of the instruction manual for details.” But sometimes people get upset or offended if I refer them to the manual. I had one angry customer send me a video message in which he outright refused to read the instructions, insisting the he didn’t want to learn Computer Nerd 101 or get a history lesson in Apple computer models.

Whose Problem Is It?

A second challenge is simply identifying who or what is responsible when something doesn’t work as expected. The line between questions about BMOW hardware and questions about general usage of the Apple II or Macintosh is often blurry. For many customers, they’ve hauled an old computer out of their dusty attic, purchased a bit of BMOW hardware to run with it, and are using the machine for the first time in thirty years. If a questions arises, it will often come to me first, regardless of the source or the issue. I’ll get general questions about the Apple IIc, or about Macintosh System 7, or StuffIt. Some requests ask how to use particular software programs, or how to eject a disk, or reboot the computer. Much of this is now covered in the Floppy Emu instruction manual, since they’re common questions even if they’re not features of BMOW hardware.

What’s more puzzling are the questions about unrelated third-party products. If someone contacted me once with a BMOW tech support question and found my answer helpful, sometimes they’ll contact me again later even when their question has nothing to do with BMOW. I get a surprising number of tech support requests about the SCSI2SD. I’ve also had support requests asking about RAM upgrades, joysticks, and other peripherals. Sometimes I know the answer, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’ll decline to answer even if I know it, which makes me feel like a jerk, but I need to politely discourage this kind of tech support usage. Usually I’ll point people to another suggested information source instead.

This challenge isn’t limited to the Floppy Emu. The original Mac ROM-inator kit for the Mac 128K, Mac 512K, and Mac Plus was also a big source of general questions about classic Macintosh usage and problems. As a low-cost kit generating a high level of tech support, it just didn’t make sense, and this was one of the primary reasons the original ROM-inator kit was eventually discontinued.


I’m unsure how other small businesses solve this problem. Some of them may sell products that are so simple, they don’t need much tech support. Or their tech support is just weak, and they willingly suffer the reputational hit, choosing it as the least bad option compared to hours and hours of support time.

Documentation can always be improved, so that’s another area I can work on. I’m discovering that technical writing is a critical skill, and it’s not enough to simply have the necessary information in there somewhere – it needs to be presented clearly, and in a logical order. And even if the documentation is perfect, some people simply don’t want to read it.

Many companies now have support forums where customers answer questions from other customers, and the business itself is mostly or entirely absent from the conversation. This is certainly one way of reducing a company’s tech support requirements, but from my personal experience the customer experience is almost universally poor. Discussions often devolve into angry denouncements of the business, like “why isn’t (company) saying anything about this???” At worst, it can create the impression that customers have been cast out into the wilderness to fend for themselves. That’s not good.

I’ll keep searching for better solutions. Until then, I’m off to visit the tech support queue…

Read 4 comments and join the conversation 

4 Comments so far

  1. Micah Cowan - October 11th, 2021 12:07 pm

    I very much appreciate the IMO fairly thorough documentation you’ve made available from your website.

    What about setting up a community forum that has a tech support area? That way, users can potentially shoulder some of the burden by pitching in to answer others’ questions. On first contacts, you could just politely direct them to ask their question on the forum. More insistent folks, still with questions you’ve answered plenty before, you could refer them to the appropriate thread on the forum instead of painstakingly rephrasing/retyping the same old answer. Perhaps you could have a couple mods monitoring the forum, who could apprise you directly when there seems to be something that won’t get an easy answer there (as well as manage the spam and vitriol levels).

    Easiest might be to create a space on Reddit. It could be a general discussion forum, with special tags users are expected to use to indicate tech support requests. Or you could set a space up with PHPBB or something, and choose appropriate plugins for spam filtering and whatnot.

  2. Bill T. - October 11th, 2021 6:51 pm

    Plowing through a Forum for answers could also be off putting. A “how-to” page with specific question / answers may be a boon, and one that the “moderators” of the Forum could help to maintain.

    Eee-gads, I certainly hope I’ve not been a PITA to you Steve!

    All the best, Bill T.

  3. A2Heaven - October 12th, 2021 11:13 am

    It sounds very familiar to me too 😉

  4. groinksan - October 12th, 2021 10:07 pm

    I think the problem these days is not that they don’t RTFM or anything of the sort. The problem is that email is simply too easy to write and send. Which is why most companies do not have an email address you can use to communicate with them. Most of them will force upon you an online web form for you to fill out. This allows communications to the company, but gives the company more control of the situation. Another thing a web based form does is it somewhat forces the customer to re-think their situation before clicking the “send” button. Just be lucky that the customers are not SMS’ing you all day long on your smartphone.

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