What to Say to a Client Who’s Always Right with Phillip Blume


What to Say to a Client Who’s Always Right with Phillip Blume

Lift your eyes up away from these words for a moment, stare straight ahead and say, “No.” Say it out loud. Say it like you mean it. Seriously. Wherever you are right now—reading online, in an airplane or sitting comfortably inside a Barnes & Noble with Shutter Magazine in one hand and a latte in the other—give “no” a try. I promise the people around you won’t mind. (They may stare at you and slowly walk away. But at least you’ll gain some extra personal space.)

How did the word no make you feel? Interestingly, the sound of this negative word has a measurable psychological effect on us. It feels bad. It feels even worse when someone levels a “no” in your direction.

But let’s change things up, and say “yes” out loud. Now that feels good, doesn’t it? This universal emotional reaction to yes and no is why successful businesses have long honored one sacred motto: “The customer is always right.”

But is the customer really always right? Heck, no. (Now that no actually felt kind of good.) But if employees are sometimes all too eager to deal out harsh no’s in response to a customer’s bad behavior, then owners must learn that saying “yes” is the key to profits. We have something to gain by it.

The question is, how can you say “no” while still making it feel like a “yes”? If you can master this art, it will enhance your clients’ positive experience so much, it can transform your business.

The Cost of Giving In to Client Demands

How often are you telling your clients “no”—that bitter, soul-crushing word? Or how often are you giving them a begrudging “yes,” giving in to their demands when you know it isn’t good for your business or for them?

Years ago, my wife and I received an unusual honor. A young couple, our wedding clients, invited us to celebrate their first anniversary with them. We expected it to be a party. As it turned out, it was just the four of us for dinner. I think this says something about the intimate experience we provide our couples from the start, but it says even more about how awesome and kind our couples are.

Thank goodness we brought a gift for them, a simple 11×14 print from their wedding portraits we’d made exactly one year before. As the bride unwrapped it, a surprising thing happened: She became emotional. “Oh, it’s so beautiful. I haven’t seen any of these pictures since our wedding,” she said, to our astonishment.

But we’d given them the digital images a year ago. Surely they printed them, right? No, they hadn’t. It turned out that none of our couples from the early years of our business had done much with their photos. (“Well, at least that custom-printed CD looks amazing in your junk drawer,” said no one ever.) We had literally given them nothing of lasting value. What had we been doing?

Well, we hadn’t been succeeding. We were just another pair of unprofitable wedding photographers—the last thing the world needed.

But you, as the manager of your own business, have the choice to say “yes” to doing things differently starting today. That’s what we did. We said “yes” to a lifestyle of charitable projects that our regular readers are familiar with. Doing pro-bono work to alleviate poverty is costly, but “yes” helped us discover new business opportunities through that work that we otherwise would have missed.

We said “yes” to creating ComeUnity, an informal but powerful network that helps photographers balance life with greater business success. (We’d love to invite you to join all of us “Unifiers” at ComeUnityWorkshops.com or @ComeUnity on Instagram.) Our own success allowed us to do what mattered most to us: By the time you read this, we will be on our way home from China after picking up our newly adopted son.

It’s been quite a journey. This all became possible because “yes” created a better experience for our clients. Here are three simple ways to say “yes,” even when you mean “no.”

  1. The Persuasive Yes

The persuasive “yes” leverages the power of suggestion. For example, your client might say, “We don’t want to do a first look. But can we still get beautiful sunny landscape portraits outside after dark?” I’m exaggerating only slightly. Don’t we all have those clients who can’t seem to see the logistical nightmare they’re creating for themselves on the wedding day?

My response has become, “Yes, we can figure that out. Most couples now plan a special, private moment together. So that really has become the new tradition for most people.” Here I’m using the word tradition in my response because I realize that’s the main reason couples make wedding-related choices like these. Heck, that’s why Eileen and I chose not to see each other earlier on our own wedding day. But I, as the expert, have a new and valuable perspective to share with my clients. I must do so gently to get the point across.

“The choice is totally up to you,” I say with a smile. “If it helps, I can tell you some of the pros and cons of first looks, too.”

It’s irresistible. You’ve already given them “yes,” so of course they’ll hear you out. Then I seal the deal: “When you share that private first moment together, it’s beautiful because you still see each other for the first time. But it’s not for an audience. It’s just for you. You can actually breathe and speak to one another. Nerves just melt, and couples say they enjoy the ceremony even more because they can soak it in better.”

If I just can’t get through to them, we can always offer a day-after session, which is an extra sale for us. But by this point in the consult, the bride’s eyes usually well up with tears. The first look is a go. We’re appealing to emotion, not giving orders.

  1. The Alternative Yes

A big reason for our success is that we stopped giving away our product for free (imagine that). Yes, of course there are valid business models that differ from ours. But if you would like to be one of the very few photography businesses that continue to thrive beyond their first few years in business, know that the vast majority of successful studios don’t shoot and burn.

Here’s the reason most of us are terrified to branch out from the “shoot and burn” model. We know this question is coming: “Aren’t the digital negatives included with the session?”

Don’t panic. It’s all in how you answer. Should you say, “No. Does Coca-Cola give you their secret formula just because you paid for a two-liter?” Great analogy, but that response may lose you a client.

Instead, use the alternative yes: “Sessions don’t automatically include negatives. But, yes, if digital copies are important to you, they’re available for purchase. Or most couples actually receive them as a free gift with a certain minimum in artwork purchases. That’s something we do because we believe so strongly in the lasting value of physical artwork for families.”

Plant seeds. You want your clients to have something that lasts. Guide them toward better choices. After all, you don’t see USB sticks or consumer-grade prints in museums.

  1. The No/Yes

Here’s a fun exercise. Try shaking your head “no” while actually saying “yes.” It’s hard, right?

“Can we get a discount if we don’t want an album in our package?” your client may ask.

You could say: “No, I can’t afford to shoot your wedding unless you buy an album. That’s why it’s in the freakin’ package.” But don’t talk about your needs; talk about their needs. Try this: “Yes, my packages do always include a wedding album. My goal as an artist is a finished art piece that your daughter or granddaughter will love as much as you do.”

“Do we get the RAW images?” is another common (and ridiculous) question. The answer obviously should be “no.” But I almost feel compelled to respond to this one like Inigo Montoya, the Spanish character from the comedy classic The Princess Bride: “RAW. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Keep in mind that clients don’t speak photography jargon. Say this instead: “RAW images aren’t edited. But, yes, any digital images you purchase are color-balanced and ready to print.”

Yes is what it all comes down to, isn’t it? In the end, successful businesses don’t offer products. They offer an experience. Photographs are a commodity. But people will pay for an experience, pay to feel valued. Value your clients. Give them “yes,” and they will return to you again and again.

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