What Canon ITS Teaches Us about Being Less Corporate

Whether you like it or not, your day job, the things you do to pay the bills, is a big part of who we are. This is not to say that our work defines us.  Quite the contrary in most cases.  We aren’t all fortunate enough to get paid doing what best represents our interests and passions.  And yet, work lets us show the world what we’re like when faced with challenges and with things that we wouldn’t normally do.

Retrophone - from flickr.com/l-ines

Retrophone - from flickr.com/l-ines

During the day, I work for Canon ITS providing phone support to our customers who own digital SLR equipment.  Sometimes I also provide email support for customers who have our camcorders and compact digital cameras.

This is not something I was quick to admit when I first started working for Canon.  You see, I studied to become a creative type in college, and tech support is not the kind of work I had in mind.   But my thoughts on the subject have changed over time.  Even though I don’t want to work at Canon for the rest of my life, I now believe that I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have the job I do.

I’ve learned a lot at Canon, not just about technology but about the value of being focused on serving others.  My interest in design and in improving other people’s user experiences have grown from the service mentality that was instilled in me with Canon.

Writing this post has been in the back of my mind for a while now, but I’ve resisted it.  (That’s one reason why it’s been a while since my last post.)   I was worried that I’d write Styrofoam-like cheerleader prose where I celebrate everything my employer does for the sake of preserving and advancing my career.  And yet, I write about how to make the world less corporate, and there many things that Canon ITS does that aren’t corporate and worth celebrating.  The question was whether I could write about those things in a way that would be both helpful and honest.  I guess we’ll find out.

So what’s not corporate about Canon’s tech support?  For one thing, I don’t get pressured to end my calls within a certain number of minutes. I can spend as much time as necessary to resolve an issue without worrying about getting reprimanded by my supervisors.  Of course, I try to get things resolved as fast as possible, but I don’t have an incentive to end the call prematurely.

Solving problems for others or helping them choose a lens that’s appropriate for their needs is generally an enjoyable thing.  There are always going to be a few jerks who aren’t as rewarding to assist, but they are in the minority.  If no one is waiting in the queue, I will take time to explain more details about our equipment that I think the caller might appreciate.  Not only does this allow me to be potentially more helpful, but it also makes my job far more enjoyable.

Here’s another remarkable thing: Canon works very hard to ensure that most calls coming in are answered in less than a minute.  Sometimes the wait time is longer, especially if you call the day after Christmas with a 14-part question, you lovable Canon enthusiasts you! But, the point is that complicated scheduling and staffing matters are handled by Canon behind the scenes, so that you can have a better, less stressful support experience.  Camera support is free for the life of the camera at Canon, so someone in management could have easily decided to provide bare-bones service to our customers, making short-term profit statistics look better.  But we chose to offer not merely functional but excellent service, a desirable quality from a business perspective but harder to measure in terms of profitability.

It’s been over three years, and I’m still with Canon.  Initially, I was only planning to stay for a year.  The people at Canon are a big part of the reason why I haven’t left. Canon has allowed and encouraged the EOS camera department to develop into a cohesive group.  We know each other well enough to joke around when we aren’t too busy.  That helps the job from getting too stressful, but it also helps us learn what areas of expertise each person has.

This is so much less corporate than a hierarchical approach that requires you to go to your superiors for every bit of unknown information.  Just because someone is higher ranked than you doesn’t mean he or she will know more about the particulars of Wi-Fi networking, or video editing, or lighting, or anything really.

My supervisors have also been exceptional.  They’ve been personable and ready to manage me as an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses.  I was never handled like just another faceless number.  When I made my first mistake in the early months when I was hired, I was expecting to get yelled at.  Instead my supervisor calmly told me that I had to call back the customer and explain the situation.  Not only was I allowed to make a mistake, but I was given the chance to learn from it and then correct it. If my supervisor hadn’t allowed me to fail with dignity, I would have been too hesitant to try things that have led to my current level position.

Brian, one of the senior support managers at Canon ITS has taken time out of his busy schedule to hear my concerns on more than one occasion, and he went out of his way to provide invaluable assistance with a side-project I was developing.  That one thoughtful gesture had more of an impact on me than the thousands of dollars that Canon spends on employee benefits.

When my father died, Canon sent flowers for the funeral.  The Contact Center Director at Canon ITS, Doris,  even stopped by my desk to share some sincere, comforting words.  She offered to do anything she could to help.  (Most of my indie-rocker friends who are contemptuous of businesses in general never even called to see how I was doing.  Does this explain my tendency to mock hipsterista indie-rockers whenever possible? Perhaps.) If Canon had a mentality of only doing things that directly impact profitability, then I wouldn’t have these stories to tell.

"Listen up - in red" from flickr.com/davidtrindade

"Listen up - in red" from flickr.com/davidtrindade

Some days, it is true, I find that I am overwhelmed by my job, so much so that it is hard for me to be myself.  This is more of a reflection of who I am than what my job is like.  A whole and harmonious person can find a state of grace no matter what he is doing, while radiating himself in a good and elegant way.  I am not that person, not yet.  Sometimes the banal, bewildering moments of the day trick me into believing  that I don’t matter, that the divine spark God put in all of us isn’t there.

You see, every now and then, my job involves dealing with an angry customer who gets abrasive, and even insulting, because his equipment isn’t working the way he wants.  To some extent, I can understand those strong sentiments; many of the photographers we serve have trusted Canon with their entire livelihoods.  That’s a big responsibility. But if I don’t make an extra effort or if I don’t already have a healthy level of respect for myself that goes beyond my work, then I can let their frustrations get to me.

When I define my job as one that involves listening to others complain about their problems, it becomes very difficult for me to be engaged by my work.  But, at some point, I realized that I didn’t have to think about it that way.  I could instead see my work as a chance to help others appreciate photography in the way that I do, to help them take better pictures, and to make their days a little better with friendly, useful information that solves problems.    Just a simple change in how I thought about something, in this case my job, made the world seem far less corporate.

I’m not saying that everything Canon ITS does is perfect or uncorporate.  By my cubicle, a big poster of a bar graph (we’re talking larger than life) with some meaningless abbreviations reminds me of this.  I have wondered about this poster and its intended function for many, many days.  It hasn’t helped me remember any new information, even though it has been up for several months, and it doesn’t inspire me to work harder.  It certainly does not add aesthetic appeal to my environment.

I suspect that the people who commissioned it are people who look at numbers every day.  When the numbers go up, they get a sense of euphoria at  a job well done.  To them, perhaps, a bar graph that goes up and up has wonderfully positive associations, and they wanted to share that feeling with others.  An admirable sentiment, is it not?  Even so, my supervisors would never convince me to work harder by calling my attention to the remarkably large bar graph on the wall.

Let us suppose, though, that the poster represented something I did care about that was also relevant to my job.  For example, what if it was a poster of some Canon photographers that I admired like Thomas Hawk or Vincent Laforet, and my supervisor asked me to work overtime to help provide better service to guys like them. That could very well convince me to give more effort or time than I originally planned.

If you look at Canon’s advertising, it becomes very clear that our marketing department understands the value of tailoring a message to the interests of a particular audience. In National Geographic we run beautifully photographed ads that feature exotic animals with text about their unique qualities and our efforts to preserve them.  In business magazines like Forbes we run advertisements that discuss Canon’s innovative capacities as a global business leader.  In Entertainment Weekly and on popular television shows we run fun, light-hearted ads with the lovely tennis star, Anna Kournikova.  Wouldn’t it make sense to also tailor internal company marketing efforts based on what would be of interest to the  employees? Our polished, informative, and well-produced internal company magazine, Imagine, is an encouraging step in the right direction, but we could do more.

I spend enough time in this blog talking about my own struggles and about the things I need to do better:  being transparent is a good way to motivate change, and the world has too many people who are ready to tell you how unconditionally awesome they are at any given hour.  So, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for me to comment in a respectful manner about how others, even my employer, can improve what they do.  I would not have written this if I did not have an overall admiration for Canon, but I also would not have written this if I felt compelled to write only positive things.   I know there are risks that come with that kind of mentality, but writing honestly is more important to me than job security.

from flickr.com/tomooka

from flickr.com/tomooka

It is only recently that I’ve gotten to the place where I can acknowledge that working at Canon plays a big part in who I’m becoming, more so than the creative freelance projects I do on the side.  My work at Canon doesn’t define me, but what I learn from the experience and how I react to the work, toward both the friendly and frustrating moments that come, will shape the person I someday become.  A bad employer can leave someone more broken when his employment ends, but when I leave Canon I think there’s at least a good chance that I’ll be a stronger, more vibrant individual than when I started working there.  For that, I am sincerely grateful: Thank you Canon for helping to make the world less corporate.


1 Response to “What Canon ITS Teaches Us about Being Less Corporate”

  1. 1 asexualmystique April 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I hope you shared this with your superiors.

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