What’s important to understand, especially if you’re priced for profit, is that anyone who hires you is doing so because they like your work, they want your advice, and they believe in you as the artist. You need to believe in you, too. If your prices are ridiculously low, chances are, clients may be hiring you because you’re cheap. That’s something you need to overcome right away. Who wants those clients? You want customers who value your work and your time, and respect your creativity.
One of the ways to help your business achieve this goal is to implement and perfect the "6 P’s of Selling": Purpose, Pre-consultations, Products, Pricing, Projection and Policies. Perfecting these six elements in your sales system will provide every customer with a consistent experience and, better yet, it will allow you to predict your average sale and your income, budget your growth and plan for the future. Nail these concepts in your studio, and you can almost guarantee every client who walks through your door will spend the amount you need them to, and every client will walk away happy and loyal, and return for more.
PURPOSE IS THE FOUNDATION OF YOUR ENTIRES BUSINESS
Why do you do what you do? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And, better yet, why should anyone else care? Defining your business purpose will make your vision about your business much more clearer to you, and more importantly, to your customers.
Business mogul Simon Sinek once said, "People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. What you do simply proves what you believe." How true that is. If your studio has a true purpose for its product, then your customers will latch onto that "why" and believe it right along with you. And when you connect on a purposeful level, you create devoted clients who will become evangelists to your business and brand. But be patient with yourself. This "why" may not come overnight.
Photography played an important role in helping me through a debilitating postpartum depression. My sister—also a portrait photographer—photographed us when my son was seven days old. If it weren’t for those portraits, the newborn experience with my son would have drowned in the fog of PPD.
Living through this had so many silver linings, one of which was to define why I do what I do. You may be thinking, "How on earth does this have anything to do with business and selling your work?" Let me tell you, it has everything to do with it. When you can market and sell your studio, product and brand from your "why" message, customers who believe what you believe will stand behind your business with evangelistic loyalty, becoming the ultimate lifetime customers. Your purpose should permeate everything you do, every image you create and every message you communicate.
This is one area where most photographers fail, and it’s also one of the most important. The pre-consultation is where the "seed of the sale" gets planted, where the client learns what can be done with their images and what the final result might look like. The goal here is twofold—to put the final product idea in your client’s head through an agreement about what product you’ll be "shooting for," and to get them emotionally invested in the process. It also means learning more about who they are and how you can create the best possible session for them and their aesthetic style.
The ideal way to conduct a consultation is in-person. Not all photographers can do this, but it’s important to note, clients need to be hit multiple times for information to "stick." So we not only talk to them on the phone, but we also request that they fill out a lengthy electronic form that asks them the same questions all over again. Then, we go over the information one more time when they arrive at the studio for their session. Overkill? No way. Wash. Rinse. Repeat!
What questions should you ask? To start, of course, you need the basics—what type of session, names, ages, etc.—but you should also begin describing what the experience will be like with your business. Don’t resort to "yes/no"-type questions. Questions should revolve around them and should be all open-ended. It’s good to approach it from a "who, what, where, when, why" perspective.
I ask clients how they want to see the images five to 10 years from now. What wall in their home would they want to walk by and see them every day? What kind of keepsake heirloom, like an album, would they like to pass on to their kids and spend quality time with them perusing? Why portraits now? What does a professional image mean to them?
This almost always gives me the chance to communicate our company mission—our Purpose—which usually seals the deal to book the session and, more importantly, gets them well on their way to becoming a lifetime client.
The final topic I always address at the pre-consultation is the price. They need to know what it’s going to cost upfront. If they can’t afford me, I’d rather them know now and decline to book, rather than at the sales appointment after all the work has been done and it’s a ho-hum and disappointing sale! Not only that, but a client who’s surprised by price won’t be a happy one. Do we lose some potential clients at this stage of the game? Sure, we do, but I’d rather lose them now and leave that spot open for another client than commit to them only to have both of us unhappy in the end.
What you carry in your studio has a huge impact on your sales numbers. It also affects your branding and how your client "experiences" your studio. Most photographers try to carry too much!
With the allure of shiny new things to purchase at trade shows and everyone pushing this album or that metal print, it’s no wonder photographers often try to carry too many products. The next thing you know, you’re juggling dozens of vendors and multiple turnaround times, and client orders start falling through cracks like water in a sieve. And, on top of that, your clients have no idea what to invest in because there are too many choices! They get overwhelmed.
So how do you choose what to carry? Several factors play into this, including salability, cost, perceived value, profitability, branding and time-production value.
Salability really comes down to this question: Will it sell? Do clients in your market want the product? In some markets, gallery-wrapped canvas may be all the rage, but in others, clients may feel like "I can get that anywhere. Costco sells that!" Ask yourself if a product you want to sell is in demand. Is it unique? Can clients get it anywhere?
What does the product cost you, and what are you able to sell it for? This question encompasses cost, perceived value and profitability all in one. Why? They’re all related. If a product looks cheap and you can’t charge enough for it to be profitable, it’s not worth it. Along that same line, if a product looks expensive and it is, then you also may not be able to charge enough for it to be profitable. Your cost-of-goods percentage will be too high.
If the product looks expensive with a high perceived value, the cost to you is low and the profitabilit
y is high: BAM! You’ve got a product you could potentially sell. But there are two more questions you need to ask before it’s a slam dunk.
First, you need to make sure a product fits your brand. If you’re a senior portrait photographer shooting high-school students with an urban edge, your products are going to be a lot different from a newborn photographer who has an earthy, organic, natural brand.
Also, think about your time. A product may be great in all other aspects, yet may take a ridiculous amount of time to design, order and receive from your vendor. It may not be worth it. For example, a custom-designed album that takes five hours to design and order may be great if you can charge over $2,500 for it and your hard cost is less than $200. On the other hand, if that product costs you $500 and you can only charge $1,000 for it, it won’t be profitable enough based strictly on its hard costs, let alone the time you have to put into designing it. Make sure products you carry have a good time-to-value profit advantage.
Mention pricing to photographers and they curl into the fetal position and beg to crawl in a hole somewhere. Pricing is both an art and a science. The science part comes when you figure your "cost of goods sold" and can price those products according to a profitable margin—intimidating, to say the least. But perhaps even more important is the "art" of pricing, creating an overall pricing structure that encourages your clients to spend exactly what you want them to on the entire session.
My goal is to have each client who walks through my door spend $1,000 or more for their products. How can you get them to do that? One way is to create a package system that gives incentive to the client to spend more. The idea is to have your lowest package have very little value to it. The least desirable products should go here, and there should be very little discount in the price of this package. This package should be priced at the absolute minimum dollar amount you’re willing to do a session for.
Your middle package(s) should be the "go-to" place for your clients. Research has shown that almost all consumers purchase in the "middle." So, your middle package(s) should be the best value and should be priced at the average sale you want to get per session. Put products in here that your clients really want and give it enough value to be worth "upgrading" from the bottom package.
The highest package is your "whopper." This is the one most clients will never buy. It includes the whole enchilada and is priced to reflect that. This package’s main purpose is to make the middle package(s) seem like a good deal!
Another way of creating a pricing structure is to allow your client to "Create a Collection." This is an enormously popular way to go because it works and it’s simple. The benefits are that the client gets to pick what they want to put into the package, and you get the average sale that you need per session. It’s flexible for the client, but profitable for you, and there’s no ceiling to what the client can spend, unlike traditional packages, where the "whopper" is the most a client will ever invest.
Our "Create a Collection" works like this: Pick one or more art products (wall art, series or album); Pick your digital files (all files either high-res or low-res).
We’re what I like to call a "hybrid" studio. We offer both art products and digital files, creating the best of both worlds for both artist and client. To "Create a Collection" and get the digital files they so badly want, clients must first invest in a displayable art piece. Win-win.
What not to do? Don’t look at other photographers’ prices. Chances are, they have no idea what they’re doing. Don’t undervalue yourself. Doubt is your enemy. Don’t let it win. Once you’re pricing yourself right, have confidence in it. Then make your brand match your price point. If your prices are on the high end, and the brand is weak and appears inexpensive, then the clients won’t book. If you’re expensive, make sure you "look" it, too. Your brand must support the price.
The "in-person" projection appointment is where the pre-consultation, products and pricing all come together to create the final sale. A slideshow presented on a big screen with touching music helps create an emotional sale—and emotion is what we sell. We don’t sell photographic paper. We sell the feelings and associations that the photos represent. Wowing your client with all that emotion right off the bat helps ensure your sale is headed down the right path.
The key to the projection appointment is to start off with a slideshow and draw the client into their images. This is the peak of the client experience, and emotion surrounding the process is at its highest. Once the images are presented, it’s up to you to reaffirm the products presented in the pre-consultation.
If you’ve conducted an effective pre-consultation, then the sales appointment becomes just an "order-taking" appointment. The client will already have an idea of what they want to do with the images, they will have seen your pricing, and you’ll have already "shot for" the product. If the client is at a loss in the sales room or is under "sticker shock" at your prices, chances are, you dropped the ball somewhere and didn’t prepare them for their investment.
Your business policies are the glue that holds your relationships with your clients together. Look at it like a prenuptial agreement. Having solid "rules" that your clients physically sign for in a portrait contract ensures they understand that it’s your sandbox. They can come play in it and you’ll create some amazing art for them, but they have to play by your rules. It lays out everything in the beginning, so there are no surprises when the unexpected happens, and prevents problems from happening before they take place.
You should have policies in regard to sessions, graphic design, payment, ordering, delivery, archiving, liability and conduct. Be sure to outline what you, as a business, will provide to the client and what’s expected of them as a customer.
What if your client challenges one of your policies or asks for an exception? It’s important to draw your line in the sand. One of the most common challenges I get is that my clients don’t want to place their order the day of the sales session. They want to go home and think about it. I always say "yes," but it’s on my terms. I tell them their original session fee included this appointment, and if they’d like to book another two-hour window of time for another in-person appointment, it’s an additional $100 fee. This is outlined clearly in our policies, and the client suddenly understands that my time is valuable. Almost all of them go ahead with their order that day.
Clients also ask me to put the images online before they have paid. This is a big "no-no" for us. This is where I kindly tell it like it is: "Unfortunately, we can’t release images outside the studio until full payment has been made. Screenshots and right-clicking are just too easy in today’s digital age, and we have to protect our livelihood. I thank you for understanding." Clients who ask this question of us quickly realize why it’s not possible and it won’t happen. Clearly communicating your policies is what will help prevent problems and give you written backup to issues clients may have potentially.
However, if there is a p
roblem, there are some cases where you’d be the better businessperson to fix it. For example, a senior’s name is misspelled on a graduation announcement and mom approved the design. Should you fix it? Probably. When issues like this happen, ask yourself if the money you save by turning away from the problem is worth it. Sometimes just fixing the issue will lead to an evangelist client who will become a loyal part of your business family and sing your praises to everyone in her circle. That makes it worth fixing.
Anytime you can create amazing customer service without hurting your bottom line, then it’s worth the effort. It will return to you tenfold. Having good and effective policies is simply a balancing act between providing a quality customer experience and protecting your business.
THE 6 P’s IN PRACTICE
A good system of sales is predictable, reliable and repeatable with every client. It creates the same high-quality experience for every customer and gives you the peace of mind knowing most of your clients will spend your desired average sale. There always will be outliers—the $5,000 sale and the $500 sale—but if you can ensure that most clients will spend what you need to earn, then it’s a win-win.
When you can perfect the P’s and make every one of them work for your sales system, while keeping it all under the umbrella of your business purpose, you’ll have an undeniable brand. You’ll have a systematic approach to sales, averages you can rely on, a predictable income, and happy and loyal clients who appreciate your art. Most importantly, you’ll have confidence, the freedom to grow your creativity, the ability to crush doubt, and the self-esteem to believe you’re worth being paid for what you love to do.
Julia Kelleher, M. Photog., Cr., CPP, is a newborn specialist portrait artist in Bend, Oregon. She teaches sales, business systems and newborn portraiture to professional photographers worldwide. She and her online course offerings can be found at www.jewelueducation.com and www.jewel-images.com.