Queries about technical support are the most frequent type of email I get and while Microsoft has a huge (sometimes confusing, sometimes overwhelming) range of resources to provide support, I’ve realised that it really isn’t clear what’s available and what you get as an individual customer when you buy a Microsoft product.
Note: the rest of this article applies to software bought or installed individually. If your copy of, for example, Microsoft Office is provided as part of a large corporate license then you almost certainly have a different route for support. If you have a problem with software that came pre-installed on your computer when you purchased it, then the first point of call should be the computer manufacturer, although many of the "self service" links below will also be useful.
What sort of help do you need?
One of the first things to clarify is the difference between technical support and product help. The easiest way I think about this is by comparing using software to driving a car.
If you’re driving home one day and the engine starts making a funny noise, you’re probably going to get a mechanic to take a look at it. Alternatively, if you’re trying to drive to meet a friend for lunch but can’t find the right road, then you’re probably lost and need directions.
In the same way, if you’re trying to get an Excel pivot table to work and can’t figure out what to do, then you’re probably lost and need product help. But if you’re using your computer as normal and something goes wrong then you need technical support.
Now if you need product help, then Microsoft has another huge range of resources to provide help and information. In particular make sure you visit Office Online and the Windows section on the Microsoft website.
If you need technical support, read on…
What technical support is available?
If something isn't working the way it should be, the best place to start is the Microsoft support website. The Knowledge Base on our website is a centralised place where we’ve published a large collection of articles and FAQs about our products. You can access it by going to: http://support.microsoft.com/
The reason I recommend starting here (in most cases) is that often there will be an identified solution to your problem and you can get easy-to-follow instructions at whatever time of the day (or night!) suits you. You can read through them at your own pace and easily go back over anything you don’t understand.
If you can’t find an answer to your specific problem, you might want to visit our newsgroups and ask other Microsoft product users. It’s a vibrant community with lots of questions and answers being regularly posted and it’s frequently visited by our Most Valued Professionals.
It’s good to talk
If you prefer to speak with someone, then the first thing to clarify is whether the product you need support with was installed on your computer when you purchased it. If it was, then the first point of call should be the manufacturer of your computer.
If it wasn’t, then our Customer Support Team is available on 0870 60 10 100. There’s a common view that you get charged for opening a support incident, but this is not always the case.
Updates and Service Packs
Most importantly, if something goes wrong with your computer as a result of a Microsoft or Windows update or service pack, then support for this is free. The Windows Update website has advice and information for many common problems or you can either call Customer Support (on 0870 60 10 100) or use this link: http://support.microsoft.com/oas/default.aspx?gprid=6527. For problems connected with Windows Vista Service Pack 1, use this link: http://support.microsoft.com/oas/default.aspx?prid=11274&gprid=500921
Product support entitlements
A certain amount of free support has always been available if you purchased boxed Microsoft software from a retailer. I’ve listed below some links for the most common products, but further details about other products are available on the support website.
Windows Vista: 90 days no-charge support is available from the product activation date
Microsoft Office 2007: 90-day no-charge support is available from the date you place your first support request
Windows XP: Two support requests are provided free of charge
Microsoft Office 2003: Two support requests are provided free of charge
OneCare: e-mail, Instant Help, chat, and phone support is available through the product
Other support resources
I’ve only just scratched the surface of the support Microsoft has available but hopefully I’ve helped to show you what free support is provided.
A couple of other resources to bear in mind include: