Part of excellent customer service is understanding how to correctly troubleshoot issues. Many people think all you need is incredible, all encompassing knowledge. But that’s just not the case. I’ve helped customers and internal folks countless times when I didn’t know the solution or had the expertise at hand to immediately resolve the issue, but yet we got it done. By following a 5 step process, you can troubleshoot with quality and speed.

  1. Empathize
  2. Own the issue and reassure
  3. Symptomize
  4. Resolve
  5. Test


If you know me, you know I don’t give any lip service to “touchy feely” kind of stuff unless it’s important. This is important. Before any real troubleshooting can begin, you have to be able to empathize and understand where your customer is coming from. Note that I’m not talking about sympathy. It’s important not to feel sorry for the person you’re helping. Instead, you need to put yourself in their shoes. There’s a huge gap between a non-smoker telling you that it sure must be hard to quit smoking, and a past smoker telling you that he/she can empathize and feel your pain. If the person you’re working with doesn’t feel like you understand their situation and emotional frustration, it’s game over.

Own the issue

Have you ever called a phone support line and been bounced around between different people, always being told, “that’s XYZ’s department”? It’s frustrating, deflating and often, not necessary. If you can resolve the customer’s issue without passing it on to someone else, do it!

If you’re the right person to begin with, you need to own the issue. “You’ve got the right person, let’s figure out this issue” gives an incredible confidence boost to the person you’re talking with. Even if you can’t fix the issue immediately, they will appreciate that they don’t have to speak with a million people and describe their problem over and over. As a result, their frustration will decrease and you can get to the actual task at hand.


One thing that newbies do a great job of that experts neglect is correctly symptomizing the issue. This is my biggest issue when troubleshooting. If I know a lot about an issue, I’m sooooo tempted to jump to the solution. But if I don’t symptomize the problem enough, I could miss details that mean my proposed solution won’t work. Worse, the client that I’m working with could think I’m not listening to them. What if you were to go in to see a doctor with a fever, and they immediately told you that they needed to amputate? Any sane person would get a second opinion because they recognized that the first doctor hadn’t symptomized. It doesn’t matter if your solution is the right one if your client doesn’t agree with you. Doing a great job of symptomizing an issue with thoughtful questions not only provides you with enough information to provide the best solution, it reassures the client that you’re being thorough and using a process. Modify how much you ask and how you ask for it based on the user’s familiarity with the issue and the technology you’re dealing with.


It must be some endorphins that my brain releases or some sort of Pavlovian conditioning, but I, personally, love this part of the equation – the solution. I also happen to revel in cheap and quick fixes as much as those elegant, best case solutions.

When solving an issue, always make sure to ask about the quick fixes. I’m sure you’re tired of being asked if you turned it on and off again, but there’s a great reason why this is asked: IT OFTEN WORKS!! A lot of the time, that common quick fix negates the time and cost needed for a more complex resolution. Your $500 car that you can’t afford to fix has no reverse gear? Maybe try parking uphill and using a combination of gravity and neutral to back out.

That didn’t work? Now it’s time to try out others. Work through solutions based on probability, starting with the most probable and working your way down. It might be well worth trying a cheaper, less probable solution before the uber-expensive route, depending on circumstances.

Then, if you reached the limits of your expertise and knowledge, that’s OK. No one is expected to know everything. From here, you can research or consult with others before coming back with another proposed solution. Do make sure that the customer or client knows that you own their issue and that you’ll be working on a resolution. Set a date/time when you can reconvene, but make sure that you apply reason to that date. If you’ve truly empathized, you’ll want to solve it fast, but you need to realize your own limitations and give a reasonable time frame to completion.

Test and follow up

This is basically a quality control step to make sure you didn’t fool yourself with the details and requirements of the issue, and that your solution is acceptable. Bigger, longer lasting solutions like changes to company culture or product strategy should be followed up a few times. In some cases, you won’t know if it was the right solution until some time has passed. Set check in dates as well as expectations for those check in dates.

If you had to settle for a solution that was best under the circumstances you had, be fair to yourself and your past decisions when following up. You didn’t know what you know now, and you did the best you could with the information and knowledge you had.