Sony puts its customers in the frame

Challenge for electronics giant is to communicate the quality of its products to customers, according to senior executive Dan Stevenson


Dan Stevenson wondered why there were no customer reviews on the Sony sales website in the US. He managed to get that changed and in the process established himself as senior VP of Sony Electronics’ eCommerce business for the US market. He is in charge of merchandising and eCommerce operations as well as all Sony retail stores and telesales facilities in North America.

Last week, Sony hit the headlines when Daniel Loeb, a billionaire US hedge-fund manager whose company Third Point has a $1.1 billion stake in Sony, proposed that the firm sell up to a fifth of its profitable entertainment wing.

His theory is that selling off some of Sony Entertainment would bolster the accounts of the electronics side of the business, which many argue has been in the doldrums for years.

Sony shares rose 10 per cent on the news of a possible IPO, though Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai was quick to state that Sony Entertainment is not for sale.

Stevenson is reluctant to comment on what goes on in the boardroom but says: “One of the things that sets us apart from competitors is that we have an understanding of all sides of the entertainment business.”

Rough period
Sony posted an annual profit of $436 million earlier this month – its first return to profit in five years – thanks to the selling of property assets and the success of blockbusters films such as Skyfall and The Amazing Spiderman .

While the company’s electronics division lost $1.4 billion, the return to profit overall may also be seen as a result of the depreciation of the yen due to the economic reform measures of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

While Stevenson is tight-lipped on the influence of the currency, he says that Sony has gone though a particularly rough period in the past few years, with the tsunami in Thailand and the earthquake in Japan disrupting supply chain.

He believes that structural change in both the US and Japanese company bases has seen a “rightsizing” of the company and that the past year has been the most exciting since he joined five years ago.

Stevenson says that reaction to Sony’s new 4K TVs and Xperia tablets at this year’s CES and the anticipation around the PS4 is creating a huge buzz.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen the public and press react so favourably to new products from Sony. It gives me a lot of confidence,” he says.

For him, the challenge is to communicate the quality of Sony product to customers. “The customer we really want to have a great relationship with is the one who interacts with us across all of our touchpoints – our websites, stores and contact centres,” he says.

“These customers tend to have a voracious appetite for knowledge and they really want to know that they are making the right decision when they are purchasing something.”

Sony is concentrating on communicating a number of specific areas to their consumers, notably their Full-Frame camera technology, the touch technology of devices and their 4K ultra high-definition TV technology.

A new unified eCommerce platform for North America and Canada will launch this autumn and there’s the adoption of the “Omni-channel” approach to marketing.

“You won’t see us spending a lot of money in advertising; it’s more about communicating at grassroots level. If you treat your customers well they become serious advocates for your brand.”

Sony is rather decentralised but it does have the advantage of bricks and mortar stores, many of which are currently being remodelled in the US, giving an edge over online retailers by providing the customer with the opportunity to experience the product or, in Stevenson’s parlance, “kick the tyres”.

Stevenson is visiting Ireland this week as keynote speaker at the CCMA annual conference.

“Multi-channel is the idea that the bricks and mortar shop and the eCommerce model can co-exist in a more aligned way in terms of things like pricing structure, merchandising and promotional plans,” says Stevenson.

“The reality is that customers now basically have a computer in their pocket and they are constantly nibbling for information. They have access to information from phones, PCs, TVs, Playstations – everywhere.

Share information
“So the ability to give them the information they want and allow them to purchase if they want to is paramount.”

Technology now affords the retailer the chance to capitalise on consumer interaction, making their shopping experience more personal.

Stevenson says that the current Sony eCommerce platform in the States has four options with which customers can interact – Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Google Plus – but that the new platform in the autumn will have an incredible 237 ways for customers to share information about Sony products, not that they’ll all be immediately visible on the site.

“The world is always changing – there’s a saying in hockey that you need to skate to where the puck is going to be, and we can’t stay still.

“The challenge and the blessing for Sony is that the product we sell is also a communication device, so the challenge is to bring together all the touchpoints to create a seamless experience for our customers.”

He would not be drawn on the release date for the Sony PS4.

Dan Stevenson will deliver the keynote speech at the CCMA Conference on Thursday . The conference is entitled Meeting Customer Expectations Now and Into the Future . Tickets cost €199 for CCMA members and 4229 for non-members. See for details.

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