What Nikon should have set as goals for 2005, or 2006, or 2013, 2016, or whatever year it is now
It's no secret that I give advice to Nikon publicly. It's the only way I know how—Nikon Japan, where most of the decisions are made, is isolated from its customers by its distribution system and has no direct channels open for dialog. Even when a pushy American like me gets in the door and gets an audience with the key leaders at Nikon Japan, you get a typical Japanese business reaction: lots of meeting ceremony and little or no actual direct discussion of issues. I know that some Nikon employees read this site, and I know they're smart folk, so perhaps the word will get back to where it needs to go. At least that's my hope. Herewith, then, are the five New Year's resolutions I think Nikon needs to make. [Note: I wrote this originally in 2005, but for some strange reason it's still true today and needed very little editing to update, even after I've met with Nikon executives more than once during that time.]
"Next year we'll improve customer relations"
Nikon, like Apple, lives just outside the mainstream. Both companies engineer interesting, unique, competitive, high-performance, and slightly idiosyncratic products, and do so on their own schedule. Unlike Apple, Nikon has yet to master marketing or customer relations (not to say that Apple is perfect, but they're good enough that if Nikon attained that level, it would be a vast improvement over present conditions).
Right now, Nikon doesn't really perform any meaningful Nikon-to-customer relationship. The only "interactive" portal into Nikon is a labyrinthian phone mail system that ultimately produces frustration on the part of anyone who's ever tried navigating it. The digital tech support system on the Web sites was a slight step in the right direction—at least software updates and a few common questions are researchable if you don't mind clicking through the equivalent of Nikon's phone mail system (way too much navigation guys—try looking at Google's main interface; moreover, the whole site is a bit slow and not always up to date).
Here's a challenge for Nikon: know your customer better than Thom Hogan does. Make your tech support answer questions better than Thom Hogan does. Talk to your customer more than Thom Hogan does. Now this isn't an egocentric play on my part—I find it absurd that I seem to know more about some of Nikon's products and am more accessible to Nikon customers than NikonUSA is (I answer all Nikon-related questions I get via email, often the same day, even though this may mean staying up late at night while traveling). I find it even more absurd that top-name pros that use Nikon equipment (yes, you'd recognize their names) ask me about Nikon's products and plans because they're not getting enough contact and information from NikonUSA. This is the antithesis of customer relations.
Yes, I know that companies are getting their margins squeezed and sending tech support jobs offshore to keep costs down. But that's a dangerous path. The slide of the dollar isn't the least of it. The problem is that when a company essentially tries to be a hermit and avoid its customers, as Nikon seemingly does, it only takes one big problem to hurt the company big time.
Let's go off path here for a moment. Let's consider a hypothetical case: Company X makes sophisticated automatic steering systems for cars. Press a button and your car drives itself, allowing you to surf the internet and read this site more regularly during your commute (;~). The system sells well and becomes popular and imitated. But the company that makes it doesn't talk to customers directly—the product is only installed through auto dealers, and the marketing and support questions are all handled by phone operators overseas. Then one day a car crashes and the media start speculating that the auto pilot from Company X was the cause. Panicked calls start coming into the support center in Third World Country Y, which, unfortunately means that some of those answering the phone are distracted with putting their live's back together after the latest natural disaster and not much into dealing with a problem they haven't even heard about from the company they work for yet. Now the media reports that Company X, whose product might have caused an accident, is not responding to customer questions because their tech support center is preoccupied with its own problems (or is it a conspiracy not to say anything?—I'm sure that rumor would pop up, too). How many auto pilots will Company X sell in the coming year? [I wrote this in 2005, before the rash of Toyota Quality Control problems surfaced and became news. Notice what happened to Toyota reputation and sales. And they were better at customer relations than I describe here.]
You may remember the president of Johnson & Johnson a couple of decades back when a few bottles of tainted Tylenol was discovered in the US. His reaction was instantaneous, in your face, and clear. The president of the company was on the news shows the next day. The product was recalled (all of it). Hotlines were set up for concerned customers to call. Ads appeared everywhere telling people what to do, who they could contact, and what was going to be done. Customers that did call or return product received followups. J&J, in their actions, said "the customer matters." Johnson and Johnson was not a hermit company then, and it isn't a hermit company now. Customers can actually reach real people, ask questions, and get answers. (Contact Us is in bold on their Web site and one of the six main links at the top of the page. Contact information is on their products, too. So quick question: where in anything that Nikon delivered to you is the phone number for tech support? Do you know what it is? Why hide it?)
Nikon needs to stop being a hermit when it comes to customers. That's what this resolution is all about. Tell customers you care about them, want them to be a repeat customer, let them know how to get hold of you, reply to them in a timely and complete fashion when they do, anticipate their questions, listen to complaints and politely let the customer know that--even if you can't do anything about that complaint today--that you've heard it and the information will get passed on to the right organization within the company for further review or action. Then followup if there is further review and action. That's all we Nikon customers ask.
"By the end of the year, we'll complete a full model lineup and publish a basic road map"
Elsewhere on this site you'll find the Nikon Wishlist. There are a lot of items on that list, and it's not complete by any means. Some products seem grossly over due. Some have been teased for a long time only to not show up at all. It's time to complete those products and move them to market. Moreover, all those silly hints from Nikon executives (2010's "we could launch a mirrorless system by the end of next fiscal year") need a little more meat on them when they're made. Publish a basic road map so your users know where you're headed. To me, it looks like Nikon is headed for at least a five-system spread of products (Coolpix, CX mirrorless, DX mirrorless, DX DSLR, FX DSLR). If so, just say that. It's not a secret you need to keep from competitors. They already know. It's only your customers who are in the dark.
But more to the point, Nikon is a camera and lens company (two-thirds of their sales). A company that so heavily relies upon one market like this needs to act like it knows what it's doing. "Coolpix represents our pocketable entry level cameras. Mirrorless is for someone growing out of Coolpix and needs more performance and flexibility. DX is for serious shooters seeking high levels of performance at a reasonable price. FX is for professionals and those that seek the very best levels of performance, in every aspect, regardless of price. Each of these four camera levels will have multiple options available to further serve our customer's needs." There, was that so hard? Further: "For our interchangeable lens models aimed at consumers (CX, DX), we will produce a full range of zoom kit lenses, a higher-specified set of of zoom lenses, and a basic set of primes. For our pro models we will augment that with a full complement of lenses that cover virtually every need a user has (and most of these will work on DX cameras, too)." Again, not so hard. It tells your customer your basic intentions without getting into specifics. Finally, if you need to equivocate a bit, just do so: "While these are our basic intentions, market demands may force us to change our plans in the future. If that occurs, we will let you, our customer, know that we've changed these plans."
Personally, I want more, and don't see that there is any real issue with providing a bit more. Within the above, putting a few further things in writing would be useful. For example, we know that major DSLR generations come in four-year boundaries starting with the pro models. Just say that. In writing. Likewise, consumer models are iterated on two-year boundaries. Say that. And if you're going to miss an expected update, just say to your customer "we know you are expecting us to produce a new X in the coming months. That product is currently delayed, but we'll get it to you as soon as possible." And letting people know what new lens models are coming (not updates, but completely new models) in the next six months or year helps them plan their spending. Treat your customer like an adult and they'll appreciate and respect it.
"Everywhere in our lineup we'll continue to provide more value"
Nikon actually has done pretty well at this one since I first wrote that line in 2005. If you just look at the progression of the D70 to the D80 to the D90 to the D7000 to the D7100 to the D7200, you see what I mean. At the same basic price level (adjusted for currency fluctuation and inflation) we've gotten more camera and more performance every generation. The same is true all across the product line. So it's clear that Nikon actually made this resolution for some of their products and kept it. Why didn't they communicate it to customers, though?
"Value" is a perception thing, not necessarily dollars and cents versus features. That also means that Nikon has to improve their marketing messages and incidentals. The Digital Rebel is advertised on television here in the United States as a camera capable of shooting professional football (from the stands!). A very deceptive message, but effective marketing isn't just being able to state facts, but an ability to shift mind share. Remember, Canon also advertises its pro cameras as being the choice of sports photographers. So the Digital Rebel commercial actually ties into a more subtle theme: use the camera that pros use.
Nikon's recent use of "if the picture matters, the camera matters" theme is okay. The basic idea is fine, but the problem with it is that we're never really told why "the camera matters" means buy a Nikon. In essence, Nikon is trying to market using the consumer assumption of the old perception that Nikon made the best cameras. Unfortunately, today Nikon needs to retell the world just how Nikon makes the best cameras. Nikon was first with a lot of things. Nikon was best at a lot of things. Nikon continually improves the same level of product to the point where generation four is so much better than generation one. But they haven't done much to tell the average Joe that they've been doing that and will continue to. Many people have doubts. Time to retell the story, Nikon. Add value by telling us why things are designed the way they are, and what that means to our pictures. Nikon started designing wide angle lenses with digital in mind back in the 1990's. Canon's took a number of years to get around to that. There are differences. But unless they're marketed, the casual user will never know about them.
Another way to put a thorn in Canon's once-a-year consumer DSLR replacement is to add value with longevity: a two-year warranty would be perceived both as more real value and a subtle slap at how fast the Canon models go out of date. Sure, make the two-year warranty like the lens four-year warranty (requires return of the registration card).
Coolpix needs even more attention than the DSLRs. When everyone is using the same commodity sensors and electronics, you can only compete on price or value. Nikon isn't a company that should compete mostly on price--that's not the company's heritage or strength. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Nikon has done in the last few years. It dulls the brand. Coolpix feels like a "me too" product line, not a "provides more value" product line.