Bytes and Beyond
Helping from home: Handling remote support
"Hey, sorry to bother you, but you know so much about computers. I have this problem ..." If this is the start of a phone call by a friend or family member, it usually means they are in real trouble. Good thing there are such things as remote support tools – they save you the hassle of a half-hour drive to fix what may be a trivial problem.
There are about a dozen remote access tools for Windows on the market. Among the free choices, the best choices are TeamViewer, AnyDesk and miscellaneous Virtual Network Computing (VNC) clients, UltraVNC being the most popular among the latter.
If you are already used to a particular remote access tool, it's probably best to stick with it. VNC software can be a problem to set up with less-experienced users because of NAT issues with routers between the two computers.
AnyDesk and TeamViewer are pretty much foolproof and perfectly suited for the purposes described here. In both applications, the helpee shares a numerical code with the helper. The helper uses this code to connect to the target machine. From that point on, the helper can see and control the other partner's desktop. But getting to that point can be a challenge of its own.
Advice for people receiving help
Most of this blog entry will cover the remote help process from the point of view of the helper. Before diving in, however, I'd like to give some words of advice for users receiving remote help.
The person accessing your computer over a remote connection will have access to everything you have on your computer: photos, files, applications, the icons on your desktop. Be sure the person you're granting remote access to is trustworthy. (If anybody calls you up from "Microsoft support" and offers to remotely "fix" a problem on your computer, say no thanks and hang up. It's a scam.)
Even if the person who is helping you is trustworthy, you might want to do a little house-cleaning before starting a remote-access session. Check whether your desktop and your document folders expose sensitive information you do not want to share. This ranges from documents titled "Birthday present ideas for XXX" to material of a private or confidential nature, such as bank account data. Also: If your desktop wallpaper is Burt Reynolds spread nude on a bearskin rug, you might want to change that before granting remote access. Additionally, you might want to check your calendar. The 70's have called and want their centerfold back.
I usually recommend to people to place their confidential data in a folder titled "You can't touch this" and to keep an eye on things to make sure this folder stays closed. Helpers may need to open your e-mail application or your browser – if you can, make sure to limit compromising information displayed here as well. It's a good idea to clean your browser history before allowing remote access – unless, of course, you need support for browser issues.
Once the remote-access session is in progress, be ready and courteous. Try to stay out of the way of the helper's actions, but be sure to voice objections if they seem to be doing something you think they shouldn't. (If things go very wrong, consider cutting the connection.) Do observe what's going on, but don't slow down the process with too many questions. Some things can only be done directly, therefore the helper may ask you to help out restarting the computer or reconnecting the remote access.
Don't get impatient even when things look boring. Keep in mind that somebody is currently doing you a favor for which an IT support professional might charge a lot of money. Be thankful and offer something in return: a book, a meal, a movie or perhaps some flowers.
Try not to expect too much: Some things can't be resolved through a remote connection, but at least you will learn more about the nature of your problem. Once the issue has been resolved, try not to ask for additional things. If you ask, you need to accept if your helper should decline further help.
Yes, all this advice is based on years (and years) of experience. The stories I could tell... but won't. Don't worry, Auntie Em.
First steps in remote assistance
For the purposes of this article, AnyDesk and TeamViewer essentially fulfill the same function. Still, there are some differences in the way they connect the person seeking help with the helper.
AnyDesk provides a single download. When the application is launched, it generates a nine-digit "address". The user asking for help gives their address to the helper who enters the code into the "Remote Desk" input field and clicks on "Connect". Once other user confirms the connection, their desktop is shared with the helper. When the connection is cut, AnyDesk asks whether the user would like to install the application permanently.
TeamViewer uses a slightly different approach. The download page offers both a standard version, a "QuickSupport" module and a portable version. The QuickSupport module is specifically designed for users who require help and simply displays a ten-digit ID and a short, alphanumeric password. The standard version offers several installation options – if you are asked on the phone what to answer to "How do you want to proceed?", the other party has downloaded the wrong file.
Advice for helpers
Sometimes the person requiring your help will not be able to launch the remote administration software on their own. This means you will have to instruct them over the phone on how to download the application. Take small steps and follow every step on your own computer to make sure you aren't skipping something essential.
On occasion, I've had to explain how to type an URL into the address bar of the browser. Request feedback after every step to make sure the person requiring help is actually downloading the correct application and not falling for some phishing scheme. Describe the web page you're seeing and ask whether that's what the other party is looking at. Surprisingly often, that will not be the case ("I see Google"). Breathe out and be patient.
Instruct the other party clearly on which link to click – in the case of TeamViewer, this currently (January 2020) involves clicking on a left-sided hamburger menu, choosing 'Download' and then scrolling down to "Immediate assistance: TeamViewer QuickSupport." Then indicate how to open the download folder, run the application and handle the Windows UAC prompt ("Do you want to allow this app to make changes to your device?"). Depending on who you are talking to, you might want to make sure that they have double-clicked on the right application before proceeding: "What name is listed as the verified publisher of the application?"
The phantom cursor
First-time remote supporters often stumble across an initial moment of awkwardness where the mouse cursor moves in unexpected directions or clicks do unintended things. This is hardly ever caused by gremlins. The far more common cause is that both parties are moving the mouse or typing at the same time. Quite often, the other party isn't even aware of doing it: An elbow accidentally touches the mouse, an impatiently tapping finger keeps hitting the Ctrl key.
A dear, yet overly eager aunt of mine insisted on trying to anticipate the next move and kept clicking on buttons she shouldn't have. Instead of her speeding up the process, we spent more than half an hour troubleshooting why things weren't going the way they should have. The reason was that she kept clicking on things, with the best of intentions and the worst of results.
After running into this problem a couple of times, I have established a routine of asking the other party to please remove their hands from the mouse and keyboard before I would proceed.
It turns out the main issue in remote-desktop assistance is to get the person on the other end to do precisely what you are asking them to do and nothing more. There are diplomatic and undiplomatic ways to accomplish this. Before starting to direct them to the download page for the remote access tool, try to explain the situation to them: You can only start helping once the connection has been established.
Sometimes, diplomacy fails miserably. In this case, don't hesitate in switching to a more direct approach. If the other party's questions are too distracting, tell them that the questions are impairing your work. If they repeatedly do not follow instructions, you might want to mention how your time is limited ("I have an appointment at six").
Keep in mind: You're doing the other party a favor, usually with nothing but gratitude as your reward. If the other party becomes too much of a hindrance, save yourself unnecessary aggravation and refer them to a professional IT support technician. Try to be polite about it: "I don't think I can solve this problem for you. You should check with a local IT support shop."
That being said, remote helpers should always remember that courtesy is the first order of the day. In all likelihood you are helping a good friend or a family member or a good friend's mother or your dentist's uncle – somebody you want to continue to get along with.
Remain patient with your patient
Before starting a remote session, it helps to gather as much information as possible. "My computer isn't working" can mean anything from a configuration switch to hard drive failure. The more specific the error description, the better you can prepare yourself. Some problems can be solved quickly by feeding a search engine with the symptoms and then carrying out the steps suggested in public support forums. On the other end of the spectrum, complaints such as "some photos won't open" could point at a hardware problem.
People with low computer skills often struggle to explain technical problems. Don't get impatient. Ask questions to find out more details, remain friendly and try to narrow down the problem: "Does this happen with all your photos or just the ones from that one holiday?"
Often, people will initially omit information which later turns out to be crucial. I once opened a remote session because a friend couldn't get an application to install – the installation always "just stopped". I suspected a virus infection and braced for the worst. Upon connecting, my attention was quickly drawn to four UAC shields flashing in the task bar. He hadn't considered them important. The flashing shields were the application installer asking for administrator rights – one shield for every time he had double-clicked on the installer. I was torn between feeling angry and relieved.
Complex problems may require several attempts to fix. Stay on the phone and briefly explain what you are doing, if possible with an estimate on how long it will take. I have made a habit of writing down what I do in a text file on my computer as I work on the problem – both as a reference for myself and possibly for some support technician in case I can't fix the situation.
Some procedures require the system to be rebooted to apply changes or fixes. This usually means that the person on the other line has to reconnect you. Patiently explain how this will happen before remotely rebooting the machine and then guide them through the process.
When things get dicey
I handle other people's computers with greater care than my own. If I screw up the registry database of my computer and cause Windows to be stuck in a boot loop, I knew the risks and I have only myself to blame. If I mess up somebody else's computer, that's much worse. I'm a guest here, so I better be at my best behavior.
If you have to take any steps which might cause data loss, I highly recommend first making a backup on the remote machine. At worst, this can take hours, but that's still preferable to have to utter the words "well, your irreplaceable photos are gone for good, sorry." Should signs point to a hardware failure, immediately refer to a PC specialist and insist that they create a full backup of the hard drive before trying to fix anything.
Should your help involve sensitive information such as e-mail messages, lay down some ground rules such as "I won't look into any e-mails unless you tell me it's okay, but I need to check the message list for suspicious phishing subject lines." If the other party raises concerns, take them seriously and address them instead of recklessly barging through their digital private life. You're not the NSA.
On closing the connection, AnyDesk will ask both parties whether they want to install the app permanently. Presuming that this will not be a regular event, both users should click on "No." One reason for this is that once installed, remote access software could possibly be exploited by malicious third parties. Also, most remote access sessions happen in irregular intervals. If the software is updated in the meantime, a new download will be required in any case.
AnyDesk has the ugly habit of not shutting down cleanly, but just minimizing itself to the notification area. Users will have to expand the notification area with a click on the small upward arrow (^) next to the clock, right-click on the AnyDesk icon and then choose "Quit" to completely close the application.
TeamViewer QuickSupport does not offer an installation option, but it will ask for an e-mail address after the connection is closed. Users can simply click on the "X" in the upper right corner of the window to close the application. The full version asks the user at start-up whether the application should be "Run only" for one time use. When ending a session, the full installer will also present a dialog which should be closed with the upper right corner "X."
Before you end your remote support call, make sure you describe as simply as possible the changes you have made to the target system. If necessary, explain how these changes may have modified the system's behavior. Some examples:
- If you reset the browser's start page, explain the consequences of this change.
- If you have added an e-mail account, explain how to access this account.
- If you have set up a spam filter, explain how to check the spam folder for false positives.
Recurring help requests
When you have successfully fixed one problem for a friend, you can expect them to ask for help again when another computer problem arises. Some friends need more help than you can supply, and some friends won't even realize that they are abusing one's willingness to help.
If the remote house calls get more frequent, you may have to think about how to handle them. Once you realize that your father is going to require help once every one to two weeks, it may be a good idea to install the remote access software on his machine after all.
When friends start to ask you for help more frequently than you are comfortable with, a little psychology may help. You could try asking for something in return – a dinner invitation for instance, a book or a movie perhaps.
If you unconditionally agree to every request for help, your friends may come to take your support for granted. This may result in a long-lasting dependence on their part: Instead of first looking for a solution themselves, they will always ask you for help, no matter how trivial the problem.
It's usually best to wean these friends off your services in small steps, suggesting alternatives. Cutting them off immediately may backfire terribly: When faced with a particularly frustrating case of remote support, I asked my friend how her system became such a mess. Her answer? "I didn't want to always depend on you, so I tried to fix it myself." It took more than two hours to undo the damage done by her and less than fifteen minutes to fix the actual problem. She is now under strict instructions to call me first if anything happens.
What are your experiences with remote support and remote access tools? Worst case? Best experience? Let us know in the comments.