Fatal Error: Your PC's down. Now what?

Here are some first steps to pull yourself out of the blue-screen blues.

When Marcia C. Brier gets a dreaded error message on her PC at MCB Communications, she knows she's on her own. Her IT department is nonexistent, as is the case at most small businesses.

Like any business owner, Brier, the company's founder and principal, has faced plenty of IT crises, and they've taken their toll -- holding hostage crucial e-mails, contact information and schedules while she rushed to meet deadlines.

"The computer and I don't like each other," she says, "and it makes me anxious when it doesn't work."

Small-business people everywhere share that anxiety. Only 15 percent of businesses with fewer than 20 employees have a full-time IT staff, according to research firm IDC.

And 55 percent of small-business owners worldwide -- defined as those with one to 100 employees -- say they deploy their most sophisticated technology themselves and don't like depending on outside companies for IT help, according to the 2007 International Small Business IT Survey from Dell and the International Council for Small Business.

Doing it yourself is not a bad strategy. The vast majority of small-business IT needs are similar to those of individual PC users, says Derek Meister, a service agent at Geek Squad, part of Minneapolis-based Best Buy.

But good intentions aside, the combination of business exigencies and limited IT knowledge can leave small-business people feeling helpless, frustrated and defeated as soon as an error message rears its ugly head.

PC problems can be tricky, Meister admits, but if you stay calm, you can handle many on your own. Here are some first steps to help you identify the problem and find the kind of help that is widely available for do-it-yourselfers.

Isolate the problem

Determine what you did just before the problem struck. Did your computer freeze up after you tried to open a particular application? Did you get an error message when you tried to print?

Think about whether you've changed anything on your computer recently. Have you installed a new piece of software? Added a new printer? Downloaded an update?

Write down what's happening, particularly any error messages you see or beep codes (a series of short and long beeps) you hear. Then use that information to start pinpointing a solution.

Take what you've learned to online communities such as Notebook Review to search for help from others who have posted fixes for the problem you're having.

"Ninety percent of the battle in terms of resolving an issue is defining an issue," Meister says. "So when you do get an error message, stop, read and record it, and look it up. Even taking that first line of that error message and putting it into Google will save you a lot of time down the road."

Page Break

Go to the source

David Keyes, who runs Keyes Enterprises, a four-year-old online retail shop, says he relies exclusively on Microsoft's online help site when problems arise with either his desktop or laptop PCs.

So six months ago, when Windows unexpectedly shut down and gave him the dreaded "fatal error" message, he knew how to get started.

He restarted the computer in safe mode to work directly in the operating system . He then deleted a recent software update -- the most recent change he had made to his computer. Next he ran an antivirus software program, which found and deleted a tracking cookie.

Confident that he had solved the problem, Keyes rebooted his computer, installed the software update and was back online.

Everything worked smoothly from there, although Keyes says the whole project took about three hours out of his normal workday.

If the evidence is pointing to specific hardware or software, visit your vendor's online help center. Microsoft's support site, for instance, can let you search for solutions by typing in the text of an error message or specific problems, such as Outlook blocking some attachments. Trouble with your accounting software? Take a look at support sites such as QuickBooks Pro to search for way to address error messages. Problems with your HP printer? Check out the vendor's troubleshooting site for advice.

Or try a general online search, using your error message or a description of the problem as a search term, to get some advice on how to fix it.

Turn to peers

Filippo Pistone, managing director of Bacchanal Wine Imports, says he frequently turns to the Internet when the computers at his business aren't working right. He just enters in a summary of the problem -- such as "e-mails won't come through" -- and checks out whatever pops up.

"It's amazing how many people have the same issue," he says, noting that he has learned how to troubleshoot various problems based on what he has learned from vendor Web sites and from other PC users posting information in chat rooms.

Page Break

"It works actually," he says, but adds, "Sometimes that information is not sufficient to solve the particular issues."

True enough, but Meister suggests that having done some of the diagnosis on your own puts you that much further ahead -- in time and dollars -- when you call in hired guns.

Hired guns

Of course, some small-business owners can't afford to take the time to even get to that point. Bill Bivin, community liaison for Dell's Community and Conversations, a team of customer relations workers who resolve customer issues on the company's online forum , says business owners have to ask themselves, "How much productivity do I lose to chase something down?"

If you've got the time, inclination and skills to install tackle complex computer problems and fixes, then go for it. But if you lack any of those, suggests Bob MacDonald, vice president of technology services for Staples' EasyTech service, try working with a contractor -- even if it's on an "a la carte" basis. to handle problems or maintenance issues as they arise. If you can't afford any downtime or you need someone at odd hours, that may be your best bet, he says.

Chip Wilson, owner of C.H.W. Site Development, an excavation contractor, uses the company's only PC to store client contact information as well as financial records and contracts.

He admits that he doesn't have the technical expertise to handle any significant computer problems. When his computer froze up two years ago, leaving half a screen showing his QuickBooks and the other half blue, his only attempt at remediation involved the standard fix -- hitting Control-Alt-Delete.

When that didn't work, he called his neighbor -- an IT consultant -- to help out.

Now he has that consultant come in at least once a year for maintenance on the computer. "I say, 'Do whatever you need,' and I have no idea what he does, but I notice the computer is faster when he's done," Wilson says.

That's good enough for him, Wilson adds -- that, and knowing the consultant is just a phone call away if he needs help during a crisis.