7 ways to support an emotional bond to a product

Humans do something really odd; we form emotional bonds with physical objects. The coffee mug we use every morning gives us a sense of comfort as we start our days. That t-shirt from the Pearl Jam concert 20 years ago makes us smile when we wear it. The keyboard we are used to makes it easier to slide into our daily work. As photographers, I know this emotional bond all too well. I love my gear and the more I learn how to use it properly, and more importantly, the more great results I get with it, the gear becomes more than just a hunk of plastic and metal. It becomes an extension of me.

So when something goes wrong with my gear, I feel it more than a broken water pipe at home or a printer at work on the fritz. (If you think I’m just weird, pick a photographer, any photographer, and ask them about this issue) When gear breaks, I want to fix it. But more importantly, I want to know what was wrong, what was done, and if I should be on the look out for similar problems in the future. Basically, I want to be involved in the process of bring life back to our gear.

Rather than trying to avoid this emotional connection, you’d think a company like Nikon would be trying to stoke that feeling. After all, the more emotionally connected to your gear you are, the more likely you’re going to do all the things Nikon wants you to do: stay with their system, buy new gear, upgrade existing gear, and talk about how you could have only captured those images on Nikon. As my recent experience with Nikon Repair reminded me (I’ve been through this process before), Nikon doesn’t seem to have the slightest desire for anything but getting my money and closing my ticket.

A few weeks back, I sent in my Nikon SB-800 flash to get repaired. I’d bought it for a good price off a seller on Craigslist, and while it worked, it had always fired a bit strangely. I’d never been able to put my finger on a specific pattern for the problem, but there was a number of occasions where it just behaved incorrectly. After a recent shoot where I couldn’t seem to get the unit to respond like it was supposed to and narrowing the issue to the SB-800, I sent it to Nikon repair. It was out of warranty, so I expected to pay some money for the repair.

A few days after Nikon Service received it, I got physical letter stating that I needed to call and give authorization for the repair. (Note: they had my email address too, but chose to send only a physical letter) So I picked up the phone and was soon talking to a customer service rep who needed a credit card number to charge me a repair fee. I asked her, “Oh, so that must mean you found something wrong”. Nope, they just wanted to get my credit card first before they went digging around. Fair enough; I could see how Nikon wouldn’t want to do the repairs before they ensured themselves payment. About 7 days after this call, my SB-800 arrived home with the invoice shown below.

I’m pretty sure that they didn’t, in fact, repair anything. But I have no clue.  The line “No problem found”, I assume refers to the entire process, not the “CKD IMAGE TEST” line that appears before it. Take a look at this invoice. This is the only contact Nikon made with me (and it was only included in the box when they sent my flash head back). No follow-up questions, no desire to ensure they’d fully heard my concerns. And more importantly, no support of the fact that there is no support for the emotional bond that I have with my gear.

Imagine going to a hospital with your child who needs surgery. After the doctor performs the surgery, he comes out and says to you “Insurance claim KRD filed. Surgery complete. Surgery level RX1. Total cost: $5326.23”. You’d be furious and confused, wouldn’t you?

As companies grow in size, they necessarily grow in complexity. And as complexity and scale are increased, an almost certain casualty is empathy for the customer. It’s easy to lose track of what a customer wants or needs, or even how they feel when you have more pressing concerns like how you need to adjust your call center to meet increasing demand while continuing to push for lower costs per call. I fully understand the desire and the need to focus on quality vs. time spent ratios as a core customer care metric.

It makes sense that a goal of the service process should be to reduce the amount of time needed to provide a quality response. But customer care teams also need to be considering the impact of their process on the emotional bonds of a customer too. I’m happy to spend the necessary money (whether or not there was a problem to fix or if I was just covering Nikon’s time to deal with something that wasn’t faulty), but I want to be part of the process too. I don’t want to hear that it was in a “Service Repair Rank 1”. I have no idea what that means, and it’s ridiculous to think I should be expected to.

At this point, Nikon is just a cold corporate entity to me. It’d be easy to switch to another camera maker (and I already have with the Olympus E-P3). I don’t feel any particular allegiance to Nikon, and after this repair process (the third time I’ve gone through this), I realize that if they don’t care about me, I don’t need to care about them.

But fixing this broken emotional bond isn’t rocket science.Here’s 7 ways Nikon (or your company) could better support the emotional bond:

  1. Change the language of these invoices and status tracking tools to be understandable by customers, not service techs. “Service Repair Rank B1” means nothing to me. I’d be surprised if it really means much to Nikon employees.
  2. Give customer care reps the room and the requirement to spend a few minutes recapping the problem with the customer before a repair and/or after a lack of problems is found.
  3. Build service processes (or really any kind of customer care processes) that are specifically charged with more than just repairs. Is your customer care team being assessed on criteria like positive word of mouth?
  4. Personalize the Nikon experience. Who worked on my repair? What is their name or location or interest in photography? Sure some of this might be more theater than reality, but even a name of who conducted the repair would be better than “Service Repair Rank B1″…whatever that means.
  5. Find better ways of engaging and/or advising customers if there’s no problem found. You make me feel like an idiot when you send me back my flash without telling me what’s wrong. Perhaps you could include some info or a URL that describes common misunderstandings or FAQs about that product. Maybe something is still broken, but maybe I’m just not using it right. Helping me solve my problems, rather than solely thinking about closing your ticket and charging my card makes me feel like you’re here for me, not for you.
  6. Find ways to bring the voice of the customer inside the organization. It’s easy to forget what it’s like to only have access to a limited amount of equipment. It’s easy to forget that customers aren’t spending 8+ hours a day repair your product. There’s still magic in it for them.
  7. Rethink the packaging and printed materials. Shipping me a plain cardboard box with my gear wrapped in nothing but bubble wrap is boring. It’s an exciting day when my long-lost gear returns home. Make me excited for the unboxing. I know this seems to be a hard concept for any technology company to grasp, other than Apple, but seriously, beautiful packaging is an emotional driver and easy to do.

And yes, I’m sure there are many reasons why some of the things above won’t work at Nikon (or another big company). I’m sure there was a natural evolution of internal need that yield the results we see today. So what? When you aren’t supporting an emotional bond to your product/service, you’re asking for customers to leave you for someone who will.

And what about you? Have you had to experience service like this and been left feeling similarly wanting? How could Nikon (or other companies) better appeal to your emotional connection to their products?


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