Managing Middle Management: Booking Commercial Clients with Gary Hughes
A year ago, we decided to do something drastic. We stopped marketing for portraits and weddings. The bookings started to slow down and then eventually dried up enough that we took them off our website completely. Scary? Yes. Crazy? Maybe. We have more than replaced that lost income, but we had to overcome some major hurdles. The first was to find the work. Getting that signed contract after an initial inquiry is the biggest hurdle.
At first we felt like the dog that finally catches the car he was chasing: confused and overwhelmed at what to do next. After a lot of trial and error, we have developed some solid concepts to help portrait photographers bid on and book commercial jobs. If you approach commercial inquiries with the same mindset as weddings, boudoir and babies, you will find yourself getting passed over a lot. If you want that sweet corporate payday, you have to think differently.
Price Is the Gatekeeper, Efficiency Is the Closer
All of the concepts for communicating with and booking commercial clients can be divided into two categories: price and efficiency. Price is the gatekeeper. Efficiency is the closer. Without both, you may book a job, but you won’t book that same job again—and return clients are what make a commercial photography business successful. Let’s start with the inquiry.
Commercial inquiries almost always have the following things in common: They are short (often too short) and they ask for a quote. Let that be your guide.
For a potential commercial client, at least the first time they reach out to you, you are an item on a checklist: Order ink for the copier, get paper towels for the break room, hire a photographer for the convention. That’s you. Next to the paper towels. (But you’re actually totally beautiful and unique, I promise!)
For a large company, photography isn’t an emotional decision, like hiring a wedding photographer. You have to approach these interactions without ego or emotion if you want to book consistently.
First rule: Be efficient. Keep every email, phone call and interaction to the least number of words possible. When you get an inquiry for a wedding, you respond all warm and fuzzy. Middle managers don’t have time for warm and fuzzy.
A bride wants warm and fuzzy. The 28-year-old post-graduate middle manager who emailed you about photographing a building does not. A response to a commercial inquiry should look something like this:
Thanks for your email. We can definitely help you with that. We are available on those dates, and from your inquiry, I suggest the following coverage and extras at the price of $_____. Attached to this email you will find an itemized quote, our full price list, and our Federal Tax ID and insurance information for your records. If you have a specific budget in mind, we are happy to work with you on a custom quote.
All the Best,
Hughes Fioretti Photography
See the difference?
Let’s go over the five most important rules of communicating and bidding with commercial clients.
- Be direct. Don’t try to pull the client into a larger conversation—not yet. This is the first contact, and all they need to know is if you are available and if your price is in the ballpark of their budget. If you respond quickly and meet those two requirements, you will have passed the first hurdle. Wasting time with a ton of questions and a longer discussion is likely to get your email ignored. This is not the time for information gathering.
- Be efficient. The response above succinctly answers every question that comes up in an average inquiry. We included information like the insurance and tax ID that they will need later if we get hired. We have now saved them a step and showed them that we know what we are doing and can anticipate needs in advance.
- Respect the budget. When a large company calls, they know how much money they are going to spend on a project. The amount is mostly set when they get in touch, and you have to find out what that amount is and decide if you are willing to work for that. In this sample response, we gave them a number as a starting place, attached the full list of services so they can build their own package and let them know we are willing to work within their budget if possible.
- The lowest price doesn’t always get the job. For anyone who has ever worked in the corporate world, here is an example you might understand about budgets: Larry has a budget of $5,000 for his project at work. He gets it done for $2,500 and pats himself on the back for saving the company so much money. Next year, Larry is tasked with the same project, but now his budget is only $2,500. What happened? In most cases, it is important to your client to come in under budget, just not too far under budget. Most of the time, our initial bid is more than what they want to pay, but if you have done everything right up to this point, they will come back and ask you to bring the price down. We have found that the sweet spot is to come under about 90 to 95 percent of the budget. It’s enough under to make them look good without getting their budget slashed the next time. When they come back to you, ask them what their budget is, and, when they tell you, decide if you are willing to work for 90 to 95 percent of that amount.
- Have a day or hourly rate. Commercial clients understand billable hours better than anyone. It’s how the corporate world works. If you have a rate per product, per person, per location or anything that is even slightly difficult to understand, you might lose out to someone whose pricing makes more sense. Our price list is broken down to a day rate with available extras like hair and makeup, retouched images and everything else we offer as an upgrade. Every single service is listed separately with its own price. Breaking the services into separate line items makes the numbers smaller and allows the client to build a shoot based on their needs without going over their budget. Since we switched to a pricing menu, we’ve gone from a 50 percent booking rate to 90 percent.
Go out and discover the joy of feeding at the corporate trough. But understand the core philosophy of working in the commercial world: Make sure that you and the client have understood a complete scope of work for the job. Client satisfaction is based largely on expectation, and if everything from the shot list, schedule and product delivery are written down and agreed on, you will know exactly what to do.
Do better. Do more. Remove any potential bottlenecks and overdeliver whenever you can. A good corporate client will be more loyal and spend more money with you than just about any client you have ever had if you impress them and make their life easier. If things get sticky and you drop the ball, you aren’t likely to get called again.
There is an advantage to being on the checklist with the paper towels: If your corporate client has found in you a vendor they enjoy working with, who delivers consistently and at the right price, they will consider that item on the checklist permanently crossed off, and that’s very good for business.