Sony says to Pro photographers: We’ve got the camera and now the support to help you switch
posted Monday, January 22, 2018 at 4:56 PM EDT
Last year, Sony announced the beefed-up A9 full-frame mirrorless camera, which took aim at flagship DSLRs and catered to professional photographers' needs. The A7-series undoubtedly saw use in the professional space, but compared to cameras like the Canon 1D X II and Nikon D5, the A7 models didn't quite have the necessary features, performance, and robustness that many professional photographers demand of their cameras. The A9 answered the call, and its specs are top-notch: 20fps burst, amazingly fast AF speeds, dual card slots, better weather-sealing and wonderful, long-lasting battery life, just to name a few. But, while Sony's flagship A9 certainly seems to answer pro photographers' needs on the gear side of the equation (especially for sports and photojournalism), the service and support side was a sticking point in Sony's plan to try and truly compete in the professional market.
Forgetting for a moment that Sony previously didn't exactly have an "answer" to the likes of a Canon 1D-series or Nikon D-series flagship pro camera, but one of the primary reasons that Canon and Nikon DSLRs dominate the professional photographer market, especially for sports and photojournalists, is each company's comprehensive pro services department. If a pro's camera breaks in the line of duty, the professional services are there for quick repairs as well as loaner gear to get him or her back up and running as fast as possible. Furthermore, Canon and Nikon also consistently have pro services staff on-site at major sporting events, providing time-critical support, technical knowledge, gear loans and more. Plus, these pro services have long-standing relationships with wire services and news agencies to get their gear into the hands of working pros.
At a recent meeting during the Sony Open golf tournament in Hawaii, the press were invited to sit down with Sony executives, including John Studdert, Vice President, U.S. Sales and Marketing, Media and Sports -- who heads their pro video and broadcasting support division -- and Jeff Hiatt, Director of Sony Imaging PRO Support -- the guy in charge of Sony's new digital imaging professional support service. For Sony, they are seeing more and more professional-level customers. However, Sony's realized they lacked the in-depth and necessary services and support network to fully address the demands of working photographers. And the whole point is, they are striving hard to change that.
Now, when it comes to working with professionals, Sony is not completely starting from scratch, far from it, in fact. On the video and broadcasting side of the media landscape, they are a dominant force with a huge market share and an extensive service program to go alongside it. According to Studdert, Sony's studio cameras command a large share of the market for live TV broadcast and sporting events. For example, the recent College Football Championship had over 100 studio cameras in-use, all Sony cameras. The support side of this is crucial. These sporting event organizers and broadcasters have to know the entire system, from the camera to your television, is going to run glitch-free. Now, Sony wants to put this same emphasis on service, support, and feedback for their professional photography customers.
Time will tell if Sony's efforts to sway the pro photographer market into their court will succeed, but keep reading to see for yourself the steps they have been taking in this regard.
Sony's Pro imaging support service first got off the ground back in 2014 in Japan, before making its way Stateside in the fall of that year. However, their PRO Support service really ramped up once the Sony A9 launched. Since then, Sony has put a lot of time, money and effort into expanding their PRO Support service, including bringing over Jeff Hiatt to run the show. Sony has since invested millions of dollars both in people and operations for their PRO Support program. They now have a 24/7 call center in the US plus email support as well as walk-in service centers in both New York City and Los Angeles. They've further expanded their PRO Support into Canada. And there's now a regional technical field team spread across North America who've helped with outreach to more than 2500 professionals for trials with Sony gear and converting pros from other brands into the Sony system.
Sony is also pushing hard to be on-site for more and more professional sporting events, especially at events where the "Big Two" companies don't have a presence at all. This past year Sony had support staff on-site for the Sony Open in Hawaii (of course), as well as the PGA Championship, US Open, President's Cup, the NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl. For these events, Sony provided over 400 full-frame bodies and lenses to loan to professionals. According to Sony, at both the PGA Championship and President's Cup golf tournaments, they were the only camera company on-site to provide technical support; they even went so far as to offer to examine and fix other brands of gear from working pros at these events. For 2018, Sony says they plan to double their sporting event coverage, including the upcoming Olympic Games.
As Jeff Hiatt put it, Sony understands that they are the "new guy" when it comes to the pro photographer market, so they are putting a strong focus on carefully developing a support service that meets professionals' expectations while also going beyond what's offered by rival companies. One of the primary differences between Sony's pro services and that of its rivals is the strong emphasis on taking in user feedback. Sony spoke at length about how they appreciate user feedback, and not just hearing about the positives of their gear, but more so about the areas they need to improve.
At the Hawaii event, Sony invited three professional photographers, including Montana Pritchard, the official photographer of the PGA, all of whom had recently switched to Sony (though keep in mind, these pros are not sponsored "Sony Artisan" photographers). All three reiterated how well Sony was willing to listen and garner feedback to improve their products and services. For professionals who rely on their gear to work and to work smoothly, the ability to have issues resolved or new features added relatively quickly as well as be involved with the manufacturer in these developments is a very important factor when it comes to maintaining and growing a professional customer-base.
To that end, not only has Sony been courting feedback from major news agencies and wire services, such as NY Times, AP, Reuters and AFP, they have also embedded a dedicated engineer at their US headquarters in San Diego to interface between customers and Sony's technical team back in Tokyo. Further, pro photographers regularly share feedback and have discussions directly with Sony's DI engineering team. For example, the recently announced v2.0 firmware update for the A9 includes numerous new features that were developed directly from pro photographers' feedback.
While this huge push for professional-tier support sounds wonderful, it'll be interesting to see if this expertise and service commitment makes its way out of the "pro" arena; will standard Sony customers see improvements in service and support? Sony hasn't earned the best reputation with it comes to service and support for their cameras, as some well-publicized accounts (here and here) have attested. Further, comments around the web from other Sony camera owners seem to echo similar frustrations and anecdotes of poor service and repair experiences.
In the end, time will tell whether or not Sony's massive investment in the professional market will pay off. The "Big Two" have had decades upon decades to build a substantial foothold in the pro space and have hundreds if not thousands of loyal professional customers. That said, things are looking promising for Sony's drive to stake their claim in the professional space. As mentioned earlier, they are seeing strong growth in sheer market share -- and strong, impressive growth in a very short period: they are now #2 in full-frame cameras, whereas they commanded less than 1% back in 2013. As for just the pros, membership in Sony's PRO Support program doubled in 2017 from the year before, and they are forecasting similar growth for 2018.
Sony makes top-notch cameras, there's no doubt, and now it looks as if their professional support service is reaching for similar accolades.