What's Wrong at Nikon, 2009 Edition

A periodic update to my usual rants

Original: 9/5/2009

I suppose I could just point to the various articles I've written over the past 15 years on the net (yes, I've been doing this blog-like thing for 15 years now), but periodically I like to use new sarcasm and pith rather than point to old sarcasm and pith. So here's a brief refresh of a few things I've been complaining about Nikon-wise for some time now. It's the same old list:

  • No Humans Allowed. Ever tried to reach someone human at Nikon? I'm talking about real Nikon employees, in virtually any department. The phone system at NikonUSA is 99 layers of voice mail. Email addresses are usually kept private. You're left with the Knowledge Database, the Service Database, or the contract laborers in the Carribean who answer the tech support questions. Howard Hughes was more accessible than most Nikon employees. Nikon has spent decades building a wall between you and them. This wall has no windows and only a few secret and hidden doors. Worse still, behind the wall Nikon must be indoctrinating the staff to not interact with the customers, because when a Nikon staff member is found outside the wall, they usually refer you to the phone or email portal on the wall. If they do answer a question, their answer is usually short and to the point. Perhaps Nikon employees are all trained in Stepford.
  • Not Global. Take a look at Nikon's board of directors. Or the CEOs of some of its prime subsidiaries, such as NikonUSA. Notice anything? Global decisionmaking is Japanese, and even global input gets filtered through Japanese. This sort of insular management can be a form of NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome. And Nikon's version of it seems to be one of the most insular (and all male and all Nikon-grown, to boot). To some degree, the "No Humans Allowed" and "Not Global" things are relatives of the same problem: a lack of closeness to the customer. And being removed from the customer means that you often discover too late that you're not serving your customer well. Usually, either a disruptive force or a more desirable competitor starts to move the customer away from you and the first place you see that is in your sales numbers (because you're not talking to the customer closely enough, you get no warning before sales dissipate). Fortunately for Nikon, Sony is just as bad. But it's not really a good practice to count on your competition being bad at something.
  • Mushy Software. My friend Alan Cooper wrote his seminal The Essentials of User Interface Design back in 1995. Nikon still hasn't read it. Or anything else like it, for that matter. The only interesting user interface bit in any Nikon software is something that came from Nik, the Control Point. But Nikon's software problems don't stop at unfathomable UI. Every time Apple or Microsoft iterates their OS, Nikon software seems to break. And users always discover this before Nikon gets around to posting anything (which will always be the "we don't do compatibility testing until the OS is out in user hands" boilerplate that lives on some product managers desk at Nikon. Nikon software efforts make Microsoft's software efforts look like polished, flawless diamond. The shame is, that underneath all that UI and installer dreck lies some very nice algorithmic code (e.g. raw demosaic routines). But it's burried under years of neglect, UI shovelware, and poorly chosen code frameworks.
  • Muddle Gray. The failure to address gray market products in a straight forward way is an embarrassment. No one is asking for free repairs for life, or men in ties coming to our front door to service gray market product in our homes. All we've ever asked for are two simple things that seem to completely defy the management at Nikon: (1) repair gray market equipment for normal repair fees; and (2) publish a Japan address at which gray market equipment can be returned for warranty repair (and publish the procedure for requesting such repair). The fact that we've not gotten either thing, nor even a plausible explanation for why neither can be done, suggests that Nikon directly financially benefits from the gray market product movement. The day anyone can prove that this is true is the day Nikon will find that the cost to defend the class action suit against their actions is going to be more expensive than the solution users are asking for. And if Nikon doesn't financially benefit, then their policies make as much sense as a Vegemite and Haggis sandwich on two slices of cardboard.

You might notice that I don't complain about Nikon's cameras with such vehemence. True, I'll point out a shortcoming when I see it. But, in general, Nikon's engineering is excellent (hardware, not software). If the management of Nikon made as good a decision as does, say, the designers who worked on the D3 generation of cameras, Nikon would be another Apple: a brand that users would rally behind and defend against all comers.

But you might have noticed a theme in my complaints: users get short shrift in Nikon's world. It's as if Nikon says "here, take this wonderful new camera and go away." How such a culture got started, let alone promulagated, I don't know. I only wish that Nikon would wake up and start treating their customers like something of value. Since I seem to be in a fable mood this week, let me end with another paraphrased fable:

A Nikon user and a Nikon executive met at the side of a river that had a bridge only wide enough for one to cross at a time, and which had a gap at its start. The user asked to go over the bridge first with the executive helping him across the gap, but the executive was silent and said nothing in response. "Ah, I understand you think that's not fair, so let's draw straws to see who goes first" said the user. The executive kept silent and just stared at the user. "Okay," continued the user, "I'll just lie down and let you walk over me to cross the bridge." Finally, the executive found his voice: "I'm a little particular about what I walk on. Why don't you just get out of the way and I'll jump over the gap and be on my way." And that, dear reader, is how it happened that the executive got to the other side and the user was left behind.


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