Good Practices in Troubleshooting

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Will Durant

The reason we say good practices and not best practices, is because best implicitly says that there is no better way. Best says it is the ultimate. However, in a realm like troubleshooting, there are always ways of improving on what is being done today and analyze whether these same methods will be used in a few years from now. Best also means that we have stopped looking beyond and not spending time trying to improve. Troubleshooting is almost like a science based on observation, rationalizing and calculating before arriving at a solution and that is why it is ever evolving and so the term good practices. Troubleshooting is challenging and each problem throws up a new challenge that would need a different and new approach to be resolved. It is about evolving, constantly changing and learning new ways to master this skill. Saying best will not lead us towards excellence that itself is constantly transforming and being refined.

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Skills as we know can be learned through consistent and focused training. Anyone who has the willingness to learn or is curious to know with an analytical and logical mindset can be great at troubleshooting. Understanding and following some of the good practices in troubleshooting can help anyone troubleshoot problems in any realm. Troubleshooting can be divided in to two broad sections – generating a premise for the cause of problem and evaluating that premise. Simply put it means creating a list, of potential causes for the issue based on the apparent signs and then a testing to see whether any of the identified potential causes was actually the problem.
A basic understanding of the equipment or system that you are trying to troubleshoot is a good start. If you know how the thing functions and what it is supposed to do, you would be able to tell when there is a change that is causing disruptions and not allowing the normal functioning. This allows the person, who is troubleshooting, to make a quick analysis and list out the potential causes of the problem. The better you know the equipment or system, the easier and smoother this step would be. Whatever the approach, it should methodical, based on observation and well thought out.

Before actually going about resolving the problem, it is important to identify it. In most cases, customers are unable to troubleshoot any equipment or system that is extremely technical in nature. The customer service technical staff that undertakes the troubleshooting must first seek answers from the user as to the sequence of events that led to the failure and what the error message was before breakdown. The questions posed must be free from jargon and easy to understand by a user who may not be technically proficient. While asking the questions remember to ask the user if there was anything specific that they did just before the problem occurred. It is possible that the user could have caused the failure. However, as part of great customer service and good practices in troubleshooting, the staff must never say this directly to the user or customer.

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Once the information has been collected regarding the extent of the problem, it will be easier to breakdown the problem into parts for easier resolution. The answers provided by the user might be useful as a starting point, but will not provide an in-depth understanding of the problem. As part of good practices in troubleshooting, digging deeper would help to identify the problem.

– Ask if some changes were made by the user either in the system or equipment. It is possible that the system or equipment fell or there was some other extraneous reason that led to the current problem. Asking such questions in a non-judgemental and calm manner will lead the user to trust you and provide clear and honest answers.

– Breaking down the problem in to segments will provide a clear picture of what could be the causes. It is a known fact that looking at something that seems huge and incomprehensible can be daunting and more difficult to approach. However, when each part is seen as a smaller whole, it becomes easier to work at it and summarize the issues. For example if you are sick and visit a doctor, you might just say that you feel unwell. The doctor however, will break that down by asking you what exactly you are feeling – a sore throat, feverish, pain in the body – and arrives at what the potential reason for feeling unwell is.

– After preparing a list of potential problems, it would be prudent to prioritize the problems in order of criticality and needing immediate resolution. For example: if the computer system has indicated many problems and a corrupted hard drive is one of them, the first problem to tackle would be reinstalling the hard drive. For a doctor, before providing a cure for a cough, should treat the causes of high fever. Troubleshooting is about fixing the problems starting from the most crucial down to the least. This can be practiced in everyday life too.

– After breaking down the larger problem and prioritizing them, the next step in troubleshooting is to analyze the problem and ascertain possible causes. This defines the scope of the problem allowing the troubleshooter to run some preliminary tests in an effort to narrow down the possible reasons. As an example: if the printer is not printing but spewing out blank sheets, then you know that the power cable is plugged in and is receiving power. You then know that it could either a toner or a color cartridge problem. Similarly, if you have a sore throat and tell the doctor that you did not eat anything to cause, he can narrow down the cause to a bacterial infection in the throat or an infection in the respiratory tract.

Place all the narrowed down problems in a sequential manner by writing them down. Start at a general level – for instance if an equipment is not working check that the power supply is there, is adequate, the power connectors, chords and plugs are working fine, the power switch is turned on and working fine. Once these are out of the way, check for the next problem in the sequence. By eliminating the problems this way, the person troubleshooting would make it easier to resolve the problem at hand. As good practices in troubleshooting this approach is known as the linear or layered approach. It follows a chain of events and causes, moving from one end or layer to the next, eliminating events that are not the cause of the problem.

After arriving at a more focused list of problems, make a quick check of all the problems that have been eliminated and see if there are any others that can be eliminated. If the problem requiring troubleshooting is in a computer system or equipment which could need a back-up of the data, ensure that this back up is first taken. Also take a separate back-up of the files or settings or software that needs to be worked on.

Now that you have the portion of potential problems systematically organized, make a thorough study of the potential resolutions or fixes for each of those problems. There could be more than one possible solution for one problem. Identify and segregate the most obvious solutions and discount the others. From the list of potential solutions, prioritize the best suited and most workable solution to ensure that the problem is fixed for good and the chances of a re-occurrence are minimal. There could be times where a problem and or its solution is more complicated than what it first seemed to be and it would be wise to seek help from other colleagues or check-up other resources for information. There are always better options and advice available if you look hard enough.

After putting to use the most plausible solution, check that it is working fine and the system or equipment is up and running as before. Once the results are satisfactory, ensure that you document the process followed starting from the evaluation of problems to the end result. This will serve as an invaluable database for you and or someone else in the future.

One of the good practices in troubleshooting within the customer service realm is reaching out and walking the extra mile to ensure that the customer is more than just happy. After the problem is resolved, make a quick check on what else can be done to ensure that the same problem does not surface nor does any other problem cause inconvenience to your customer. Checking back with the customer after some time has elapsed, tells the customer that they can trust you and this builds loyalty and your customer will look to you in the future too.

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