Show and sell: why the viewing is pivotal to success
The viewing is where a portrait or wedding photographer is rewarded for a lot of hard work. It is where their work sells profitably. Or doesn’t. But the viewing’s work begins long before the clients arrive to see their photos. Its success depends on a lot more than champagne, music, and mood lighting. Candide McDonald reports.
“Surprises are for birthday parties.” This is part of photography business coach, Mark Rossetto’s credo. It goes with, “Clients are made, not found.” These are also the fundamentals of selling, but you’re a photographer, right? Actually, that’s half the story of your business.
“The thing to remember is that even though we are photographers, we are business owners and, ultimately, salespeople,” U.S. wedding photographer, Sal Cincotta notes. “We have to sell our work. It’s not going to sell itself. How you do that can have an effect on your psyche for sure. None of us wants to be icky salespeople, but again, it has to be done.”
Foundations of trust, not rust
“Referrals are critical,” Tasmania-based portrait and wedding photographer, Ed Jones says of his business. “At least half my enquiries are referrals, either from previous clients or from other wedding vendors.” Referrals don’t come from people who have lost trust.
Being a salesperson doesn’t mean being pushy or aggressive. “Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of up-selling or high-pressure sales, either as a consumer or as a provider,” Melbourne-based wedding photographer, Jerome Cole states. “I work for myself, and my reputation is everything. I work closely with my couples and develop a strong relationship with them throughout the process, so the last thing I want to do is to end up being a pushy salesman.” For Cole, what matters is providing a quality product that his clients will fall in love with. And a relationship that hinges on trust.
Effective selling depends on trust, but in the last year trust has become more valuable to have, and harder to earn. Global advertising agency Havas’ The Future of Trust report, published in December 2018, showed that about two-thirds of respondents believe that humans are less trustworthy than they were a century ago. It was compiled from responses from more than 9,400 people across 27 countries. 85% said that trust is a rare value today. The viewing is a photographer’s crucial sale moment. Forget that it depends on trust at your peril.
“Non-transparent pricing and high-pressure sales are a definite no-no for me,” Jones states. “When I was still working in my old career, I ‘won’ a photoshoot with a studio that practised these methods, and the whole experience was a negative one. Luring clients in, using high-pressure emotional sales to make a one-off sale definitely isn’t sustainable in small communities as word travels quickly.”
Trust is crucial at the viewing. For many portrait and wedding photographers, the viewing is when they turn that free or heavily discounted photo they offered into the sale of a collection, or an album. When they turn a $500 investment into a multi-thousand-dollar sale. Or not. But the viewing, and the sale it exists to serve, begins way before the client arrives to see their pictures. They begin with the photographer’s decisions about how they will run their business. If those decisions don’t include transparency and educating clients, that business has grievances and complaints in its likely future. And these days, as Sydney-based portrait and wedding photographer Michael Martin emphasises, “social media can rip a business apart”. One bad remark can reverberate far and wide on the Internet.
Attention to detail
“Educate, educate, educate,” suggests Martin. The corollary to that maxim is that education must not cut corners. It’s not OK to assume that your client understands your prices and terms and conditions. Educate on your website. Educate during the enquiry. Educate during the shoot. Make your terms and conditions clear. Make your prices visible. Make your voucher terms clear. When you’ve done all that, ask your client if they understand. “You have to say, ‘This is what you are getting. These are the experiences you can have. This is what they will cost you’,” Martin stresses.
Martin outlines his price ranges right up-front during the initial contact, and reveals the average spend. He hands a price list to people when they come to the studio. There is a price list on the table at which they sit. “I would rather get no sale at the beginning before I had made my own cost commitments,” he says.
Of course, there are always people who come just for the freebie. Martin had one client drive all the way from the Hunter Valley and back, twice, for their free photo only. Fifteen hours of driving in total, and a car repair, for one free photo. But Martin doesn’t push and, he says, a no sale like this is few and far between.
Most importantly, at both the beginning and end of his presentation (for which he goes all out – “I spend hundreds of dollars a month just on special vanilla-scented candles,” he notes), Martin makes sure that the sale is solid. “You’ve come in with a budget, please don’t spend more,” he says he tells his clients, or “We want you to come back. Are you comfortable spending that?” he asks. He puts his sales effort into positive inducements and long-term relationship building, not hiding and hoping. “I’ll pay to have one of my photos hung by a professional in their house. It’s a $100 investment on a $4,000 sale,” he notes.
Rossetto can’t emphasise enough the importance of getting everyone involved to agree to the purchase decision. He once allowed a husband to leave the viewing after receiving a business call. The wife was left to make the purchase decisions. The husband was not happy. He unleashed a tirade of fury on Rossetto about the price. Rossetto kept his calm. He simply asked the man the following questions: “Did I ask you to read the price list, terms and conditions?” The man answered yes. “Did you?” The man had not. “Was there anything more I could have done to help you understand the experience and products? The man said no. “Was there anything more I could have done to be upfront with you?” The man conceded there wasn’t. His rage was diffused.
Like Martin and Rossetto, Jerome Cole is meticulous about his preparation, making sure that couples understand the pricing options at the initial meeting before he or they proceed. Cole packages his prices and his upfront pricing includes all possible upgrades and additions. “We spend time looking through example albums which helps them imagine themselves on those pages. I have a single price for albums with no extra fee for additional pages. I made a decision fairly early on in my career to avoid the upsell model, which sat better with me personally and with my brand. It has also now become an efficient way for me to work, which therefore keeps both me and the client happy.”
Sharp tools and transparent boxes
“People will naturally want to buy ‘what they see’,” Cole continues, “so it makes sense to show my clients the type of prints and albums I hope they will order. It’s amazing how often couples will fall in love with the albums, and the wedding shown in the album, and therefore make room for it in their budget.” By the end of this first meeting with Cole, the couple knows exactly how much it will cost for him to capture their wedding day and create an album. He also explains that they have the option to download their images, print their own images, or order prints from a professional lab directly from their web gallery.
As Cole notes, emotion is a tool. But it’s one to use wisely. Buyer’s regret is something no one wants to encounter. Martin eliminates it with the simplest process ever. Talking about it. Both he and Rossetto also make sure that all decision-makers have agreed to the sale before he proceeds. Martin won’t hold a viewing unless the couple (in the case of a wedding) or everyone involved (in portraits) attends. He has a $50 booking fee that is 100% refundable if they do.
Sal Cincotta uses time. Time for clients to decide and process their decisions. He explains, “We are clear that the average client spends $X in our studio, but we have no minimum orders. I think this statement alone lets potential clients know what to expect. We operate our studio on a package system. So, two weeks before the client comes in to see their pictures, we send them the current specials the studio is running. This gives them two weeks to process and budget. Again, remember, there are no minimum orders – they could buy nothing or they could buy two 8x10s. Our job becomes that of an advisor, rather than that of a salesperson. We don’t put pressure on the client to buy, instead we work with them on things like where the images will go in their home, the pros and cons of each of the products, and making decisions on gifts.”
Cincotta also makes the viewing very simple. “All these complicated sales processes you read about. Stop! Nonsense like a printed wall-reveal where you print 20-30 images from a client session and try to sell them that? Does not work. It’s not cost effective for the photographer, and overall it doesn’t match how clients make decisions. They want options like albums, metals, acrylics, canvas. They want various sizes for their home. They want choices. That sales model was created by someone who doesn’t run a real studio. Trust me, when I tell you as a photographer who has been a working professional for 12 years, gimmicky sales models don’t work long term.”
Simplicity is central to Cole’s sales approach too. “I take an all-inclusive approach to selling albums. If couples order an album, they get the whole album. I love the design freedom of creating the perfect album using as many pages as the story needs, and using software like Smart Albums makes the design process a breeze. The only additional options are parent duplicate albums, a cover upgrade, and a display box (which clients are well aware of).
The key to making the all-inclusive approach viable, he notes, is to charge enough to make it worth your time, and then design, proof, and have the album signed off by the couple on an efficient timeline. “I provide couples with this time frame in our initial meetings, so again, they know what to expect. It is also crucial to get onto the album shortly after the wedding, to keep momentum rolling and get the job signed off.” Cole aims for two weeks. The couple then receives their photos on a web gallery (Pic-Time). They can select their own images or let Cole do it before he creates the initial layout. But they can make changes to the layout afterwards by writing comments through Smart Albums Cloud Proofing. “While the margins aren’t huge, additional print sales from each wedding add up…and the work from my end is zero. The key is to provide a clear timeline, time-based incentives, and automated reminders.”
Rossetto and Martin both call the viewing an experience. Both endeavour to make the experience as luxurious as possible. “They’re buying the experience,” Martin notes. Rossetto mostly uses ProSelect and Fundy to present his portraits, and for weddings, Album Stomp and Smart Albums. His client agreement is very detailed. His clients sign off that they are happy with the images and products chosen, the choices they have made, the date the artwork will be ready, and that they understand the document is a model-release form.
If I were you
Cincotta’s viewings are based on how he would want to be treated as a consumer. “I wouldn’t want a wall of photos printed and pressure to buy them. Instead, I would want someone to be an expert and tell me what I need for my home, guide me through the process, and be the trusted advisor in a personalised experience. Give your clients a personalised experience and sales will come. And it will feel good to help your clients.” The main tool his studio uses is N-Vu. “Probably one of the best online sales tools on the market today. It works with our studio workflow and helps both our clients and us see what images will look like in their homes.”
How to do the viewing right, in a nutshell? “If you want to make money as a professional photographer, keep it simple. Be genuine and offer your clients an experience that you would want as a consumer,” says Sal Cincotta. “Shoot to sell, with the end product in mind. Never shoot for yourself,” says Rossetto. He presents his clients with a pre-shoot questionnaire to guide him. “Never threaten a client,” he adds. “Saying this is your last chance or you’ll delete the photos if they don’t buy them is self-destructive.” Not only have you lost the chance to have them change their mind, you’ve lost a client, and possibly their friends, forever.
The viewing is a tool. Unlike physical tools – lenses, cameras, lights – the viewing only works well if it’s backed by the client’s trust. That trust has to be earned by the photographer, long before the viewing begins. Trust depends on the photographer’s ability to inform and educate. “A confused mind says ‘no’,” Rossetto notes.
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