Nikon strives for loyalty with new customer experience department

Nikon broke down departmental and technological silos to create a customer experience department.

Knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, Nikon wagered that a highly responsive customer service would say a thousand more.

Nikon Corp. recently connected several of its business units -- including sales, marketing and even security -- by starting a customer experience department that the camera manufacturer believes will help it compete in a rapidly changing market.

Formed in 1917, Nikon until recently handled customers the way it always handled customers: department by department. A customer would, for example, speak to marketing about a rebate but had to connect with service technicians to ask a technical question about a camera.

"We had lots of groups that talked to customers," said David Dentry, Nikon's senior general manager of customer experience. "There wasn't a lot of coordination with these teams. It worked because this was a legacy organization, but it wasn't the most effective way to talk to customers."

Increased competition prompts customer experience initiative

Even though Nikon had long thrived in the camera market, Dentry and his team understood that to remain relevant in today's highly competitive marketplace, the company's "legacy" approach would eventually have to change. Nikon traditionally sold its film cameras and high-end photo equipment through specialized dealers. But recent demand for small, digital cameras through other selling points, especially the Internet, meant Nikon had to have quick answers for newly-empowered customers who could easily go elsewhere.

"Something everybody talks about is you have to be where the customer is," Dentry said. "You can't expect them to work around your schedule. You have to be ready to talk to them."

The first shift in the way Nikon did business happened about three years ago when it redesigned its website to become more customer friendly, Dentry said. The site didn't change just its aesthetic; items were presented according to questions and needs customers had voiced, he said.

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Then, over the past year, Nikon started reconfiguring customer service from within, deciding the only way it could have a unified voice was to get its departments on the same page. That meant talking to different business units about their agendas, determining how those business units impact one another and figuring out how customer service approaches would need to be adjusted.

"It's almost a 100-year-old company. We potentially had lot of feet dragging, but upper management realized it's really important to study the customer's journey with us," Dentry explained. "We made a compelling case, and no one objected."

What no one objected to was the formal creation this year of a customer experience department. Nikon took any department that has a system that connects with customers and placed it under the customer experience department umbrella.

This didn't require moving desks and chairs; groups and larger departments would still function as usual. It just meant they all had access to the same customer information.

Customer experience umbrella goes up

The customer experience department took in the support team, which includes the call center and Web page crews; the ecommerce group, which includes representatives from sales, marketing and merchandising; and the customer loyalty group, which includes Nikon's professional services, an offering for pro photographers that Dentry calls "a loyalty program on steroids."

The umbrella also had room for operations staff, including security guards and building receptionists. "Previously, it was not the best experience," he said. "An operator would say, 'What extension? Please hold.' So customers were not always getting questions answered. And sometimes, the first person they'll talk to is the receptionist or the security guard."

By bringing security guards and receptionists on board, the customer experience department can now answer questions without reflexively transferring customers to departments that aren't necessarily the best destinations, Dentry said. "We've trained those receptionists to provide the same level of experience. This helps the contact center," he said.

Additionally, marketing can now answer an IT question or find the right person to do so. Employees under the customer experience umbrella now have a wider view of a customer's experience, he said.

[Nikon] employees under the customer experience umbrella now have a wider view of a customer's experience.

All the necessary systems for the new customer experience department were already in place, Dentry said. Nikon has used Oracle CRM tools for nearly nine years, for instance, and SAP enterprise resource planning for financial functions such as billing. These systems have provided a universal view of customer interactions, he said.

Not every Nikon employee who interacts with a customer becomes a member of the new team. Instead, Dentry prefers to choose members of the group by looking at job descriptions and creating a mix of workers.

"Sometimes, a group or person doesn't actually report to [our] group but has a dotted line and is included," he said. "The group manager should really be a big-picture person who looks at all aspects of the business and isn't afraid to step on some toes."

The customer experience department has covered most of the gaps that existed when groups and departments didn't share customer information. With a lack of communication, one group would send the wrong message and a customer "would use it against us," said Dentry. "We'd be backtracking and trying to explain."

Nikon's new department "doesn't spend a lot of time doing analytics" to see how it is faring, he said. The company has seen an increase in customer rating scores, but otherwise has stopped short of conducting pinpoint research to evaluate the new processes.

It has a simpler way of measuring success that involves a little soul searching. "At the end of the day … you can tell whether you're doing the right job," Dentry said.

This was first published in August 2012

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