Guest Column | March 5, 2019

Honing Your Remote Troubleshooting Skills

By Joshua Liberman, Net Sciences, Inc. and member of The ASCII Group since 1996

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One thing that nearly every IT professional will have to learn to master is remote support, whether “silently” (by means of RMM or web-based access), or by telephone. And learning to hone these remote troubleshooting skills should be at the top of your list. Let’s look at three aspects of remote service delivery you’ll need to master to get there.

Step One: Issue Identification

Some of my favorite support calls start out with “the system is down.”  While the emotion of the moment is clearly communicated, we don’t have very much to go on. The first step is to identify the issue at hand. Empathy and the ability to talk someone down off the ledge is important here.

I always use my “late night FM deejay” voice and let them know I am here to help. If they are not techies (as is likely), I get them to explain in nontechnical terms what is happening (or not happening). Asking the right questions often leads to finding out the issue they see is not the underlying one at all.

A failure to print over the network once led us to discover the server had no free space on the C: partition, and therefore could not create a print spooler file. And in the “system is down” issue what was really going on was the user misspelled the URL of their home page in Firefox.

Step Two: Start Simple

Now that you have a better idea what the issue is, it’s time to build an analytical framework to start chasing down the resolution. Sometimes you get lucky and the issue can be resolved with a quick “A/B test” that you can step the user through in minutes. And at other times you’ll struggle to identify the issue, much less start to control for variables and setup rule out testing.

But the first step is always to identify the “edges” of the problem and work from there. For example, if the call turns out to be an inability to reach a certain URL, you would start by verifying they have internet access. Pinging a numeric address first, then by hitting a known host name (for DNS resolution). Once we’ve established they can pass traffic and resolve names, we can go on to verify the URL is valid by trying it ourselves. Control for user and site variables and then work your way from “inside to outside” from there.

Step Three: The Harder Stuff

Most issues don’t get this far, but some will. If you have properly identified the issue and properly structured your initial easy tests, you are now either dealing with a bad assumption, a poor rule out test, or a complicated issue.

First, verify again you are working the right problem by asking similar questions and make sure the answers lead to the same conclusion. Next, check your own assumptions against this result and verify you’ve properly controlled the variables and performed the right tests.

Remember, controlling for variables until you can do a simple A/B test is the ideal. The more variables, the harder it is to build your fault tree and then execute on it. All along, remember to check and recheck the issue is what you believe it to be, your testing is well designed, and you are actually getting the right answers to your questions as you proceed through diagnosis.

Work the process (Identification, Simple, and then Harder Stuff) and you’ll find about two-thirds of resolutions come down to proper issue identification and two-thirds of the remainder get resolved after a quick A/B test or two. You will find only a small percent of issues will actually be more of a challenge to your analytical than communication skills.

About The Author

Joshua Liberman is president of Net Sciences and has been a member of The ASCII Group since 1996.

About The ASCII Group, Inc.

The ASCII Group is a vibrant reseller community of independent MSPs, VARs, and other solutions providers. Formed in 1984, ASCII has more than 70 programs that provide turnkey cost-cutting strategies, innovative business building programs, and extensive peer interaction. ASCII members enjoy benefits such as marketing support; educational information; group purchasing power; increased leverage in the marketplace; and multiple networking opportunities. These programs enable ASCII members to increase revenue, lower operating costs, and grow service opportunities. ASCII is the oldest and largest group of independent information technology (IT) solutions providers, integrators and value added resellers (VARs) in the world. Learn more at