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I run a small B2B IT business, but I don't get involved with home computers much. My customers sometimes ask me about fixing their home PC and I don't do that kind of work, but it would be handy to be able to make a referral and to give them recommendations on how to find a competent repair shop.

So that got me thinking, what would be useful is a "Joel Test" for computer repair shops, a few questions that you could go in with and ask them, and depending on their answers you'd know if they had any clue what they were doing.

So what I'm interested in here is this: what are some questions you could ask a repair technician or shop owner, that might help determine, in advance, whether they are likely to do a reasonable job? Are there any warning signs to look out for (certain things they might say that should ring alarm bells)?

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6 Answers 6

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I think the answer to this question depends on your own experience level.

I've found that I actually know more than most of the folks who populate the GeekSquads of this world, and so I usually ask them tough questions, and see if they can answer them on an intelligent level. Blank stares -> horrible technicians.

But I think a good broad way of gauging it is to see whether or not they can explain, to you, what they are doing. This, I think, is critical. If they can't explain to you what they are doing to fix your computer, either they are really bad at teaching things or they don't know what they are doing, in which case stay away. If they can explain it, and explain it correctly or in a way that makes sense to you, I'd say your'e looking at a good shop to the best of your experience. That same advice applies to finding a car mechanic, too. Either the tech knows their stuff or they don't. Look for BS. Its that way anywhere you go. Friendliness is also huge here too.

When I used to work at an IT help desk in college, I would always spend time explaining to the user what was wrong, how I fixed it, and stuff like that at a level they would understand. If the problem occurred from user error, I would usually explain to them the situation and how to avoid it in the future. They were usually very appreciative, and I look for the same teaching-attitude in my technicians.

YMMV

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Interestingly, I find that computer techs tend to like to show off by spouting off a lot of technical terms to sound smart and confuse you to prove they deserve the pay. Mechanics on the other hand, tend to say as little as they can, almost as though they don’t want to share the knowledge and horde it, lest you not need them anymore (especially if the problem is something you could DYI). –  Synetech May 25 '11 at 19:03
  • Is reinstalling the OS your first port of call or your last?
  • Do you have a bootable media (USB stick, DVD, CD) with required system tools for the three major OSes - Windows, Mac, Linux
  • Do you use Live Linux distros?
  • Can you VNC/remote login into my computer to help? What tools do you use to do that?
  • Can you assemble a PC if I gave you the required components bought off the shelf?
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2  
+1, but I don't know about the 1st point: Re-installing the OS is the right way to handle a virus/malware infection. For just about anything else you ought to know how to fix the system. –  Joel Coehoorn Aug 20 '09 at 16:03
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Agreed. But I know a lot of "me too" shops where the standard answer to any issue is automatically a fresh install, "so that everything is as good as brand new!" –  Ramesh Aug 20 '09 at 16:10
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Linux is mostly enthusiast-only. It's economically marginal for local PC shops to train themselves and their employees in it. –  hyperslug Aug 20 '09 at 16:24
    
+1 for assemble PC's and remote login, very practical. And bonus points to the repair shop if they answer "Fogcreek Copilot"! –  hyperslug Aug 20 '09 at 16:26
    
I like these questions but they are a little bit too leading; they hint at the right answer. –  briealeida Nov 22 '09 at 1:34

Do you keep a log of everything you do when working on a pc, and can I see that log when the job is done?

Personally, when I used to work for a shop like this my first step was always to take an image the drive. I didn't keep the image: it was there so I could restore in case I did something dumb. I think this is an important step, but I'm not sure how to turn it into a simple question.

My other question is what kind of spares they keep: power supplies, ram, hard drives, and optical drives are all pretty generic and all failure prone. But if I see a lot of motherboards, processors, or add-on cards I'd be worried the shop would try to sell me parts to repair a computer that I'd be better off just replacing.

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good, practical questions –  J. Polfer Aug 20 '09 at 17:42
    
"Do you keep a log of everything you do when working on a pc, and can I see that log when the job is done?" that's asking a bit much, 'cos how much detail do you want in the log.. they may try things that don't work and then try something else.. and they may just charge on what worked, or possibly for their time on things that didn't work. 'cos a treatment is a treatment, and part of the diagnosis. "what kind of spares they keep".. they've got to keep spare parts for diagnosis. Ultimately they should tell the customer what worked and what they're charging the customer for. –  barlop May 25 '11 at 18:30
    
and if it's a technical customer that isn't a dick, then they might be kind and trusting enough to say what didn't work, but it's probably a bad move to do that. better to tell them what doesn't work..(and not from the current experience! but from just "knowledge"!) –  barlop May 25 '11 at 18:31

These are just some ideas that come to my mind:

  • Could you describe how you troubleshoot various user problems, which are general questions that should be easy to answer though guidance may help:
    • Do you ask the user many questions besides, "What goes wrong?"
    • Do you document the configuration of the system at all?
    • Do users have to bring their backup disks for things like an OS or applications they have added in case of a reinstall?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • Do you ask before deleting files off of a user's computer?
  • Do you do backups of the hard drives before wiping them?
  • How soon do you update someone after they drop off a system? Do you provide multiple options for a solution to the problem?

Other things to do:

  • See if there are any BBB complaints
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I'd stick to a couple quick practical questions, and avoid in-depth interview style quizzes.

  • "If I accidentally forgot the admin password on my BIOS, how do I get into my computer?"
  • "About how much would a 1TB drive cost?" (to see if they are up to speed on current technology or competitive in pricing)
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There's no reliable way somebody that cannot fix a computer, can go to a repair shop and reliably see who knows their stuff and who doesn't. They could ask a question If the person asking doesn't really understand things and they probably don't, then they won't know if the person repairing knows their stuff. But even so.. The shop is in business, so that suggests they can fix the things. It's not rocket science. One person may find a better solution than another, but they all get there in the end. As long as the customer is ok with the possible charge.

A computer techie that frequents forums often has pretty good technical communication skills and can probably go in and see pretty fast. But that's not from asking special questions, that's from having the knowledge to spot bullshit, or to see logic being used.

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