Convincing the Unconvincible: Client Education That Works with Phillip Blume
What comes to your mind when you see the phrase client education? Do you imagine an awkward conversation where you’re telling a couple that they probably should have purchased digital images and a print release rather than produce their own 24×36 screenshot of an engagement blog post? (Did they really not care that your watermark was covering the image?)
Or perhaps the phrase conjures up memories of a long email reply you once wrote in which you tried to convince a potential client who questioned your pricing that the quality of your work is worth more than the $200 they budgeted for a family session and a disk of images. (Or did you try to justify your prices by detailing your business expenses and the depreciation value of your camera equipment? If so, please don’t admit it!)
If we’re honest, client education is probably the scariest thing about running a photography business. Always having to justify our value to a bargain-hunting bunch of incredulous consumers just seems cruel.
Welcome to the professional world, my friend. Don’t let it get you down. But do get ready to work hard and reshape the way you communicate. As business owners, we wear so many hats, including “director of public relations”—perhaps the most important of all. Convincing the unconvincible is an art and a science.
To become anything more than just another starving artist, you need to become an expert at convincing. Here’s how and when to do it.
Believe in What You Do (or No One Else Will)
Nothing is more stressful than trying to get bookings in the first place. Without clients, you don’t have a business. So the first step is to educate nonclients. Show them that you have something they want. But how do you hook them when you’re just one among a thousand other photographers in the sea?
Did you notice the contradiction? I described the need to hook your client, which is accurate. But I also described you, the photographer, as the “fish” in an overcrowded sea of fellow photographers. Fish don’t hook fishermen, do they? No, but that’s how we act sometimes. Photographers do not outnumber our clients. We are in the boats, and the sea is full with clients for us all. They are the fish. If we are patient enough to learn the skill of fishing, we control our own destiny.
It sounds counterintuitive. So how can I make such a claim?
I make it confidently first because of my own experience. My wife and I serve a small market. Our studio is located in a town with a population of 2,863. The nearest urban market is a city of barely 100,000 that also boasts the USA’s ghest poverty rate. Since it’s a university town with art schools, our favorite pastime is counting the number of enthusiastic new photographer grads who launch websites each year. Keeping count is a lost cause, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to compete. You must believe there are plenty of clients out there for you.
Photographers too often take a self-defeating attitude about booking clients. According to this defeatist attitude, other photographers are out to get you and so you have to work for less than what your time and talent are worth just to compete. Finally, you become desperate. Desperation—not a problem with supply and demand—defeats the photographers we’ve seen come and go every season while our studio has grown for almost a decade. Don’t just hope to succeed. Make the choice to.
Convert “Iffy” Clients
To turn “iffy” clients into dedicated fans, never compromise on price. People can smell desperation a mile away. It makes you appear unprofessional, unreliable and green. Your willingness to lower prices and alter packages may work against you psychologically, and could be the reason interested clients get cold feet and don’t book you.
Instead, embody confidence. Purchasing and hiring decisions are made in the limbic brain, which is the emotional and abstract part of the brain that’s not interested in numbers or details. When someone books you, they do it because they get a good gut feeling from you.
Research shows that trust is the number-one motivator behind final purchasing decisions. You can make booking easier for your clients by creating a sense of trust. Trust is the result of clear understanding. Make every inch of your process and services crystal clear. Simplify your menus and packages. Too many options make consumers retreat.
Spend your time with clients explaining step-by-step what they can expect on a wedding day, not dull facts about the quality of your products or whether you define your style as journalistic or fine art. We put potential clients to sleep with that nonsense. Walk them through every option of your packages, showing samples.
Of course, you can direct them to build their own package, but hourly rates and à la carte items must cost enough that your prebundled and discounted packages make much more sense. This shows potential clients the value of their own initiative, without you needing to educate them in words. When people learn something for themselves, they’re more likely to accept it and move ahead confidently beyond their initial budget.
This is also a weeding-out process. If they can’t afford your lowest wedding package, they are simply out of luck. You will disqualify some bargain-hunters by sticking to your prices and policies, but you will earn better-qualified clients who have realistic expectations. That’s a recipe for a less stressful transaction.
Boost Your Sales Average
When we began our business, I assumed we could make a living on photography session fees alone. What was I thinking? Like lemmings, I guess we were just following the crowd. But we wised up just before the crowd plunged over a cliff.
Sure, there will always be photographers who appeal to a luxury market by virtue of their brand name. They can charge exorbitant fees upfront and deliver nothing but digital images on the backend. I’m happy for them. But let’s be honest. Only a limited number of markets are economically suited to that model—mine certainly is not. I believe in providing my clients with something of lasting physical value. Nowadays, 70 percent of my studio’s income is from print sales. So how can you achieve those kinds of numbers and find success even in a depressed market?
Have you considered lowering your session fee? I know it sounds crazy, but I’m a firm believer that the ideal portrait session is a free one. With a free session, it’s 100 percent clear to clients that nothing can possibly be included. Yes, we do still charge session fees in most cases; you have to set these carefully considering what your market can bear. But we also give away a lot of free portrait sessions (and sometimes even weddings) through charity events that benefit both the charity and us. But it helps when fees are low and there’s no confusion that digital images are available only at additional cost. Then the whole process feels more honest to your client because you’re providing a kind of guarantee: If I don’t produce great work for you that you want to purchase, you don’t lose anything.
Provide a pricing menu and limited-time sales before the client’s ordering appointment so they can consider how they might like to preserve and display their artwork in the home. Most importantly, never let anyone see images online (not a blog post, not an online gallery) until after their ordering appointment. Otherwise, you will kill your sale dead. Seeing images online gives people the false sense that they will always be there to enjoy. It doesn’t matter if you try to educate them about the instability of digital media or remind them that their grandkids likely won’t use USBs or Facebook anymore than we now use eight-track tapes.
Remember, facts don’t convince people’s limbic brain, and the expectation that everything is ever-present on every device won’t go away because you say so. Good client education is not about winning arguments at all; it’s about having a system that requires good behavior.
It’s easy for a client to decide against buying photography before a session is booked, but it’s extremely rare for someone to walk away once they’ve seen and fallen in love with their personal artwork. When we show a client their images for the first time, we click through every photograph in Lightroom and let the couple or family indicate their favorite images. We mark each with two stars. When they inevitably end up with a lot of favorites, we say something along the lines of, “That’s the perfect number to use for a coffee table book that will preserve every bit of your personalities and tell your story.”
By choosing the number of favorite images, they’ve made the decision for themselves. We don’t have to predesign oversize wedding books beyond the number of pages we sold them earlier in their wedding package. That feels just a little too sales-y for us, and clients pick up on it. We prefer to provide a map and let the client point the way.
Increase Your Client Lifespan
Once you’ve begun to attract more leads, converted those leads into paying clients and earned higher sales averages from happy customers, it’s time to think about how you’re going to hold onto those clients.
Here’s a big problem I have with the shoot-and-burn mentality: The vast majority of people who walk away with digital images never print them, and certainly not professionally. If you don’t send your client away with something tangible that adds value to her life experience, why would she want to come back to you for another session? Does she really need another disk in her junk drawer?
One important law of ROI (return on investment) is that it almost always costs less to remarket to a repeat client than it does to convert a cold lead into a new paying client. With a new client, you have to start from square one and build up the necessary trust bank from scratch.
If you want to make a career in photography, start thinking long-term. Keep an organized contact list. As time goes by, start emailing your families with growing kids about senior portrait sessions. Email your senior clients about wedding photography. Email your brides about maternity or newborn portraits. Then you start to see a cycle.
In the shorter term, think about using our Maximized Mini Sessions method to get newlywed couples and families coming back to you every year. With a simple friends-and-family program, we have begun to earn more from just one 20-minute mini session than we used to earn from an entire wedding and engagement session combined.
Our website TheBlumes.co shows only weddings, but weddings aren’t great for repeat business. If the bride has more than one, it’s not likely to be with the same photographer. Mini sessions are the engine that grows our business most reliably. They make photography an annual tradition for our clients and provide an amazing experience that convinces even the unconvincible of the value of professional photography.