A few tales of customer service and “professional” support in the world of photography

I’m not going to name names because anonymous allusions can’t be legally construed as libel, but I think it’s important that an open letter goes out to the brands/ distributors/ dealers – in a previous corporate life, we were always taught to treat a customer complainant as a gift: it’s an opportunity for you to interact with the customer, build a relationship and find out what aspects of your business’ operations require improvement. It’s also a way for you to distinguish yourself from the competition – recently, there was a scandal locally with KFC staff attacking customers who got angry after being informed that a particular offer had expired…that attack was videoed and on youtube fairly soon afterwards. Needless to say, that was not a good day for the company’s PR department.

Sadly though, in Asia, the majority of companies tend to treat customers largely with indifference – the attitude seems to be ‘you buy from me good, you don’t buy from me I don’t care’ – not the best way to do business. Especially with complex, expensive product which makes the relationship part of the business increasingly important.

For professionals, it’s even more important to have good backup – if you don’t, and something goes wrong on a job, or before a job, then you’re up the proverbial river of brown without an outboard. I make system selection based just as much on the level of support I’m going to get from the company as the capabilities of the gear. It’s one of the reasons I stuck to Nikon even in the days when Canon had clearly superior sensors.

So, I’m going to tell you a few stories – good and bad.

1. Quality control, part one

Several years ago, I bought a lens that I thought was possibly the best lens I’d ever used. It wasn’t cheap, but then again it really delivered the goods: I could see precisely why you were paying that much. A friend wanted one urgently for an assignment; I sold it to him knowing that the dealer had a second one in stock. Big mistake: the second one was a disaster; it was soft until f8, didn’t focus smoothly, and worst of all, after just two days, one of the aperture blades detached and jammed the entire iris assembly at at f2 (let’s just say I wasn’t paying for an f2 lens).

No problem, these things happen – the dealer didn’t have any more, so he referred me to the distributor, who should be able to do a swap without issue – after all, the lens was effectively brand new. A call to my contact at the distributor – with them knowing full well I was editor of a photo magazine at the time – told me that I’d have to send the lens back to the manufacturer for repair, with them flat out refusing an exchange and actually accusing me of damaging it myself. They were totally unhelpful in resolving the problem at all. Excuse me? I want the lens because I need to make pictures with it, not a broken object so it can give me a headache.

Long story short: in the end, I never resolved the problem. I landed up complaining to the manufacturer about their distributor’s treatment of customers (more than the lens problem); I had to threaten to write a nasty column in the magazine detailing my experiences before I got any hint of an apology. In the end it came personally from the distributor’s international CEO, and I got so fed up that I took a refund from the dealer instead. I have still not found another good copy of that lens, incidentally – it seems that the first one was exceptional, and my friend is a lucky b******. I eventually sold my entire system and dissuaded other interested parties from investing in it.

2. Quality control, part two

Earlier in the year, I took delivery of a new camera from the first batch. It had asymmetric focusing issues. (I’m sure mention of that is enough for you to know exactly who I’m talking about now). The manufacturer’s local professional support arm was both responsive, and concerned: I told to bring it in straight away so they could do some testing, and so I could pick up a replacement. (The latter was especially impressive knowing that the cameras were in extremely short supply worldwide.) Two days later, I did – and the replacement unit, as well as the loan units, and demo units, all displayed the same problem. No problem – I was then given a loaner camera, which was the previous flagship – for as long as I needed. A month later, I was told a new batch arrived – but opted to upgraded to a slightly improved model, instead. This was a bit better, but still not perfect. I was eventually called and informed that a fix had been found, and I should bring the camera in. I was lent a new flagship for all too short a day before collecting my camera the following day, repaired and functioning as expected.

3. Quality control, part three

Very recently, I received a lens whose price was high, and performance not even close to a much cheaper competitor. Worse still, it wasn’t even as good as the previous copy I’d had (and no, it’s not the same lens from story #1) – it was only sharp in the exact center, very soft off-axis, and worse still, asymmetrically so. The concerned distributor apologized and swapped it out, with their division head personally delivering the replacement – now that’s service. Unfortunately, the second one also seemed rather off – it was consistently sharp across the frame, but there was heavy ghosting and double imaging. I landed up going to the warehouse and testing every single copy of the lens they had in stock – it seemed that batch had either one or the other problem (ghosting/ softness/ asymmetry). At this point, the distributor was both mortified and hugely embarrassed, promising to send the entire batch back to the factory and demand an explanation – it’s good to know that he wouldn’t sell them to other customers who might perhaps not be as picky about their optics as me. I was given a much more expensive lens of similar focal length in exchange, no questions asked. And allowed to pick the actual unit, too – let’s just say I’m convinced the one I’ve now got is exceptionally good. Outcome: one very happy customer.

4. Software hiccups

On a previous assignment, one of the cameras I was using developed a software fault of some kind that caused it to lock up – that’s not good, but not so bad because every locked up camera I’ve had has always been rectified by pulling the battery. Most of the time, images aren’t lost, either. No harm, no foul. However, this particular incident resulted in the entire card being getting so corrupted that it would crash any Mac that tried to mount it – needless to say, image recovery software wasn’t an option. Worse still, all the images from one particular job were on that card – I was in the middle of the job. (In the end, I landed up submitting a mix of recovered images through forensic recovery, some reshot images and backup images from the B-roll. The client wasn’t happy because we didn’t have the first and best take; it was a large commission for an important client, whom I landed up losing because of this.) In these situations, a backup camera wouldn’t have helped because you can’t backtrack your steps and shoot everything again. Parallel writing might have helped, but the chances are that mirroring would probably have resulted in both cards being corrupted.

I understand that you can be extremely unlucky and have these things happen. But what I couldn’t deal with afterwards was the extreme arrogance of the manufacturer: whilst their employees were most helpful and apologetic, their MD flat out accused me of user error, and kept trying to change the subject. I offered to work with a software team to determine what the problem was so a firmware fix could solve it, but the offer was rebutted with the effective message of ‘we don’t need you.’

How on earth it is possible to create a card that has physically damaged sectors (but a perfect physical appearance) with a camera is beyond me. If I could fake something like that, I’d be a programmer, not a photographer.

In the end, I managed to get a replacement camera to reshoot the job which did have parallel writing and dual card slots, but that didn’t work properly either – it didn’t seem to be able to parallel write, and if you change the ISO immediately after taking a shot while the camera is writing to the card, then subsequent files wouldn’t save at all. You’d think this would be a fairly common operation, but I guess not.

Needless to say I do not use or recommend this camera brand for professional use, or any use where actually having images is important, period.

5. My bad

Pro DSLRs are mostly weather sealed. Mine was; I shot in monsoon rains without a hiccup. The problem came when I arrived back in my air conditioned apartment, and pulled the battery out to put in a fresh one – uh oh. A popping sound ensued, and some smoke came out. The charge indicator went from full to flat in a second. Turns out that the temperature differential created condensation inside the battery compartment, and that shorted out the camera. Still, after putting a third battery in (letting the camera dry out first, of course) everything seemed to work fine, except it wouldn’t save a file. I thought it might be the card interface.

I took it in to the manufacturer’s service department, where they accepted my credentials and issued me with a loan body. Three days later, they issued me with a quote – it seems they couldn’t find anything physically wrong with it, but the only way they could guarantee its continued future operation would be to replace pretty much everything but the outer shell, mount, prism and mirror assembly. This would of course cost more than a new camera! I elected not to have the work done, and wait for the camera’s successor instead (a matter of months). I was allowed to keep the loan body until that time – not at all expected or obligated, but a very thoughtful touch indeed.

6. I believe they call that dictation, not collaboration

I was asked to do a live watch photography demonstration recently; I would have to use a certain brand of watch, camera etc – which is fine – so long as I have the lighting equipment and diffusers I need. They expected me to produce live images like what you see in my portfolio – except I was told that I had to do it so a) the audience could see, and b) no Photoshop was allowed. I don’t know what they were smoking, but there’s no way you can produce a perfect commercial grade image without retouching; worse still, how would the audience see if all the action happens inside a light tent? I suggested streaming video from a GoPro positioned inside the tent (to minimize reflections) but they insisted it wasn’t possible because it was a competitor’s product. I was told to do it without the light tent, and far away enough from the watch that the audience could also see the watch.

Anybody who’s attempted microphotography of any kind will realize this is impossible: you now have zero lighting control, plenty of unwanted reflections, and worse still, what macro lens gives you 2:1 magnification and 50cm of free working distance in front of the lens?

I told the client it wasn’t technically possible; they threatened to use somebody else. I wished them luck. These are the kinds of clients that I try to avoid, because if you can’t pull it off, you’ll just land up making everybody look bad, including yourself.

7. A complete 180 turn

Many years ago, I reviewed a camera as part of my editorial duties at the magazine. It was a final production prototype, so the company was understandably a bit nervous about us publishing images – in fact, they wanted us to do a review with product images only, and no samples. That would obviously defeat the point of a camera review! I suggested that we would let them approve any images we chose to publish beforehand; they very reluctantly agreed.

Fast forward two weeks – on returning the camera and submitting images for them to okay, not only were they thrilled with what I did with the camera, but they also wanted to use the images for their promotional materials. Happy to do so – let’s talk licensing. Oh, sorry, they said, we’re not paying for images because it’s our camera. Um…does that mean a chef doesn’t get paid because it isn’t his kitchen? They replied that the PR value of being associated with our brand would be compensation enough. Okay, so would I get image credits? No. Could I at least get tear sheets to put in the portfolio? No. Could I list them as a client? No. Then how the hell would I get anything out of this at all?

In the end, I chose the worst images I could find from that set to publish in the magazine; I was told by several dealers that it was never a popular model (despite actually being a pretty good camera). I nearly switched systems to this after using it – but changed my mind completely after dealing with the company’s local management.

8. Take it first, pay me later, if you don’t like it, bring it back.

I have a trusted dealer here that knows I go through equipment faster than an alcoholic through a bottle of gin; I’m given trial periods, loans, agreed buyback amounts, no questions asked replacements for faulty gear, out of warranty service costs absorbed by them, preferential delivery for new stuff, freebies, and above all, excellent prices. This is unheard of in Southeast Asia, where the retailer is king, not the consumer. Needless to say, I’ve spent a small fortune here, and refer everybody who asks me where they should buy equipment. I’d buy from here on the basis of price alone, but my relationship with the owner and most of his staff means that it’s like visiting friends rather than doing business.

Moral of the story: be careful how you treat your customers, because you don’t know if the guy is going to be your next biggest customer, may not buy much but give you huge referrals, or even worse, run a moderately popular blog 🙂 MT


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  1. You should name and shame.

    No problem with libel or anything if you check carefully that everything mentioned is FACT.

    • You can never be sure of another party’s intentions at the time, and it’s your word against theirs (and their much deeper pockets and lawyers). Besides, it wouldn’t achieve anything as at any given point in time, you never know when you might need to work with these people…

  2. Hi Ming, will you be kind enough to send me email regarding the trusty camera shop you always came back to? Seems like they worth a visit next time i come home to Malaysia. Thank you.

  3. My experience with Leica:

    Bought a Noctilux Asph back in March 2010, probably the first batch of lenses. When my Noct arrived, I took it out of the box and rotated the aperture ring for the first time. I stopped the lens down then proceeded to open it up to F/.95 and it locked up! between F/95 and F/1.2. The aperture was locked up, the blades flared upwards as if the iris was about to snap into pieces. I called Leica the next day and a New Noct repalcement was on the way and within a week I had a new Noct. I’m sure it was a defect that Leica knew about in the first batch of lenses, because the rep at Leica USA didn’t ask any questions, just to send it back for a replacement. Thanks Leica! No complaint here.

  4. Fishnose says:

    Really excellent article, Ming! That live watch thing is hilarious, in a tragic sort of way…

  5. Very nice stories, too bad there’s no brand names (but local policies can’t apply worldwide also).

  6. The question arises, what would have happened to a customer without your name and reputation? With the companies who dont care, nothing different. But with those, who do? How about that: if you encounter malfunctioning gear the next time, give it to a friend and see how he will be treated.
    Outside this, my experiences with companies dealing in outdoor euipment are similar. Some care very much, some dont care at all.

    • Not all of these were recent – some were before I had any web presence. And I certainly don’t make a big deal about my online persona unless I absolutely have to…

  7. I’m happy with guessing, but it would really help to know which exact brands are you referring to in your article. Nothing much really, I just had a lot of grief with certain brand lately, a little nudge in the right direction might just convince me to jump to the other brand lol 🙂

  8. It’s a measure of our friendship that i have heard every single story here with all the details and then some. LOL.

  9. I was under the impression that Nikon had fixed your D800E, does it still have the AF issue?


  1. […] said much about professionalism in the past (here, here and here) – that hasn’t changed and our duty remains straightforward. As a photographer or […]

  2. […] I’m not going to name names because anonymous allusions can’t be legally construed as libel, but I think it’s important that an open letter goes out to the brands/ distributors/ dealers – in a previous corporate life, we were always taught to treat a customer complainant as a gift: it’s an opportunity for you to interact with the customer, build a relationship and find out what aspects of your business’ operations require improvement. It’s also a way for you to distinguish yourself from the competition – recently, there was a scandal locally with KFC staff attacking customers who got angry after being informed that a particular offer had expired…that attack was videoed and on youtube fairly soon afterwards. Needless to say, that was not a good day for the company’s PR department.  […]

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