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 Chinese 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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Comments

  1. Ken Burg says:

    Good post. As someone who has worked with the public in a sales capacity for all of my working life, and the last thirteen in my own business, I believe your observations are absolutely accurate. Also, congratulations on your new position – definitely a coup for Hasselblad! On a more humorous note: your final italicized paragraph relating to unreasonable customer expectations tells of the 3am email barely an hour after initial contact. I’d be interested to discover what the initial contact was at 2am!

  2. Hey Ming, congrats on the new role! That is a win for Hasselblad and a great sign of things to come. I wish you well!

  3. I go to the premier camera “shop” (yes, I still call it a shop) in Portland, Oregon where the sales staff cover the age range from mid-20’s to early 60’s. A nice age range for checks and balances that tend to favor thecustomer. I have my favorite sales person who still like to talk film and goes to Japan once a year “too look at stuff”. They also have a processing lab, rental shop, in-person and on-line classes, plenty of used and consigned gear and on-line reviews of new gear. Why would’nt I buy my stuff here?

  4. Peter Bowyer says:

    “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.”

    Here in the UK, when stock isn’t an issue, you are usually better off buying Apple products from John Lewis, an nationwide employee-owned department store. This is because they provide a free 2 year warranty, while buying direct from Apple only provides a 1 year warranty. And their customer service is superb – which hasn’t always been my experience with UK Apple Stores.

  5. Curtis Polk says:

    When I bought my first Hasselblad in 1987, I was a working-class guy. The sales rep at the now defunct Southwestern Camera gave me a full demo. He knew everything about the camera. He assembled one from components in boxes, showed me how to load the camera, and answered every question. I had planned the purchase, but, of course, it was not a sure thing. He made it a sure thing. They didn’t blink when I produced my American Express card (I timed it at the end of a billing cycle so that I had 59 days to come up with the money), and I walked out with the camera and my free roll of film. This kind of sales rep disappeared as businesses converted to the Systems Approach, which is designed to squeeze out every ounce of workers’ idle time. What we might have gained in efficiency has cost an incalculable amount in actual value received for what we spend. BTW, when I lived in Fort Worth in 1999, I considered a Contax 645, but Arlington Camera did not take American Express. I understand their reasons, but they cut themselves out of a high-income segment with that trick, including me.

    • Sadly, I think you’re right: the days of that kind of salesperson are gone…to the point we consider ourselves fortunate if we find somebody who even knows what product we’re referring to! I’m not sure it’s just corporate process at fault, either – there just seems to be a lot less pride in one’s work than there used to be; perhaps few even bother to figure out exactly what it is they are enough about to put the extra effort into.

      • Well…the other side of that coin is that the internet has empowered all of us! We no longer need the sales assistant to recommend / explain / priorities our choices about equipment. The internet, the giant social exchange, is giving us all the information, tests, and opinions we could want in much greater and more obsessive detail than a sales person could ever give us?
        It’s just a new way of doing business.
        Why would I give the same value to the opinion of a sales person as I would give to you (Ming) for example. I’ve seen your work. I know what your style of photography is, I know the quality of your work, I’ve read detailed articles about how you’ve found the quality or feel, of a certain piece of equipment. That has more value to me because I have a deeper knowledge of where your opinions are coming from and how they resonate with my goals or ambitions for my own work.
        The landscape is changing, that’s all, I think.

        • It is, and the only conclusion I can come to is the salespeople have to add more value – because inadvertently we’re giving it away for free, and that isn’t good.

          • Yes, I agree.
            It’s the whole dilemma with the internet. Somehow the democratization of information has coincided with the idea that since opinions are free, information should be free….. now, as you point out, you (or other well researched web sites / blogs) are doing the job that sales people used to do…but you don’t get paid for it! (Or you can sometimes / randomly get a royalty thru B&H or Amazon for a sale thru your website).
            Maybe the new salesman is the well researched website, but you’re still at the mercy of the consumer to click thru from your site? It must be quite frustrating to know your opinion can drive sales for a manufacturer, and what do you get in return….the favor of testing their next camera for a week, so you can build them more sales….!

        • “The internet, the giant social exchange…”

          Only there isn’t any social exchange. It is like living in an ivory tower and only seeing the world through the eyes of a TV screen. There is no experience of the actual world. I take your general point, though; purchases are made sight unseen, based on third party opinions, and from what I can tell, returns are significant as only when the camera is in one’s hand can we really judge its ergonomics. Face to face with that salesperson, Curtis then knew that the Hassy was for him.

          When the first 8meg bridge cameras came on the market from Canon, NIkon, Minolta, Sony and Olympus I did narrow down my choice based on several reviews, to the Canon, Minolta and Olympus, based on competing features, the 7x zoom and EVF of the Minolta v the superior lens on the Olympus. The Canon was a given as my two previous cameras had been the G2 and G5. It was only when in the shop that I was able to make a final decision; yes, the EVF of the Minolta was excellent for the era, but the Olympus won out on its ergonomics as it was better for me than either the Minolta or Canon, the Canon I found especially poor. And I knew from the reviews that I was getting probably the best lens. I was very happy with my choice and never had any niggling doubts about whether I’d made the right purchase or not. That “hands on” experience was invaluable.

          The really sad thing in all this, is that the demise of the camera shop takes this option away from us and most don’t have the luxury of choice anymore.

          • I agree with the “hands on” experience being valuable. But if you think about your experience, it was dominantly shaped by your internet research (as far as I can tell from your post); the actual interaction with the sales person was probably more limited to you asking for certain models to look at. The final decision you made was based on the ergonomics; your own preference for the feel and handling of a camera, not something the sales person could really influence.
            To be honest, I lament the lack of camera stores too! I loved to look at new equipment, but I think cameras are so complex now, so many features, and features that are infinitely customizable…..that it’s almost impossible to get a feel for a camera in 10 or 15 minutes in a store. Then there are aspects that you just can’t judge anyway. It’s almost impossible to assess a lens without having a fairly controlled environment, and another lens to provide a known comparison. Same for the sensor.
            I know I’m not describing a solution, but I think you can see how people don’t need the camera store interaction as much…they just need the camera. And while you’re at it..the camera at the best price. So it comes in the mail from a huge anonymous warehouse in who knows where…..

            • Alan,

              It seems you are a man who believes that the internet “Rules”. :D) In the example I gave, I had initially been informed by reading photographic magazines. I distilled their reports down to the three models I would be interested in. These were my mainstay, not the internet in those days. I hadn’t yet started to use the internet, but in one sense you are right, subsequently the internet figured more once I’d latched onto Imaging Resource and dpreview, but only as an adjunct to the Amateur Photographer, which I bought up until about three years ago. They were very good on the technical measurement side in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

              Obviously, I left out a lot about that purchase experience or my long-term relationship with that particular store and staff and which had developed over many years, from the days of film. I’d pop in at their less busy times and spent many an hour looking at, discussing, and handling cameras.

              The situation today and recently has been very different. The internet has indeed taken over the role of the photographic magazines, and my choice of camera is a different buying experience. Mais, c’est la vie!

            • The solution seems to be buy online, return in 30 days if you don’t like it – the cost of restocking takes place of the cost of salespeople and a physical storefront…

  6. I waited half a year for a AF lens repair on a Leica S system. Leica should be reading this.

  7. I purchase Leica equipment through Dan Tamarkin’s store in Chicago. Dan is very attentive when it comes to customer service, and has been more than fair with me. He also sponsors exhibits, many of local photographers. I like the fact that he supports the community in that way. Most other stuff I purchase through B&H. Although they are an Internet retailer, I think they go a long way in the customer service department. Their website is excellent, particularly if you know what you are doing. When there has been an issue (I once got a box where someone in the process had removed the lens and put a weight in so it wouldn’t be noticed), they take care of it. My preference would still be to buy from a local dealer, but aside from a Best Buy, those are pretty much extinct.

    I bought my medium format system through one of the speciality shops. I won’t return their phone calls. They were dishonest. I made an appointment to see something when I was in town, flew in, arrived at the shop, and they said the equipment I had wanted to see was out on loan that day. I signed up for a workshop, tied myself in pretzels with flight arrangements because I had three meetings around the workshop date, and two weeks before the workshop, they canceled because of low attendance. Sorry, once you commit to something, the answer is simple: You do the workshop, lose the money, and don’t do workshops again. But announcing something three or four months in advance, taking money, and then canceling shortly before the workshop is unacceptable. I lost about $800 in flight change fees.

    As for service, I think the major manufacturers excel when it comes to repair. I forget the exact number of days, but Canon has turned repair work around consistently in 7 to 10 days and I am not a member of their professional plan. Same was true for Olympus the one time I needed to deal with them. I can’t say the same for Leica, which sometimes is really fast and sometimes months go by.

    I also am very skeptical about the Leica stores. I have had very bad walk-in service from company stores before Dan moved his operation to Chicago. It was pure snobbery–I didn’t dress the part. While Leica has all the marketing information, I am skeptical about the long-term viability of these stores. The fixturing is what you would expect, but you’ve gotta sell a lot of equipment to recoup those costs.

    BTW, I buy Apple products through the Apple stores, but in the U.S. you can buy the products elsewhere at a slight discount. I didn’t realize that for a longtime, but I discovered that when browsing at some electronic stores.

    • Dan is an exception – you’re lucky to live nearby 🙂

      Commitment: I fully agree, and have always stuck to my arrangements even if things change that fall out of your control – whether this is teaching, work, engagements or anything else. This is probably a personal ethical principle more than anything; most would see it as bad for business and just not bother (much to long term detriment).

      The big boys are generally not too bad on service because they have large teams supporting significant volumes. I’ve never had a good service experience with Leica – months is normal, and to make things worse, stuff often seems to need repair – but I’m told it’s different if you live in Europe – who knows. As for the stores, what they don’t say is that not all of them survive – two closed down in Kuala Lumpur in the last couple of years…makes me wonder about other cities, too.

  8. Thanks for the article. Very interesting thoughts about the relationship between a client and a professional photographer. This “social game” it is, indeed, underestimated.

  9. Hi Ming
    With regard to Camera brands, I think that they have lost out in the long term by by giving the large generic retailers access to so much of their inventory, without requirements for stocking some of the basic accessories (prime lenses) and having trained staff.
    Many camera specialist retailers lost their bread and butter to large department and white-goods bricks and mortar store as much as they did to online during the digital boom. Many of the specialists went bust, so now the brands have less chances for the buying public to hold and try before purchase. This reduces the perceived value of products, the notion of system, and, continued sales and service.

    Now that the digital boom is over the bigger retailers are cold on cameras (not camera phones though), and are making even less effort to stock and sell, this reflects poorly on both photographic sales in general and the brand status of the cameras being offered.

    Perhaps if the brands differentiated the lines to be only the simplest, generic and cheapest in big general stores and online retail, and keep most of their inventory for specialist retailers they would have created a clear differentiation for value and quality and protected their brand value. This would also have given us more real choices and competition for what matters. With the bottom fallen out of consumer digital cameras some brands may end up with no market if it is left to search engine algorithms to help us chose.

    Regards

    • Beyond that, if a generic retailer has to stock and sell/be expert on hundreds of products – it simply isn’t going to happen. As complexity increases, it only gets worse. Right now, every retailer is just trying to stay in business – they’ll sell whichever brand gives them the highest returns.

      I agree some differentiation is required given that they’re more likely to lose sales to bad (or absent) customer education in most big box stores; leaving the top end stuff to specialist stores at least creates some potential for a symbiotic relationship in which the stores can survive and the camera companies can sell more product…

  10. Ming, my preferred attire for car shopping is shorts and sandals. I enjoy watching the expression on the faces of the salesmen when they run my credit rating – which they seem to require even if I say I want to pay cash. At that point, like you, when they know what they’ve missed, I walk out.

  11. On your Mercedes-example and the customer experience:
    – First rule of luxury selling: Not everyone who buys luxury items will look like someone who buys luxury items. That goes for cars, watches, high-end hifi etc. and some sales people still forget it.
    – First rule of luxury buying: If you have bought a luxury item, you are forever condemned to paying “luxury” prices for all accessories (again, spares for your car, accessories for your watch etc. generally proves this).

  12. L. Ron Hubbard says:

    No way….it’s price all the way. I can buy camera gear far cheaper on line AND then pay no sales tax. The online discount is close to 12-15% if many cases.

    No amount of customer service will get me to overpay by 15%.

    • Not true in every part of the world – sometimes we get whacked doubly buying online; shipping AND import taxes, forget about 30 day returns. I keep saying it, the US is a retail heaven…

  13. I’m fortunate. There is a good camera store not far away run by its owners, all photographers. They are friendly, reliable and they don’t BS by trying to upsell you. And they do deals. I’ve used them for a decade now but I realize most folks aren’t so lucky. However, I really doubt the camera companies will ever get it together to do the job themselves. Most are small cottage-industry outfits by the standards of large international corporations. They lack the resources, the expertise and the cross-cultural experience to make a proper job of it. And most are pretty traditional, even hidebound. If they cannot manage a decent website/video tute walking users through the myriad settings on their autofocus modules, and to date most of them can’t, then they aren’t likely to manage a sophisticated retail chain with branches in every capital. Their direct involvement pretty well stops with delivering the product to a retailer and I’d guess that is how it will stay for the foreseeable future because that is how things have always worked and it’s all they know. The closest match here was probably a chain of Sony shops selling only Sony electronics. They were awful in every respect and, no surprises, they closed down. A famous name is no guarantee of success at retail. It takes huge resources and know-how.

    • Very fortunate – I’ve got a decent store near me too, but that’s pretty much the only one in the country – and even then it depends on which salesperson you get.

      I don’t think the resource requirements are that great – I run this site solo – but the motivation and corporate politics on the other hand, now that will kill you…

  14. Jonathan Hodder says:

    “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…”

    I maybe stating the obvious here but myself and, I’m sure, many others have (not so covertly) been using you as this bridge. There’s only a handful of people I know, whether online or offline, that can perform this role well.

  15. Personally I think the camera companies should give up on traditional retail channels and push online sales and online engagement – cut out the pointless middlemen who don’t really understand the product and take a cut of the money for nothing. It’s been years since I made a purchasing decision of more than about $100 based on anything other than online research, and even longer since I trusted unconditionally any piece of advice I received from someone paid to sell 🙂
    Maybe I’m unusual in that the higher the value the more I prefer to shop online, but I see the trend more and more, particularly in places like China where online sales are more trusted than physical stores.
    I think I’ve said it before but I’m surprised that camera retailers don’t make more of an effort to engage with their buyers, and photographers generally, online – if they want their products to be seen as anything other than commodities, they need to market and sell them differently from household appliances! It’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s also possible to build up a far better profile of a prospective buyer from their online activities than from a snap judgement based on what they are wearing when the walk into a store…

    • Hear hear – Apple and the others have realised this, and even the luxury goods market is going online – there’s increasing numbers of very high end brands selling $20k+ products over the internet, sight unseen…

      I like the experience, but I don’t want it to spoil my experience with the product – does that make sense? So in a way, being online only makes perfect sense.

      Part of me wonders whether the brands even know what do do…

  16. Amazing article!

  17. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Part of your comment brings up the story behind the founding of Stanford University. In case other readers don’t know it, a middle aged couple went to Harvard (one of the Ivy League Universities) and inquired whether they could make a donation to erect a building at the University, in memory of their son, who had spent a year at Harvard & loved it, but died tragically, a short while after. The Professor who saw them apparently thought they were some kind of joke and told them they couldn’t possible afford it, mentioning in passing the overall cost of the buildings on campus. The couple left – saying if that’s all it cost to build a University, they’d go back home to California and building their own. Which we all know, now, as Stanford. Of course knowing that doesn’t buy you a Mercedes!

    I can’t say I’ve had too many unhappy experiences, getting assistance and advice from the various camera stores I’ve bought from over the past 60-odd years. On the other hand, I have had unhappy experiences with a couple of the manufacturers, who I have long since black listed and will no longer deal with. And I’ve NEVER had to put up with off-hand or disinterested serving staff in a camera store.

    I also can’t suggest that pricing was an issue – the same stores have been very helpful to me, over a very long period, in giving discounts – or suggesting deferring a purchase because they’d found out a manufacturer’s “special” was about to land on the market – or allowing me to trade in unwanted gear. If I was to look at the current Australian list price of all my gear, I simply would never have been able to afford it – I saved literally thousands of dollars, while I was re-equipping a year or two back.

    Although some of it was purchased on the internet, that was almost invariably because of special circumstances. A couple of items were unprocurable here. Memory cards sell far more cheaply in larger markets (like the US) than they do here in Australia, so the cost of the cards I bought would have been a crushing burden at Australian prices, but quite cheap in New York. Glass and camera bodies on the other hand are generally cheaper here than overseas (although I can’t understand that one), and cheaper still with the discounts I was offered.

    And I can add that on a number of occasions, when I didn’t feel I was being offered quite what I wanted, I found there are any number of professional photographers who have been only too happy to take time out, to provide advice based on their experience. And, of course, devoid of any profit motive. So their advice has been clear, impartial and practical. And VERY much appreciated..

    • Ahh, customer profiling: salespeople really need to learn not to do it, to their otherwise detriment. 🙂

      I think it’s pretty simple: if you’re handing across (often a lot) of hard earned money for something that is a discretionary purchase, you should feel good about it – otherwise, it’s simply a waste and encouraging that kind of poor behaviour. At very least, with online shopping you get homogenous indifference…

      “And I can add that on a number of occasions, when I didn’t feel I was being offered quite what I wanted, I found there are any number of professional photographers who have been only too happy to take time out, to provide advice based on their experience. And, of course, devoid of any profit motive. So their advice has been clear, impartial and practical. And VERY much appreciated..”
      I wonder who those people might be 🙂

  18. Your article is one of the best I’ve ever read concerning the camera/photography industry. I’m only a keen amateur and admire Nikon products but sales people seem to universally lack product knowledge and seem reluctant to secure a sale, often not even bothering to recommend a similar product from a different manufacturer. As you point out, Apple not only provide the product, they provide the Apple experience in store. Staff give every indication they love the product and make you feel special even if you do not make a purchase. Many other vendors should learn from the Apple example.
    As usual, I enjoyed your point of view.

    • “Apple not only provide the product, they provide the Apple experience in store. Staff give every indication they love the product and make you feel special even if you do not make a purchase.”
      Bingo – the amazing thing is the staff are generally not that well paid, don’t get staff discounts, have crazy targets, and still want to work there – if that’s not brand equity, I don’t know what is! 🙂

  19. I think it’s probably fair to say that in the average camera store, the average sales person has an average knowledge of the equipment they’re selling……. but they’re selling a lot of different brands and models. For someone who’s reading a web site like this, they probably have strong opinions about certain equipment or brands, and in a lot of cases would have a fairly deep knowledge of a piece of equipment they were about to drop a few thousand dollars on….. so what’s their motivation to listen to the sales person in a camera store…? For me, I’d usually just order online and try out the stuff I want (or occasionally rent it first).
    Also, I do know that camera manufacturers offer “bonus” payments to store staff, at times, for selling certain lenses or bodies, and that’s why you’ll sometimes hear a sales person raving about a particular brand of lens which may or may not be any good…..
    Not sure really how this situation can change since it doesn’t seem exclusive to the camera world…?

    • “For me, I’d usually just order online and try out the stuff I want (or occasionally rent it first).”
      Here’s the crux: if the average customers are dying off out of lack of interest or product pull factor, then they have to sell to the really interested ones to stay in business – that’s the motivation…

      • Yes, that’s a good point, but I think the economics of camera sales are that the big ticket items are sold very competitively price wise. There’s little profit or wiggle room…..the profit is in the bags, filters, caps, grips and all the other accessories…hence the push to load customers up with all of that stuff.
        The whole concept has to change in order to make the experience of going to a store to buy a camera a useful experience for the consumer….right now, I think ones experience would be more satisfying online, using your own research.

  20. While I’m strictly an amateur photographer, this article resonates with me on different levels.

    “the whole business hinges critically on being a relationship game: if anything, this is more important than the execution”

    Bingo. One of my jobs involves teaching English (hey, I’m a foreigner in Japan, it’s kind of a given!) and one of the things you learn after a while is that it matters barely a whit if you can actually teach, but it matters a great deal that you can give the impression of so doing (which in most schools involves jumping around and acting like an idiot). Learning a language, like any skill, takes a significant investment in time and effort, but there’s a perception here that just turning up to a language school once a week will result in native level fluency after a couple of years. Japan being a country where people rarely ever say exactly what they’re thinking, this leads to a marvelous merry-go-round of lies and unreasonable-to-impossible promises which everyone somehow agrees to sustain. On a personal level I spend at least an hour a day working on my Japanese ability, if not more. If I were to suggest that our students come every day for an hour, I would be laughed out of the room. (Same with photography : I have a camera on me 99 per cent of the time, even if it’s only my iPhone; this is why I can update my blog almost weekly).

    The other area where it resonates is your comments on camera stores. There are a number of camera stores where I live. In one of them, the staff are distant and generally unenthusiastic, occasionally bordering on resentful if you ask them to look at a camera. At the other, the staff are attentive, knowledgeable, patient and honest. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out which is the more pleasant place to shop at. The others are Bic Camera and Yodobashi, which you probably know anyway: those guys are outright sales reps whose average customer knows between “nothing” and “almost nothing” about cameras – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen people pick up a DSLR and try to look through the rear screen without turning live view on – and is thus likely an easy sale…

    Whereas in English we say “the customer is never wrong” (which is in itself wrong), the Japanese say “the customer is God”. That’s probably not a very smart philosophical approach to take…

    • “Japan being a country where people rarely ever say exactly what they’re thinking, this leads to a marvelous merry-go-round of lies and unreasonable-to-impossible promises which everyone somehow agrees to sustain.”
      That sounds like the creative industry in general! 😛

      On a more serious note: it takes a massively higher level of ability to be an effective teacher than to just execute: you have to be able to do the basics at an automatic/ intuitive level, understand the higher level logic enough to explain it, and see enough edge cases to handle curious or troublesome students…

      Camera stores: I find Map pretty good in general; they know their stuff and they’re helpful. Even with the esoteric items…

      The customer cannot be allowed to be god when education is involved: they’ll never learn anything that way. There are really only two successful approaches I’ve found: either you let them think they’re god but save them from themselves in a helpful, suggestive manner – or you act god and they follow. 🙂

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