Off topic: On customer service

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Pro photographers have to be two things: able to deliver (i.e. technically and creatively competent) and fully aware that the whole business hinges critically on being a relationship game: if anything, this is more important than the execution. We are not just service providers, but in a way also providing confidence and reassurance on a product that is both intangible and highly subjective. Uncertainty can be self-reinforcing and the beginning of a negative spiral. Yet the longer I’m in this business, the more shocked I am by what I’m seeing – especially at the ‘developing’ end; both from a country/locality point of view and an immature service provider’s point of view.

I’ve said much about professionalism in the past (here, here and here) – that hasn’t changed and our duty remains straightforward. As a photographer or creative supplying the end deliverable to the client, we must simply do what we promise; anything else becomes our responsibility. But beyond that, it’s important that we also understand what the client is really looking for: it’s almost never just an image, but perhaps a representation of brand, an affirmation of position, a statement of attractiveness. We might not even be able to ask explicitly because they themselves may not know; examples are the best way to get around this as we can usually identify when something is right, but not necessarily define all of the individual elements that make it so.

The same goes for camera companies: when you’re spending thousands, you don’t want a take-it-or-leave-it transactional experience: at the very least, you should feel good about the purchase. Sadly, there’s often so much insulation between the manufacturer’s brand identity and directives and the end salespeople – especially at a multi brand shop – that the experience tends to be equally rubbish depending on whether a) you know the store people or not; b) if you’re buying a GoPro clone or a Leica. You could, I suppose, just go to the cheapest online source for the bare minimum transaction: and in the face of increasing indifference towards relationship building, that’s precisely what consumers have done.

I firmly believe it isn’t pricing that’s driven people to buy online (though this is a factor): it’s the huge variability and generally poor service in person. The salesperson is probably paid a flat (and low) salary and has no incentive to spend lots of time explaining something they may not understand themselves to a customer who may not buy, so they mostly don’t bother investing the time and effort. As a result, the expectation of the customer becomes ‘I go to a store to feel it physically, and buy online’. The end result is the store loses a sale, and the downward spiral continues. Oddly, it seems that the internet has taken the place of the store assistant: if you have a problem, email a site, leave a comment, and expect something in return, get unhappy when it’s either ignored or not what you expected – even though those sources have zero obligation whatsoever. It’s just like a physical store, except they’re really not even able to sell the product. I say this because I see it all the time: both in the form (still) of long emails demanding buying advice; tech support queries for cameras I’ve never used; people not realising the questions they’ve asked aren’t simple, and getting angry when you can’t give a yes/no because there is no yes/no.

What’s needed is a bridge to take the place of the conventional camera store: an objective (or at least technically correct and well-vetted) source of advice that is separate from the selling apparatus, so that a) the customer gets the best advice for them, and b) in the long run trusts the opinion of that source and c) is more inclined to return there in future. Example: a store may very well upsell a customer from a basic APSC DSLR to an integrated grip FX pro model, but lose the customer in the end because what they bought doesn’t fit their needs. The alternative scenario would see the customer upgrading and growing into the system/hobby with continual future purchases; instead, sustainable business will have become victim to shortsightedness. I’ve seen both situations happen: a friend of a friend who ‘wanted the best’ and landed up being sold a 1DX when he came in for a 70D (this was some time ago) and subsequently gave up photography, and others I’ve convinced to go the D5500 route instead of a D500 or D750 – and in the end felt more comfortable ‘growing into’ a D810 – and later H6D.

Here’s the kicker: even if any of the camera companies realise this, they don’t seem to be doing anything about it.

The closest any company is coming – to date – is Leica, with the vertical integration of a large number of stores covering a wide range of geographic locations (and theoretically, control over the buying experience and customer relationship). However, though in form everything appears to be in place, the experience itself has proven wildly variable around the world – I’ve had everything from close to the best experience in any camera store, to absolute arrogance and being completely ignored. There’s on other fly in the ointment: the stores sell at full retail, and are partner-owned, meaning their primary motivation is still retail and the push selling still rears its head, making for a very unpleasant experience at that kind of price point. Clearly, this is not in any brand’s best interests. However, translating this to a consistent experience across all customer types and classes is not so easy because needs and expectations vary, and you may well have a product portfolio that spans $300 to $10,000.

Clearly, Leica was going for the Apple Store experience. There are a few critical differences, though: firstly, without the capital to make them parent-owned, there’s no way they’d ever have enough control to ensure consistency of experience across all locations. Secondly, Apple products are almost never sold at a discount – and when they are (e.g. last year’s model clearout) – there’s consistency of pricing everywhere. You still get grey market Leica products at significant discounts, which means there’s incentive to buy elsewhere even if you go to the store for the experience. Not so with Apple, because you land up with both a better experience, the same price, and a higher chance of getting what you want because own-stores obviously get stock priority. From what I’ve been told by several Leica Store owners, they do get priority on hot stuff, but only if they take a certain amount of other, harder to shift items, too.

Oddly, the only other sector I can think of that faces the same kind of dilemma is the auto industry. You can walk into say Mercedes-Benz and buy anything from a (converted from local Malaysian prices) $43,000 basic A-class* to a $450,000 AMG GTR. The same salespeople serve customers at both ends – and honestly, they do a massively variable and frankly pretty terrible job at it. I went in once with my father, who fits their typical customer profile – older Chiense professional gentleman wearing a suit etc., and we were given excellent service. I went in again on my own to look at a car for my wife, casually attired in shorts and a t shirt, and was completely ignored. At that point, it became clear that I would not want to leave any money there since the experience was frankly rather unpleasant, though it made for an interesting experiment: I went back again in a suit, and got something between the first and second experiences. Another friend reported the same – but being significantly wealthier, was actually intending to buy the AMG GT – that experience turned him off, too. (I think he bought a Porsche). This experience is probably the main reason I will never buy a Mercedes.

*Cars are taxed up the wazoo here, but not quite as bad as Singapore.

Observation number one: profiling is a mistake. Observation number two: treat every customer as though they have the potential to be your best one, because that may well be the case. This is obviously easier when the volume of products sold is lower, but offset by much lower expectations of service for cheap goods – you don’t expect a follow up courtesy call if you’re just buying a chocolate bar and a can of Coke at 7-11, but it probably won’t go amiss if you’ve dropped $40,000 on a medium format system.

Granted, it’s tougher when there are a lot of moving parts in the system: I can maintain a high level of customer engagement and responsiveness because there’s only one of me, I know my own expectations and standards, and manage everything accordingly**. It’s not so easy when your sales network might be thousands of outlets and individuals, many for whom the job is merely a pay check. Yet the manufacturers need to realise that these people are also representing your brand. As camera industry volumes decline, prices increase, and only the very seriously wealthy can still buy the flagship products (forget pros, there just isn’t the economic justification for most any longer) – how can the brands afford to not do this? The analogy I’ve always given is one I’ve seen personally in Malaysia: you can’t expect a person driving an economy compact runabout to understand what the Ferrari buyer wants, but yet these people are precisely who is at the pointy end of sales. Is it any surprise that nobody is buying? MT

**There’s an odd expectation that creatives work 24/7 – perhaps because most of us are self-employed and actually do, because we don’t want to leave any opportunities on the table. I’ve had follow up emails sent barely an hour after the initial contact questioning the delay – at 3am. Where possible, I do reply instantly, though this is probably an unhealthy behaviour that just reinforces expectations. Yet we must, because if we don’t, somebody else will – which may mean lost business. It can be tricky to balance customer satisfaction with being taken advantage of by unscrupulous clients, though.

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