Are You Getting The Right Tech Support for Your Smart Home?

Who you gonna call?
When something goes wrong with your Smart Home, who are you going call?  If you’re like most of us, you are probably spoiled by the reliability of modern computers, smartphones, and tablets.  When we have a problem, assistance is only a phone call away or a quick trip to the Genius Bar at the nearest mall.

I can still remember the days when turning on a PC was the high tech equivalent of Russian Roulette – will it turn on?  Will it boot up?  Will it get stuck somewhere before the final system prompt is on the screen?

Thankfully those days are behind us.  The reliability of computers and electronics has improved greatly.  In the rare case where something doesn’t work, the low prices often make it cheaper to simply throw it away and buy a new gadget instead of having it repaired.  (That may partially explain why many of the neighborhood pc repair shops have closed up.)

When it comes to your Smart Home, we are not so lucky.  With so many new gadgets, systems, and companies, tech support can still be a real issue.  In fact, getting proper support for your home automation system requires your attention before your purchase any products or hire a professional to help.  Here’s a few tips to guide you to avoid many common pitfalls.

At Your Service
When choosing products for your Smart Home, look carefully at the support policies.  How do you contact them?  Can you call them on the telephone and speak to a live person?  If you are only allowed to contact them electronically, how easy is it?  Must you use their special website form and answer a slew of questions before they even allow you to send an inquiry?

Check their website or installation manual for details on their support policy.  Pay particular attention to their hours of operation.  If they only offer support during business hours, is it 9 to 5 in their time zone or yours?  What happens during evening and weekends?  Many DIY home automation projects are done at night or during the weekend to avoid disturbing the rest of the members of the household.

Be savvy when you are doing your research.  Don’t fall for the “we offer support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” pitch only to find out later they meant you can submit a request via email, 24 hours  day, but you won’t get a response until “the next business day”.  If you run into an installation problem at 3 pm on a Saturday, are you going to have to wait until Monday morning to get a response?

Do you have to supply serial numbers, order numbers, or sales receipts to get support?  Some companies will accept support questions from anyone.  Other companies are very strict and require proof-of-purchase and special product and model numbers so make sure you keep all that information handy and available.

Products or Services – Are You On The Hook?
Make sure you understand whether you are buying a product or a service, or both.  Many Smart Home products require an ongoing service to operate.  The most obvious example is a security camera.  These products typically require a paid service to store the video footage in a cloud storage system and charge a monthly fee.  If the company goes out of business and the service is no longer available, the product may not work at all.  Unlike your computer, many Home Automation products may need an Internet or cloud service connection just to turn on or login!

Don’t be fooled into thinking you are fine if you are not paying for a service.  Just because there is no monthly charge, doesn’t mean the product isn’t reliant on a service from the manufacturer.  Many Home Automation products offer a remote access or remote control ability to manipulate the device when you are not at your house.  These features rely on Internet/cloud services even though they are free.

Here’s the deal – it is expensive to operate Internet servers and cloud services.  Computer equipment, bandwidth, engineers and managers to supervise the operations are all real expenses.  Many startups and emerging companies (like that exciting product you just supported on Kickstarter or Indiegogo), grossly underestimate, or even ignore, the cost of providing the ongoing service for their products.  You might get a great deal on that shiny new gadget, but if the company goes out of business in six months, was it really a good choice?

Bait and Switch!
Unfortunately, in the past few months several popular home automation products have seen the manufacturer take away features that were free and require monthly subscriptions if you want to keep them.  Without warning, the product is not usable unless you start paying a monthly fee.  These so-called “bait and switch” deals are certainly unethical and might even be illegal.  Since small companies have very little assets, lawsuits are of little value.  Choosing products from large, established companies does provide protection against these kinds of tactics.  Large companies have lots of assets which they do not want to put at risk with this kind of customer dis-service and they are a bigger target for class-action lawsuits.

Test Support Ahead of Time
This may be a little controversial, but I always suggest that before you buy a product, create an excuse to contact support first.  Send them a request with a simple question to test their system.  See how long it takes them to acknowledge, process, and respond to your request.  If they offer telephone support, call them on the phone and speak with someone.  It is much easier to do this in advance, before you really need their help, then to call them when you are in dire need of assistance only to get voicemail or be placed on hold for 2 hours.

Problem Solving On Your Own
Troubleshooting technical problems requires a lot of skill, specialized training, and patience.  I can’t teach you very much in the scope of this article, but I can give you a few tips that might help.  Think logically – computers and technology are devices, not people.  They do not have emotions or superstitions.  If something doesn’t work only on a Wednesday or in the evening, there must be a logical explanation.

The most important first step is to determine the exact sequence of events that causes the problem to occur.  If you can describe the steps exactly and replicate the problem, you are already more than halfway done.  Tracking down random, unpredictable issues is the most difficult part of troubleshooting.  The more “moving parts” – computers, networks, devices, cables, accessories that are involved, the more complicated this can be but this is key to solving the problem.

Use a logical process of elimination.  Carefully and methodically change one thing at a time.  If you are not getting sound from an audio device, don’t adjust settings, reboot your computer, and change the audio cables – all at the same time.  Change one setting, one device, or one cable and then re-test.  Only through the controlled process of elimination can you isolate the problem so you can focus on the actual cause.

This is harder than it sounds – our natural inclination is to fiddle around quickly, changing a few things, and then hope for the best.  Without realizing it, you can easily waste 30 minutes or even several hours with a haphazard approach.

Worse, since you haven’t followed a logical path or plan, when you finally realize the problem isn’t going to identified and fixed by random actions, you’ll be starting at the beginning in trying a step-by-step, one-thing-at-a-time more disciplined method.

Determine the smallest building block that is worth analyzing.  The majority of your troubleshooting effort should focus on finding the malfunctioning or mis-configured device or module.  Long gone are the days of using a soldering iron to replace individual transistors or other electronic components.

Ideally, if the suspected problem is with a common element (a cable, a computer, one of several identical devices), once you identify the suspect you can replace with another identical one and re-test to verify that you have found the problem.  Then follow-up with the manufacture to repair or replace the defective product.

Build Up Your Own ToolKit
Are you comfortable with hardware, software or both?  If you are going to be doing a lot of DIY home automation projects, build up a toolkit of the more common tools and materials you might need to diagnose problems.  For example, to diagnose Wi-Fi networks, you’ll want specialized software programs that can scan your network and identify connected devices, measure the Wi-Fi signal strength (might need h/w too), or run continuous data transfer tests between devices to identify bandwidth or placement issues.

For general purpose hardware such as computers, smartphones, and tablets, you’ll want to have  good selection of interface cables, power cords, and data cables including USB, serial port, HDMI adapters or other “dongles”. Don’t forget a handful of flash memory drives for temporary storage and transfer and one more external hard drives for system backups and recovery partitions.  If you are comfortable opening computers or other devices, you’ll certainly need a special set of tools to properly remove the screws, fasteners, and seals used.

For cable/satellite TV, Ethernet networking, or telephone systems you may wish to have the appropriate tools for crimping/terminating the ends of cables and otherwise fixing or repairing the physical connectors and connections.

Be Kind
I do want to encourage you to be polite to your support rep.  Remember they are in a tough position having to field calls or emails from people with a problem 8 hours a day.  Often they are only an intermediary and their ability to help you rests mainly with the information and tools their company provides them.  They may have good intentions and a great personality but still be limited by bureaucracy.

If your problem requires them to bend the rules ( perhaps you have a product that is just outside the warranty period or needs a replacement part that normally isn’t free), you’ll get better results with kindness than anger – “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar”.

do you think do your own tech support?  Let me know what you think.


Automation technologist and problem solver

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