My Nikon Service Experience


Good, but it could be better.

It's been a long, long time since I've had to send a piece of equipment into Nikon for repair. Recently, my luck ran out--the original D70 I purchased had an internal flash unit that never functioned (I had to borrow D70s to finish that section of my eBook, if you're curious). Due to my travel and shooting schedule, it wasn't until late June that I had a chance to send the camera in to be fixed. Let's look at an annotated chronology first:

  • Friday 6/18. Camera is sent FedEx overnight from PA to Melville, NY.
  • Monday 6/21. Camera is signed for and received by NikonUSA. As attested to by FedEx email receipt.
  • Tuesday 6/22. Camera is logged into Nikon's system and the "estimate approved." NPS members agree to approve estimates in advance up to a certain amount. I'm using Nikon's terminology here, as the camera was accepted under warranty and thus the eventual bill would be zero; still, they use "estimate approved" to indicate a camera is ready to be repaired. However, on this particular date I have no way of knowing any of this, as the only way to know what's happening in NikonUSA's system is to have a service order number. Nikon wonders why so many people call them about the status of their repair? It's because the customer is essentially blind until they receive their letter from Nikon. For non-NPS customers, this becomes a bit more important, as unless the problem is completely a warranty repair, you'll have to at some point approve the estimate. If you're not paying attention to the database, you'll almost certainly delay your repairs.
  • Saturday 6/26. US mail brings a printed copy of the service order to me. The repair code is "B2 Service Repair Rank B2." I attempted to log into Nikon's online database to find out the status of the repair only to find that their entire Web site is down. And what the heck is B2 (more on that in a bit)?
  • Sunday 6/27. I finally manage to log into the Web site. The information there simply corresponds to what I already know: "6/22 Estimate Accepted." As I noted, NPS members accept estimates automatically up to a certain amount, and this was also printed on the service order I received in the mail.

And then we wait.

  • Monday 6/28, still "estimate approved."
  • Tuesday 6/29, still "estimate approved."
  • Wednesday 6/30, still "estimate approved."
  • Thursday 7/1, still "estimate approved." Turns out this is a pretty common situation, and one that Nikon needs to fix in two ways. First, they simply need to be a bit faster at fixing equipment (remember, I'm a member of NPS, so in theory, get expedited repair; though see below for more on that). People are losing jobs or memories when cameras sit awaiting repair. But more important, the current scenario essentially guarantees that customers will have escalating frustration. What they see is inactivity, and the longer it goes on, the more furious they get. I'm pretty sure that Nikon knows what the queue and parts situation is like, so they could say "estimate approved, estimated two-week turnaround." Yes, that can be frustrating, too, but information is always perceived better than lack of information, and given the popularity of this new camera, I'm willing to give Nikon the benefit of the doubt. This also intersects with another suggestion I've had for some time: NikonUSA needs an ombudsman who can intercede on the part of the customer in special cases. Consider this: you bought a new camera a month before a big trip so you'd have time to learn how to use it, discovered it had a warranty failure, sent it in to Nikon for repair, then didn't get it back in time for the big, once-in-a-lifetime trip. Think you'll buy Nikon equipment again? Not bloody likely, is it? An ombudsman correctly empowered and provisioned would have the ability to turn those "lost forever customers" into "forever loyal customers" who spread good words about the service they received (see right hand column).
  • Tuesday 7/6, the camera shows up on my doorstep. Hmm. My notes indicate that I checked status on 7/2 and it still showed the same in the online database. I do note that the paperwork received with the camera indicate that it was completed very late on the 1st. But the changes in the online database are somewhat subtle and easy to misread. For example, even after I received the camera back, when I look up the service order number the status says "Bill" (which the info tag explains means "The order has been confirmed," which doesn't tell me a lot; moreover, the info tag also notes there is a category called "Shipped" for order status, so why isn't that what shows on my service order? It obviously shipped, since I have the camera back). At the bottom of the status page is a "This order has been shipped," but this isn't where I'd be looking to see what the current situation is. But this brings up a last point: Nikon's system is all reactive, and not at all proactive. They have my email address (and if they implement my suggestions below, they could get it for everyone). Thus, they simply could auto-trigger an email every time the status changes. It would also help if there was some consistency in the "status" field with the actual status.

[A bit of an aside, as this article is about process, not function: the camera came back fixed and with updated firmware (not noted on the service order). It was very obviously cleaned (the viewfinder grime was gone). It was packaged well and returned via overnight service. So in terms of the actual service, Nikon did exactly as I would expect them to do. I've never actually had any fault with them on this, and my experience seems to match that of other's who've had to have equipment repaired: Nikon fixes things right. I don't think that part of Nikon's service is broken in any way, and I hope they retain that high standard forever.]

I mentioned NPS before. NPS is Nikon's service for professionals who make their living from photography. Most NPS members believe that they always get expedited service on anything they send in. But from the Nikon paperwork: "NPS expedited repair is offered only to current members of Nikon Professional Services. We take every step to give you the best quality service in the shortest amount of time possible." Further down this form is a slightly cryptic "NPS expedited repair is available for current Nikon SLR Professional equipment. While most pros own a Nikon Consumer Camera, we do not consider them 'Professional' equipment'." Oh-oh. So Nikon will only treat pros as pros if they buy the right stuff, eh? I think that statement either needs rethinking or clarification. I know an awful lot of pros using D70's and D100's. Are those consumer cameras? Bottom line: Nikon needs to clarify to professionals exactly what equipment is and isn't covered by the service.

[Another aside: NPS is a free service, but a vague one. I'd much rather have it be a paid service and a specified one. I'd pay US$100 a year to have very specific response and a real loaner pool for emergencies. So would virtually every pro I've talked to.]

Regardless of whether the D70 qualifies as a professional SLR or a consumer camera, let's look at this case as if I were simply a casual consumer having a problem. In no particular order:

  1. The lack of quick initial feedback is poor customer service. Had I not requested to be notified by FedEx of delivery receipt, I would have sent my D70 off and not heard a thing about it for 8 days. That's not what I'd call customer service. Solution: Nikon needs to have an automated up-front repair request system. Go to their Web site, pick the Repair Request form, fill in information about the product, serial number, problem encountered, and your contact info. In return you get a service order number immediately assigned and a form in your Web browser to print and send in with the camera. (If you were to look up the service order on the automated Web site at this point, you'd see "MM/YYYY Repair Requested; Equipment not yet received.") Not only does an up-front system like this help with the feedback situation, but it means that every piece of equipment comes into Nikon with the same consistent set of information, that Nikon can advise the customer directly of where to send the product, what to send with it, and what to expect in coming steps.
  2. Cryptic codes just puzzle consumers and create interesting rumors. I know that Nikon uses a fixed set of codes for their repair system. I get emails all the time from people asking me to interpret what the codes and descriptions actually mean. I wish that I could, but I can't. Apparently Nikon doesn't want anyone to know what they actually fixed on your camera, which isn't exactly a confidence-inspiring practice, is it? Back in the early days of the D1, for example, some people received their cameras back with an extra line in the service description referring to an oscillator part being replaced. This was the "quiet" patterned noise fix that Nikon made to replace a defective part in a handful of cameras. But they apparently only did this for cameras that came in for other repairs--the equivalent to the automotive industry's use of non-public technical service bulletins (my 2001 Suburu, for example, has been subject to 16 such TSBs, one of which my dealer won't acknowledge). So a logical conclusion that people get from the cryptic codes is that Nikon is trying to hide something, and then the rumors start flying. That D1 problem didn't effect every camera, for example, but the fact that Nikon never really publicly acknowledged that a problem existed, the rumors started flying that every D1 required that part fix. Not true, but in the face of no information from Nikon, that rumor persists today. Solution: publish what's covered by the various codes and publish TSBs. This says you stand behind your equipment.
  3. Unexpected fixes. There's a related issue to #2. "We repair all owner specified problems and all DIAGNOSED problems in order to return the equipment to factory specifications." You send in your camera under warranty to have a control that isn't working fixed. Nikon sends you a repair estimate for "major damage--customer abuse" to the lens mount that isn't covered by warranty. What happened is that when Nikon put the camera through their full diagnostic test set, they found other problems with it. Your choices are to have them do nothing at all and send it back to you, or to pay for the additional lens mount work. This isn't as bad as it sounds for the consumer, by the way. In the US, the fact that Nikon returns equipment to "factory specifications" has positive warranty implications for consumers, and I've never heard of a case where Nikon was being arbitrary and trying to pick up a few quick repair bucks. But it's still a shock. Even when all of the repair is covered under warranty, the customer is still perplexed by "Major Repair" when it's listed in addition to the things they asked to be fixed. Solution: Again, publish what the codes mean (and all the types of things covered under a code), plus publish TSBs for real issues that are going to be corrected if an item comes in for repair. I know Nikon was afraid they'd get every D1 back for repair if they acknowledged that some needed a new oscillator, but there were ways around that problem, and they all involve being more open about information, not less. I heard from several D1 users who sent their D1's in for "repair" for very minor things in hopes of getting a new oscillator. One did, two didn't. None of those people would have sent in their cameras without the rumors that swirled around the product.
  4. Too reactive; no proactive. Where do you send your equipment for repair? What do you send with it? What can you expect when you do? At every stage of the process, Nikon is reactive. Most people have to call Nikon service to kick off the process. That phone number typically isn't in the manual, there's no mention of process in the Troubleshooting section of the manual, and even when you figure it all out (in the US, 1-800-645-6678, which happens to be 1-800-NIKON-SV) many people either don't hear everything they're told or sometime's Nikon doesn't tell 'em. In the US you need to return the item with the proof of warranty sheet/card and usually a copy of the bill of sale; you should also strip the camera of accessories like the LCD cover, battery, storage card, eyecup, strap, basically everything except the body cap, otherwise you might not get them back (it's sort of like the inventory of someone going to prison; everything into the envelope, and if you're lucky no one loses the envelope or anything in it while you're "in the shop".). None of this is spelled out anywhere, nor would you even know about the on-line service order lookup at this point. The online database should be a reassuring aspect of service, so why Nikon doesn't tell you about it up front, I don't know. Solution: Make everything proactive. Publicize the process and steps (the steps are in my D70, D100, and D2h Guides, and I'll be adding it to my other books as I update them). Collect enough information up front so that Nikon can proactively email you as status changes. Be forthcoming about what's needed from the customer and what the customer can expect.

Curiously, as I was working on this article an article appeared in Fortune about how to tell if a company was customer centric or not ("5 Rules for Finding the Next Dell," July 12, 2004, page 103). Let's look at their five points and see how Nikon fares:

1. Is the company looking for ways to take care of you? On the product side, Nikon mostly does a good job. On the "experience" side, which includes software, service, and support, the report is less good. Indeed, the more something involves having to interact with a customer, the worse Nikon does.

2. Does the company know its customers well enough to differentiate between them? I'd have to say no to this; we have no real evidence that Nikon tries to understand its customers. If they did, someone at Nikon would be asking me about my database, as I have the names and addresses of more Nikon users than most organizations other than Nikon itself. [My current privacy policy says I don't share this info, by the way.]

3. Is someone accountable for you as a customer? A big no here. If you had a complaint about a Nikon product or support issue, where would that go? Who would you write? Who would you call? What would you expect that person to do? The answers are: don't know, don't know, don't know, and nothing.

4. Is the company managed for shareholder value? I think this is a yes, actually, though I'd insert the modifier "long-term" before shareholder value.

5. Is the company testing new customer offers and learning from the results? Another big no. Nikon's pretty set in their ways when it comes to how products are created and distributed. Moreover, there's the "subsidiary of a Japanese company" thing that gets in the way of NikonUSA and other wholly owned distributors getting too creative in this respect.

 
Word of Mouth


There's a perception that Nikon is losing DSLR sales to Canon because Canon equipment is "superior" in some way (e.g., full-frame, more resolution, lower noise, fill-in-the-blank claim). I disagree. The biggest reason why Nikon is losing market share to Canon is because of poor word of mouth.

Photographers talk (and email me ;~). Frequently. Good news spreads. Bad news spreads. No news spreads. In lieu of information, rumors get started (e.g., "there's no D2x yet because Nikon can't match Canon's resolution" that floated around in summer 2004).

In the pro ranks right now, the "word of mouth" on Canon is that their CPS service is active, responds to photographers questions and needs, delivers what they promise, is very active in loaning equipment (especially as "bait" to Nikon or other users), and has a visible photographer advocate who genuinely tries to make things better and is active on several Internet forums. The "word of mouth" on Nikon's NPS service is that NPS repairs aren't always timely, the loaner pool has all but disappeared except for special events, information isn't very forthcoming, expedited deliveries aren't (I got a D2h locally a month before my supposedly expedited delivery), and there is no longer a strong leader in the NPS office to help. Obviously I'm generalizing here, but I haven't heard a positive word about NPS in the last year.

Now word of mouth may or may not be accurate. But it's what circulates amongst photographers. One person with a problem tells 10 others, and the whole thing snowballs. If you were a pro and you heard the things I mention in the previous paragraph, what would your conclusion be? Should you buy Canon or Nikon?

Word of mouth also fuels perceptions in interesting ways. There's a common belief amongst some photographers that Canon is more innovative in telephoto lenses (that pesky IS ability and more recently the DO optics). While Nikon hasn't matched Canon lens for lens, the 200-400mm f/4G VR AF-S and the 200mm f/2G VR AF-S are certainly very innovative and slick lenses. Yet the word of mouth mill persists that Nikon isn't interested in producing exotic telephotos with VR (i.e., word of mouth can be wrong). The common denominator has become posts and comments like "I switched to Canon because all their telephotos have IS [not true] and Nikon doesn't seem to be interested in doing so [also not true]." [I should also point out that it doesn't help that a lens that should be garnering lots of attention, the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G VR AF-S, just simply isn't in stock anywhere.]

What it comes down to is this: Nikon's marketing hasn't improved. And now word of mouth is playing against them, too. Having great equipment isn't enough in today's consumer-oriented world, at least not if you aspire to the top market share, which I'm pretty sure Nikon does.

Let's look at it a different way: Nikon has an enormous hit with the D70. The common theme amongst the dozens of reviews I've seen to date has been something like "the Digital Rebel was first and paved the path; the D70 is more camera for very little more money." Even the non-photo magazines have stood up and noticed the D70 (Fortune, PC Magazine, etc.), all publishing rave reviews.

Yet look at the Internet forums immediately following the D70 introduction: post after post about back focus and moire, posts about firmware updates disabling the camera, posts about how long it takes to get repairs, and more. All those good things being said about the D70 by reviewers, myself included, get discounted by all the negative word of mouth things that go around. Nikon probably didn't know they had a problem. But if the phallanx of "problem posts" persists long enough, the sales rate will almost surely fall off. How do you keep that from happening? Communicate. Improve. Respond. Inform.

 

Initial article: 10/18/04



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