Building Blocks: Making Yourself and Your Business Unique with Skip Cohen


Building Blocks: Making Yourself and Your Business Unique with Skip Cohen

Throughout my “Building Blocks” series, I’ve talked about so many different aspects of your business: your website, advertising, customer service, your blog, your network and even your About page. The one thing we’ve spent absolutely no time talking about is how to be unique.

I’ve heard a lot of you bellyache about the Uncle Harrys of the world because they’ve got better gear than you do. Then there are those who think the challenge is in the market being too saturated. I’ve heard you say, “There are just too many professional photographers out there!”

I’m not saying it’s easy to be a business owner today. But if you honestly believe the problem of growing your business is because of Uncle Harry or too many competitors, then it’s time to hang up your camera for a day or two and do a little self-analysis.

The challenge isn’t coming from outside your business, but inside. Your success is based on what you’re doing with your skill set, your marketing, your promotions. So, let’s come up with ways to make you different from everybody else.

My good buddy Terry Clark once said, “Find out what everybody else is doing and then do something different!” It’s a pretty simple concept, and so easy to understand. It all starts with your skill set.

Your Skill Set

OK, it’s true, cameras are better than ever and everybody has access to shooting in “P” mode. But you’re a trained artist and your photos are different and exciting.

Everything starts with you constantly practicing your skills. In a recent podcast, Roberto Valenzuela talked about how he’s practiced a different aspect of his skills every week for the past 10 years. As an artist in an industry with an ever-changing technology landscape, you’ve got to do the same thing.

You’ve got to know every aspect of your gear, the rules of composition and exposure, and ways to make your images pop. When you know all the rules, only then have you earned the right to break them—there are no shortcuts to greatness as an artist.

And no matter what you hear from the occasional “spray and pray” crowd, you can’t fake it till you make it. You might get a couple of incredible images and have a client praising your work to all his friends, but any fool can get his first client. The key is getting the second, third and fourth. The key is getting them all to not only come back, but tell all their friends.

The “Wow” Print

A lot of you have overloaded your galleries with mediocre images. Many of them aren’t any better than Uncle Harry’s. Let’s dump all of them and show only “wow” prints. A wow print is one that’s so good that you’d have to show only that one to get hired. A wow print leaves clients in awe, hoping they can work with you.

“What are people saying about you?”

It’s not always a comfortable question to answer. We’re often perceived differently than the way we see ourselves. As an artist who specializes in working with people, you need to be friendly, sociable, giving, fair-minded; you need to have integrity and a sense of humor. Is that the way you’re perceived?

Business is based on relationships and friendships. If you’ve made some serious mistakes and are starting to develop a reputation like Comcast’s, it’s time to step back and change your persona. Anybody can develop the skills to capture an image, but getting natural expressions from your clients is about being likable, trustworthy and knowing how to listen.

I can tell how good a photographer is simply by going through her galleries and looking at the way people are posed, their smiles and expressions. Even if the photographer’s skill set isn’t quite developed, I can tell whether or not she has the passion for the craft. It all comes down to the response she’s getting whenever a client is in front of her camera.

Be the Lead Dog

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

—Jim Hightower

I’ve met so many photographers who are afraid to step out from the pack. If you’re offering the same things everybody else is, how are you going to be perceived as different?

I’m not just talking about your marketing or the services you offer, but being involved in the community. Be the person who always steps up to help. Build a reputation on giving back. Be a leader in your community, not just another business owner.

Develop Unique Promotional Offers

It’s not about your price point, but the perceived value of what you’re offering. Work with your lab, frame and album companies to develop products that are different. You still need to offer the bread-and-butter standards, but look for new products to create excitement for your clients.

A canvas wrap to most photographers is old news, but to many consumers, it’s something they don’t have on their walls. Michele Celentano recently talked about doing a collage of smaller canvas wraps with several different images that tell a client’s story. Canvas wraps aren’t new, but the way she uses them to tell a story is.

Technology has given photographers the ability to have their images printed on wood, stone, metal and glass. Be creative with the products you show your clients. In your studio or office, or the products you take when you meet with a client, remember that what you show is what you’ll sell. I’ve seen photographers over the years who want to sell big prints, but only show 8×10’s. When I’ve asked about having a couple of 20×30’s, their answer is, “They’re too expensive to show.”

Change Up Your Services

Years ago, one of the country’s leading wedding photographers, Cliff Mautner, wanted to increase the value of his services, but without discounting like everybody else was doing. So he added a couple of hours of additional coverage. He added value to his packages without giving away the store.

There are so many different things you can do to stand out from the crowd. A family portrait artist could offer a “Day in the Life Shoot.” The advantage here is your ability to shoot more as a photojournalist and put together a story of a family or child. That story also requires an album or several prints versus a traditional portrait. The nature of the shoot expands the potential revenue stream.

Keep in Touch With Your Clients All Year Long

Earlier I mentioned relationship building. That means you have to keep in touch with your clients well beyond the event they hired you for. Be the one who remembers their anniversary after shooting their wedding. Keep track of when they start a family. Pay attention to things happening in their lives, and look for ways to be involved.

Stay on Top of the Trends

This is an easy one. Just look at the pictures in any well-known consumer magazine. Consumers are influenced by what they see in magazines, online and on television. Pay attention to what they’re seeing, especially when it comes to portraiture.

Look for Partnerships

Cross-promote with other vendors who share your target audience. The variety of partners to work with is virtually unlimited. Salons, spas, restaurants, florists, tux shops, bridal salons and gift shops are all potential partners. Sharing the cost of a promotion and working together on publicity and exposure help make your role in the community unique.

Listen, Listen, Listen

There’s an old saying: “You have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you talk.”

When you first meet a potential new client, ask questions that help you understand how she sees herself. A perfect question for a bride is, “How did you meet your fiancé?” When you have them together, ask, “So, what’s the craziest thing he’s ever done?” You’ll get them laughing, and, before you know it, the trust will start to build. More importantly, you’ll be appreciated for getting to know them rather than firing off all the usual questions about their date, how big a wedding they’re having, their budget, etc.

Understand and Create Value in What You Sell

Tim and Beverly Walden are incredible fine-art portrait artists based in Kentucky. They don’t position their products as portraits people are buying, but family heirlooms on loan to be handed down to future generations. They sign their work and include a certificate of authenticity on the back of prints. They don’t sell photographs; rather, they create an experience for every client.

It’s so important for you to stay focused on being unique in how you approach your market. Your work has to be outstanding. Your promotions need to be different from what everybody else is offering. You’ve got to make yourself and your work stand out.

Don’t be afraid of being different. Be afraid of being the same as everybody else.

Get the full story

To read the full article, launch the digital version of the November 2015 magazine.

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