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If your computer is out of warranty and it breaks down on you, is your first inclination to ditch it and just buy a new computer? Or, are you the kind of person that considers repairing it? Unfortunately, lots of people don’t want to deal with the hassle or cost of trying to repair their failing machine, so they toss it in the dumpster. Little do they realize that finding the right computer technician could lead to a simple, inexpensive fix and a computer that’s like new again.

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These days, finding a high quality computer repair person is rather easy. In fact, many families have their own number of self-described computer-experts who are more than capable of doing computer repairs, and doing them well. I don’t say this to be facetious, I actually mean it. However, what separates these experts from the ones you actually want working on your computer are three important things — experience, support, and documentation.

If you know the right questions to ask, you can easily weed out the fly-by-night computer repair folks from the ones that actually mean business.

Qualifications and Credentials

There are many types of computer certifications out there. Some are relevant to computer repair, and others not so much.  The problem with certifications in the computer repair industry is that most of the well-respected certifications are vendor-specific. For example, Microsoft offers certification programs for its products, but that doesn’t do much good for other operating systems. It also gets outdated quickly, as Microsoft products get upgraded. Oracle has certifications. Dell, IBM, Cisco and many others offer their own as well.

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CompTIA is one well-known organization that is one of the few vendor-neutral certification companies. While CompTIA is a legitimate certificate, the company is still in it to make money. They are seeking to earn new members and member fees, so there could be a feeling that you are just paying for a certification that may or may not be up to the educational standards you’d find at a college or university. That isn’t to say that a CompTIA certification isn’t valid, it’s just not the same as a person with a four year IT degree. However, people with four year IT degrees are not usually running independent PC repair companies.

The bottom line here is that you should ask if the person has a college degree related to computers. If they don’t — or if they reply that they have some kind of “certification” — that’s fine, just make a note of what the certification is and move on to the next question. You can always look up the legitimacy of the certification later.

Experience and References

The next question is how much experience the technician has and how good are they at what they do? The question could be framed along the lines of how long they’ve been repairing computers for a living, and also if they can provide customer references. Most technicians have references already set aside — customers that they get along with well and are more than happy to give them glowing recommendations. The point here is to just find out how long they’ve been repairing computers, and one or two customer names.

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Don’t drop it there. Actually call those references and ask them what kind of repairs the technician has done for them, how long it typically takes the technician to do repairs, and if the person feels that their rates are reasonable. Even a glowing review from a favorite customer can let slip details that may reveal some surprises about how the person runs their business. Keep a lookout for those things.

Remember, this may feel like a hassle right now, but you only need to ask these questions once, at the beginning of your relationship with the technician. Once you’ve completed this process, you’re done because you can return to this person again and again for repairs.

Technician’s Specialty

As I mentioned earlier, Microsoft offers their own library of certifications. Well, in much the same way, so does Apple in the form of Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) or Apple Certified Technical Coordinator (ACTC). These mean the person has basic support skills to help you out with a Mac. In the same way, CompTIA offers a Linux certification, or technicians can get an LPI certification from the Linux Professional Institute. Beyond OS, there are also technicians that are just better equipped and more knowledgeable to deal with certain brands of computers, even if they are focused on Windows machines.

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For example, a technician may have worked with Dell computers for so many years that simply from the description of the computer problem, he or she can immediately tell you that the most likely cause is a burst capacitor on the motherboard. Different PC manufacturers have quality issues through the years, and technicians with a lot of experience simply learn about those issues from having to fix so many common problems. You just have to ask if they specialize in certain computer brands. Ask if they have partnerships or good working relationships with certain vendors.  Just say you’re shopping around for a computer support person you can return to regularly for computer help.

Ask for Rates and Demand Maximum Cost Limits

Now that you know the technician has appropriate credentials or training and experience with your make and model of computer, the next step is to talk money. This is a tough topic in the PC support field, because in all fairness to technicians, people really try to take advantage of them. Family members beg for free computer support. People pay a fixed fee for a repair, and then expect a lifetime of free tech support afterwards. So yes, PC techs an be offended if lowballed.

On the flip side, there are some unscrupulous PC repair folks that take advantage of the fact that many people know zero about computers. They’ll charge an hourly rate, and then claim that a 15 minute job, like a System Recovery, actually took much longer than it did. Not knowing any better, people pay it.

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There are sites out there that claim a certain hourly range is fair. Other people in the industry feel that only flat fees per service is fair. My feeling, having dabbled in being a PC support person for a few clients, is this; any PC problem has symptoms that hint at a potential cause — whether that’s a hard drive, motherboard, display, power supply, or whatever. It usually doesn’t take much longer than an hour to figure that out, and since most places require a 1-hour minimum charge, you can simply ask the PC tech if they can spend no more than one hour troubleshooting before reporting back to you as to whether it’ll take more time and cost more money.

The hourly rate could be anywhere from $20 to $50 or even $70 in some cases, but a lot depends on location and local demand for the services. Regardless of the cost, simply request the max diagnostic time, and if they refuse — go elsewhere.

How Data Protection is Handled

These days, backing up important data is one of the first things any technician worth their salt should do before attempting repairs. This process is a way for the technician to get your computer back to the state it was in when you last used it. This is just a safe thing to do, and it’s a smart thing to do. The process usually includes:

1. Backing up critical documents, like financial records or priceless family photos, onto a USB stick or external hard drive.
2. Creating a restore point using the tools available in the operating systems.
3. Copying profile folders, including documents, internet history and bookmarks and other personal settings onto the USB stick or hard drive.

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So, an excellent way to judge whether this technician is one that you should allow to mess with your computer is to ask a simple question: What is their preliminary backup procedure?

If they look at you with a blank stare, walk away.

How Does The Technician Track Changes Made?

Another behavior that separates the professionals from the amateurs is documentation. Fly-by-night computer repair folks are usually very, very bad at tracking every change they attempt to make on a computer to fix it. This may often lead to a repaired computer, but at the same time there are a few dozen changes made throughout the control panel that you are completely unaware of once you get your computer back.

It’s your computer, and you’ve set things up in a way that makes sense to you, and works for you — so if a technician decides to change things around, like elevated security settings, enabling or disabling Windows updates or the firewall, you really need to know. Otherwise you’ll start seeing odd behavior and you won’t know what’s going on.

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Therefore, the question to ask here is simple…how are changes tracked? Do they provide a full report at the end of the repair that details all of the changes made, hardware installed or any other modifications to the system? The answer here should be an immediate yes, and they may even show you a sample report (or a format) that they’ve printed for previous clients, so that you know what to expect at the end.

This one issue alone is a defining characteristic of an excellent technician. If they’re good with keeping organized, detailed documentation of the work they do, the odds are pretty good that they really know what they’re doing.

Follow-up Support and Guarantees

The final issue is important in that you need to know how much confident the technician has in his or her own work. It is reasonable to expect that a technician will be available for phone calls, or even follow-up visits, if there are lingering problems that crop up after the repair. Otherwise, the problem wasn’t really repaired, it only went away temporarily.

So, ask the tech if they guarantee repairs for a certain number of days. Ask what kind of follow-up support you can expect if the problem comes back within that time frame — is it okay to call, or do you have to bring the computer back into the shop again? Is the tech willing to do in-home follow-up service instead? These are the kind of questions you need to ask before you have problems following a repair, not after. Once you get a satisfactory answer, ask that all agreements you discussed should be put down in writing prior to the start of repairs.

Remember, you paid a fair amount for your computer, and you deserve to know what to expect when you entrust your hardware into another person’s hands. Even more importantly, you need to have assurances that the repair won’t end up costing more than it would cost to simply go out and buy a new computer.

If you’ve asked the right questions, you have a solid rate quote and all agreements and guarantees in writing, you can leave your computer with the tech without any worries. Your computer will be repaired, you’ll pay a fair rate, and you can rest assured that if the problem comes back a few days after the repair, you won’t be left hanging with the same problem but with a lighter wallet.

Have you ever had to have your computer repaired? Do you have any horror stories? What other questions do you suggest people ask the tech before entrusting a computer into their hands? Share your own insights in the comments section below!

Image Credits: Man Repair Computer via Shutterstock, Award Certificate via Shutterstock, TonyV3112 / Shutterstock.com, Flying Bills via Shutterstock, Data Protection via Shutterstock, Employee taking notes via Shutterstock

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