Conversations with William Lee

We speak to Mr William Lee, General Manager of Nikon’s International Customer Support Division, about his career in photography and some of the challenges that the industry faces today.

How has your experience in this line of work been? Could you share your story so far?

William: I started my career as a customer support executive in Nikon Singapore, serving customers who needs help with their Nikon equipment.  As I progressed, I was also involved in areas of Marketing and Sales, and I am currently back in customer support.  As part of the International Customer Support Division in Nikon Singapore, my responsibilities include Customer Support and Service, management of our Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and customer engagement programs such as Nikon School and Nikon Professional Services.

Nikon School is one of my main responsibilities. There, we educate our customers and the younger generation about photography.  It has been a rewarding and experience for me so far as I have been exposed to the different areas of our business. I also got to engage with different groups of customers using our equipment.  As digital imaging becomes more common, our role has also been changed from supporting customers to educating customers so that they can get the best out of the products which they purchase from us.

What is the work environment like?

William: This is a very dynamic environment as I get to interact with customers from all walks of life, from consumers to professional photographers and professionals such as doctors and scientists.  All these groups of customers have different requirements for photography and hence we need to be able to ensure that we have the required knowledge to support them.

You mentioned that you weren’t really expecting to go into this industry. How did you decide to join this profession? Did you go into it after school or did you consider other things at first?

William: I actually did Information Technology (IT) – when I did, my major was in networking and programming – both had nothing to do with photography. So nobody would have imagined that going to school to learn about IT would land me in a photography-related profession. You’d probably would think that I would have ended up in an IT firm doing networking stuff. So it had totally never occurred to me that I would end up here in this role today.

What did you expect when you started working here?

William: When you start working in a new industry as a fresh graduate, you will start to think about your future plans: what do I want to achieve in the next 5-10 years in this industry I am in?

If you focus only on one goal in any one job you are holding at a particular time, you will often fail to adopt a wider perspective by considering the functionality of an organisation. Many things happen concurrently in an organisation, and what you are doing is just part of what the organisation wishes to achieve. So if you are only looking at what you are doing and how you can grow in that role, you will often not get the satisfaction you’re looking for. But if you look beyond your role, and make it a point to learn something every day, you will start to appreciate what you are doing. Subsequently, you will learn and grow not just within your role, but within the organisation.

When I first joined, I also questioned if this was the right job for me  because I felt that  doing something customer centric is unconventional for an IT graduate. I’m not a person that can handle customers or communicate very well, so I questioned whether or not this job was suitable for me, and whether I could excel in this environment. So I kept asking this again and again to myself, and sometimes I am puzzled as to why I was able to overcome all of these hurdles I thought were there initially.

Is there anything in your job that you would find surprising to someone who doesn’t know about what you do?

William: At first, a lot of my friends thought “Wow, you’re in a very exciting role” because they were all photography enthusiasts. When I told them that I was joining Nikon, a lot of them thought “Wow, you’re getting the best job because you get to play with cameras every day”. In reality, however, I had little time to take photos and to enjoy my hobby because my job’s focus is on supporting customers. I was basically just using the knowledge I had. As the years progressed, the amount of time I got to enjoy photography decreased.

I also started to get involved in other aspects of the business, such as being involved in other areas of the business to help generate more profit for the company. This has decreased my interaction with the photography equipment – which is why I’ve been trying to be a lot more involved in Nikon School; it’s one way that I can try to take pictures and get in touch with the customers without leaving this industry.

So how did you actually make the leap to come into this industry?

William: I love photography and I have been taking pictures since I was 15 years old. In those days, we used film cameras instead of digital cameras. By the time I graduated from school, digital cameras had just started being available on the market. They were viewed as an IT product instead of a camera product, and we were at the stage where we needed to start educating our distributors about the functions of digital cameras.

That’s why they started to look out for someone like myself – someone exposed to the IT area with knowledge in film photography. Someone like that will be able to combine both bodies of knowledge to generate awareness and educate our distributors on the benefits in digital camera as compared to film camera. In those days, adoption of the digital was minimal as people didn’t really trust the technology. They thought that it was very expensive and not as good as a film camera. This created a lot of hesitation. Our role was to inform them of the many new benefits that digital cameras can bring as compared to film cameras.

You did mention that the industry has been progressing at a very rapid pace. So would you say that you’ve been a witness to how it has changed? How much has it changed over time?

William: Yes, I came in at a point when digital cameras started to be available. These days,  consumers with smartphones that have very powerful cameras get to witness how dramatic the switch is: from a point where a phone doesn’t have a camera, to the point where a phone has a camera – and to today, where phone manufacturers are advertising their camera’s capability instead of the phone’s. We also see more people using their phones to capture images no matter where  we go. You basically witness how the industry came from zero to hero today, with so many devices that provide the ability for everyone to take more photos. So it’s a very different world altogether.

How has this change in the industry impacted the sort of things that you do in your job?

William: When I first joined, our main purpose was to educate people on the benefits and functions of digital photography. Today, we’re no longer talking about functionalities or technical specifications to the customers anymore. We need to be able to link photography to their lifestyle, letting them be aware that photography is with them anytime, anywhere. We also need to let our customers know that they can get benefits from a smartphone, and the bigger benefits they can get from a proper camera. So the whole message that I have to bring across has changed dramatically.

Do you have any stories of the most exciting thing you’ve ever done for your job?

William: In my recent years working in the Nikon School, I saw something new unfolding. In the past, it was more of a customer support or customer service kind of role – you’re always sitting there waiting for customers to come to you. In recent years, when we started with the Nikon School Project, we started going out more to customers, so we started engaging with customers from different backgrounds, and recently we started going out to schools as well.

In the past, it was always the case where people would look for us due to problems they faced when using their equipment. Nowadays, however, we’re going out with a different purpose: to share about photography and how beautiful photography is. If you have that passion in creating impactful images, you can use that to communicate stories. So you start to see the involvement of the kids, and sometimes it’s exciting to see some ideas that they can come up with. They are able to spot the many details that even we overlook sometimes.

We thought that we were only selling cameras – but in reality, we’re selling a passion and a hobby. This hobby is evidently very enjoyable for people as they come back to us telling us of the many exciting things they have never seen before.

You mentioned that there’s a very big difference – you used to support customers as opposed to educating them nowadays. So this is what you’re talking about?

William: Exactly.  In the past, customers would just call in and ask us very technical questions. The concern for most was just about the specification they needed for a particular kind of photography, or they come with technical issues that they cannot find ways to overcome. So we come in to provide them with that kind of troubleshooting support, to help them overcome the issues that they faced.

Nowadays, most cameras — even smartphones — are very advanced and easy to use, so customers do not come to us with that kind of questions anymore. Instead, they’re looking at ways to create better stories. They want to know about the new functions and equipment available that can help them create  better stories which they can then share them to their friends or send in for competitions. So now we find that educating them is more critical than just sitting and waiting for them to come to you. That’s why our role changed from a customer support role to a more educational role.

Does this transition involve the entire company?

William: Our core responsibility of customer support hasn’t changed. We still need to be there when customers come to us. What we have done in addition is to create a function where we can go out and educate customers more. A lot of customers today are willing to learn and have a strong urge to  get more information. For example, many people what to know how much they can get from an expensive DSLR camera before they spend their money and invest in it. So if we are more proactive in educating customers, they will better understand the technical abilities of their equipment and the fundamentals of photography. They are then likely to appreciate photography more. These kinds of information would then help them in their purchases and the usage of the equipment.

So actually in the pictures you sent us, it showed you conducting a course. Was that in a school?

William: It was in a workshop. It was during the Nikon School workshop conducted for Southeast CDC. This was to a younger audience — Secondary 2 to 4. We tried to make the session a bit more engaging by showing the portrait of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. This is to bring across the relationship with portrait painting to photography, and how that started evolving with painting itself. The intent of what people do when they take photos is still the same —  to preserve a part of time or a special memory that they want and using that to communicate a story to the audience.

Apart from this, we had another photo of a journalist holding the hand of a little boy in Uganda. Taken by Mike Wells, that photo had a great impact on the world. We wanted to tell [the students] the accessibility of photography in spreading messages, and how convenient it is to do so with a phone today.

Our course aimed to create an interest in photography: if you have that eye or that angle that can communicate a story, the skills that you acquire in photography can help you communicate that in a stronger way to your audience.

Seeing that you’ve actually seen the industry change so much over the years, how do you think it’s going to be like going forward?

William: It’s really very hard to predict. There was a very big leap when I first entered the industry. It started from film, and then everything moved to digital. During that time it was very clear that everyone was leaving behind their film cameras and moving into digital, which became irreplaceable. The advantages of using film compared to using a digital camera were so little. At this point where everything in the digital camera has matured so much, it’s easy to imagine that there might be something that could replace digital, but we have no clue what that may be. Right now, everything is still evolving around what we already have. Things are getting faster, better, more advanced. I kept asking myself: what is going to come out next? What’s going to be available next? What is the next technology that will be replacing digital?

What sort of changes have you seen in the course of your career?

William: We saw cameras [evolve] from being small to being very big to going back to a small structure again. The demands of the market keep changing: people preferred a smaller phone in the 1990s, and when smartphones came out, they preferred bigger ones. Perhaps somewhere down the line, they would prefer smaller phones again.

But a technology is made more advanced (though it’s partly influenced by the demands of the market) by its maturation. A lot of things are also being influenced by regulations and policies of the country as well.

In the early days, digital cameras were really big and bulky. Nature and sports photographers had to use huge telephoto lenses to go with their camera — and had to carry 2 or 3 such kinds of cameras with them for major events like the Olympics Games. These are photographers that were probably around the age of 30 (probably in their 50s now) when they first started using their digital cameras. And now these photographers all starting to have backaches, joint problems, because of the equipment that they carried with them the whole time. So some news agencies are looking into using robotics to replace human photographers, because their photographers are getting older and they have very strict requirements on weight of the equipment that their photographers can carry.

So all these technologies are going into the consumer market already?

William: They are starting to appear in the consumer market, and to be more widely used by the consumers as well.

How does your company respond to these different trends?

William: Today’s market is very disruptive. In the past, an existing technology will be matured over a certain period of time. But nowadays, emerging technology is very transient. People are coming up with a lot of different ideas – they scrap ideas that don’t work and grab whatever that seems more interesting than what was previously available.

It’s challenging – you also start to see combinations of technology, and other industries [can] appear in your product as well. Customers don’t hesitate in buying and adopting new technologies, and this drives the dynamism of this industry.

As part of your job, as you’re monitoring the customers and such, how you do you make long term plans?

William: We have a very clear objective of what we’re selling. Overall, we’re still an imaging brand which manufactures and sells digital camera and lenses. Nikon started as an optical company, and till today, we’re still very optical-focused. We have a lot of lenses, our patents in lens technology, and all the lenses that are built into everyday technology to make imaging more exciting for people.

So how do you actually capture an image of the moon from Earth? How do you capture every detail that’s on the Moon? We have the technology that helps us create that kind of images. Nikon only started manufacturing cameras about 70 years ago, because after people started to see the details through the lenses, they wanted to be able to capture images of what they saw. That was when we started to manufacture cameras as well. So our expertise is really on the lens itself.

When it comes to lens there’s a very heavy amount of physics that you need to learn. When you meet a scientist or a lens designer, they’ll tell you what kind of calculations that are needed to make a perfect lens. That’s why our specialisation is still in this area. And though there are many technologies in the market that offer solutions – there are smartphones, and within the phones there are apps which post process images, provide enhancement, etc. – the true element of making photos better is still the optical component. So that’s our strength and that’s what Nikon is still heavily focusing on offering to the market.

Do you see yourself staying in this company and staying with this job?

William: Nikon is my first job and I have been with them for the past 13 years. When I first joined, I was relatively young – only 22 years old. The distributors whom I spoke to in meetings were seniors in the film industry and were all very knowledgeable. I often wondered, then, on how I should persuade them to adopt new technology and build their learning curve so they can educate their customers.

After some time, I found out that respect is of utmost importance in getting my message across to them. Respect can be earned if they can understand and respect where you come from – and one way to do that is to help them learn what will be useful in coming years. Afterwards they will approach you with their own questions and tips for you. That’s when communication gets a lot easier, you get your job done, and you get your message across to the people that you’re talking to.

Once, we were doing a launch event in India (I think it was in Bangalore) and people there are more vocal. So we were talking about the product during the event when suddenly a guy stood up and remarked: “I don’t like your service. I sent in my camera five days ago, and my camera is still not repaired.” This was totally irrelevant to the launch. Then another guy stood up and said “Yes, I had this same issue,” then someone else stood up, and people started  commenting about our customer service. There were media people and journalists present, and I was just standing on the stage with no idea how to control the situation.

So I got these people to step outside to another room, where we got our service staffs to address their issues one by one. Nobody in the original venue voiced out any more problems with their  equipment.

These are things that you don’t learn in school; these things will suddenly strike you when you are not prepared for it, and if you don’t stay calm and show the distributors your ability to manage such problems, then you won’t have the ability to gain their respect. So if they see someone who is coming from the manufacturer at a very young age, and also has the ability to manage such a situation, they start to look up to you for any issues they have, and respect what you are communicating to them, and things will then become a lot easier. This is how you grow within the job, the kind of accomplishment you get in the job to help you grow further and make you want to stay longer in the industry.

Are you happy in your job right now?

William: I think I’m very happy. My role has expanded, so I’m looking after the regional service as well. The exciting part is on transforming our organization so that we can be ahead of the competition. Nowadays, technology is so advanced – you can have a smartphone that can do more complex functions than a compact camera, but both are sold at the same price. So how do we maintain profitability in this market then? How do we continue to engage with our customer? Service is really critical, and is probably the only touchpoint that organisations have where there is direct engagement with the customer. Customers can buy their product online or through different resellers, but service is still where you have a direct touchpoint with the customer. That’s why I’m in a position to look into how we can transform this service to offer a better experience to our customers, rather than a service point where we just take in customers’ equipment that we think is faulty, service it and return it, without building that connection with the customers. This gives me a bigger challenge, and makes me think of others ways that we can engage more with our customers as well. So I’m definitely happy to continue staying in this job.

Harvard University has compiled this list of 42 professional competencies. In your opinion, which of these would you consider most relevant/applicable for your work on a daily basis?

William: The most important competency would be Technical/Professional Knowledge and Skills –  the understanding of how a photo is made and how IT works; a very important aspect of why you want to be in this job. If you get someone that has no knowledge about photography, it’s really difficult for them to see why you need a camera. Communication is also another important competency. A lot of people have strong technical knowledge and they don’t know how to communicate. So they started realising that they don’t have friends and are very lonely and they don’t know how to interact with their peers and how to network.. They don’t know how to extend that communication within their department to that of those with other departments. Other than this, other important competences are Energy, Facilitating Change, Building Customer Loyalty, Risk Taking, Initiating Action, Stress Tolerance, and Continuous Learning.