Boosting "Net" Profits
Internet No Longer Such a Dirty Word for Photo Industry
by David L. Miller
The times they have a-changed. That formerly big-bad
Internet-the most visible symbol of the dreaded electronic monster
that was going to devour our traditional, film-based imaging
industry-has not only become our new friend, it has become a
powerful tool that can help us get our industry moving smartly and
swiftly on the road to recovery.
So said the two executives, representing both the manufacturer and retailer, who addressed the attendees gathered at the PMDA September (fall season kick-off) meeting in New York City last month. Given the past history, during which the two groups did not always see eye-to-eye on many issues, it was a welcome show of unanimity. Rather than ganging up on the "Net," the two came out swinging full force for it.
Harking back a decade or so, Jerry Grossman, vice president, Consumer Digital Products at Nikon, remembered when business relied heavily on the fax and FedEx method. Now, he claimed, fax and FedEx had evolved into email. More and more consumers are going online for research purposes along with such other activities as digital photo sharing. "With 62 percent of households now on the Internet," he said, "we must reach out to potential customers. Surfing is down, people know where to go for what they want." As for the "demise" of the Internet predicted a while back, as Mark Twain might have said: "It has been greatly exaggerated."
From the retailer's side, Henry Posner, director of Corporate Communications for B&H Photo-began with a reference to his daughter-a 9th grader and typical 21st century person whose philosophy can be loudly and excitedly summed up by "What do you mean 'before the Internet? There's always been the Internet!' (With a bow to Dennis the Menace.) My kid does nothing that's not online. I do things differently.
"I inherited the email duties at B&H when the guy running it saw no merit in it and dumped it in my lap-the newest kid on the block. I swam against the current and the mainstream. B&H never calls customers. I went looking for them where they were discussing problems and ideas, which gave me an opportunity to toss in helpful bits of info. I could answer without pushing a sale to B&H. That built an instant, if momentary, rapport between me and them. I put myself in a position to answer people's questions without any hard sell."
That, Posner continued, created B&H's rapport with consumers "the same way we do with the telephone and in-store customers. The Internet is an equal avenue. We put personality in our Web presence. We try to reach out to the customers, to let them know there are real people with names at B&H. That personalized service has been important and successful to us."
Both speakers strongly recommended building up an Intranet connecting each employee via a network of laptops. "That means our reps have to do their homework on the Web," Grossman pointed out. "The Internet provides two-way communication. We must involve every customer in a 1:1 relationship. Most of our orders come in via the Internet. They expect information from us and we must give it to them."
According to Posner, B&H has 700 employees, including over 100 salesclerks in the retail store and at least as many answering the telephones and email. "Everyone has Internet access," he said, adding that, "our website has a list of links to manufacturers' websites. Every manufacturer's link is available to every one of our guys and we encourage them to use it."
There was a mild disagreement on the fact that the Internet cannot do everything. Grossman: "It can't offer personal expertise or friendly advice and it can't hand deliver the product." (In answer to a comment/question from the audience he admitted the Net also can't give the customer a hug.) Posner implied that while it could do just about all the necessary tasks, it still needs a personal touch which he continually urges by a number of ploys, including personally monitoring email conversations to see that the personal touch is maintained while such no-no's as verbosity are held to a minimum.
Despite the person-friendly environment at B&H and the gradual shift away from the non-Net ways of doing business, Posner realizes that when you do the same thing over and over again you can lose your edge. "We use both the Internet and the Intranet and that helps our guys keep their edge." When Posner began telling his troops to phase out their old-fashioned, dog-eared looseleaf volumes and counter top aids in favor of the electronic alternative he encountered some resistance, naturally from some of the older employees. When one of them asked him, "Why?" he shot back, "because the Internet has everything that's in those books. If there's something missing, tell me and I'll scan it onto the Intranet.
"We are going to have all our data on hand electronically. We're going to be leaner, more efficient, answer our customers' questions faster, and be more robust, friendly, and embracing when we do it. I think people reach out to us because our people are making our environment handy and personal."
Both speakers emphatically endorsed use of the Internet by all segments of the industry. Posner called upon them to follow his people's lead in creating something similar to one degree or another. "The Internet is not a great monolith anymore than B&H, or Nikon, or Kodak is," he insisted. "It's a company made up of a diverse group of individuals with a diverse group of individual personalities that we hope our customers will embrace. I urge you guys-retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, salesmen-to do the same very, very much, [as much] as you possibly can."
Grossman reiterated that Nikon is "an Internet company. You, too, can make it work for you." Despite the aforementioned list of things it cannot do, "one of the things it definitely can offer is trust. The digital customer is very savvy and we must establish a dialogue with them. It's time for the photo industry to step up to the plate. Open your email address to the customer and make the Internet work for you and your business."