Photography Doesn’t Actually Pay Your Bills—Sales Does

Photography Doesn’t Actually Pay Your Bills—Sales Does

Although we’re required to wear many hats as photographers, we tend to think of ourselves as artists first, treating other roles as secondary, with sales often regarded as only an afterthought. The truth is that we are, first and foremost, salespeople. Photography is our trade—sales is our business. We earn nothing from merely taking photos. Our income is entirely dependent on selling, not just our services capturing and editing photographs, but providing a successful result in both the work product and the experience we deliver.

When I’ve brought this topic up to colleagues, I’m usually met with one or more of the following:

  • “I hate sales. I’m not a salesperson and don’t want to be one.”
  • “I’m terrified of sales.”
  • “I’m a photographer. My work should be self-explanatory. What is there to sell them? You see my work, and you either want it or you don’t.”
  • “Everything they need is on my website and they can book online. Why would I want to spend time ‘selling’ to people when I can just direct them to my website?”

Each of those statements stems from the photographer’s negative opinion toward sales, which is usually brought about by internalized fears (such as the fear of rejection), or previous unpleasant sales interactions. If any (or all) of those statements matches up with your stance on the subject of sales, yet you find yourself struggling to grow and maintain your client list, I have good news for you: sales is a completely learnable process that, when carried out properly, will be natural and fun for you. However, it will require personal growth on your part, including the acknowledgment that you are a salesperson first, and a photographer second.

What Is Sales?

For whatever reason, the most common example I hear people give when confessing their deep-seated loathing of sales is the used car salesman: dressed in a tacky suit and a sly expression, this character knows there’s a sucker born every minute, and it’s his job to offload the most profitable (and probably least mechanically sound) vehicle onto the next unsuspecting rube. “Don’t hate the player; hate the game,” they say. And indeed we do hate that game, vowing never to become that sleazy archetype in our own business, and developing a negative opinion of sales in general, resulting in a disservice to our clients by omitting a vital component of our relationship with them.

The truth is, the “used car salesman” stereotype could not be any farther from what sales is all about. In practical terms, sales is simply asking the right questions, being a good listener, and finding solutions to a client’s needs—both expressed and unexpressed (which you can determine by following the first two steps). However, for this process to work, you must operate from a place of sincerely having your client’s best interests (not your own) in mind.

Originally published in 1936, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People remains a staple in many college business programs, and with good reason. Whether you’ve never sold anything in your life or you’ve been in business for years, the disarming and simplistic nature of Carnegie’s advice will help you reach new heights; not only in your photography business, but in anything you want to achieve that involves cooperation from others (which is just about anything). I highly recommend that you pick up a copy for yourself. The book’s Wikipedia entry provides an excellent synopsis that I also recommend you review.

Carnegie identifies many fundamental qualities you should demonstrate when speaking with a potential or current client.

  • Show genuine interest in the other person.
  • Ask, repeat, and remember their name. Everyone appreciates hearing their name out loud (and for goodness sake, pronounce it correctly).
  • Encourage them to talk about themselves and be a good listener. Asking questions not only shows that you are interested in them; it will help you identify opportunities that would otherwise be missed (for example, cost sharing opportunities with other vendors).
  • Talk in terms of their interest. For example, if a client is concerned about the charge for a scout day: “The scout day shown on the estimate allows me to find the best angles and lighting conditions ahead of time. This will allow us to get more and better photos during the photo shoot and make sure that you get the best possible results.”

There’s one caveat to Carnegie’s teachings: you must be sincere and genuine in carrying them out. Just as you can pick up on subtle cues when speaking with clients, the client can instantly tell when you are being disingenuous with them (and you will probably start to feel like that icky “used car salesman” stereotype). 

What Are We Selling?

It’s tempting to see what we do as self-explanatory. We take the images, deliver them to the client, and they utilize them. But we are expected to bring so much more to the table than simply taking, editing, and delivering photos. What else do we provide? As it turns out, a lot. Each of these items presents an opportunity to add value in the eyes of our clients:

  • Technical skills to operate highly complicated equipment and solve technical problems quickly
  • Logistical skills to plan and produce a shoot, including predicting where additional equipment might be needed, permits, releases, planning light angles
  • Ability and time spent to hire and manage assistants to produce more and better work for the client
  • Our ability to capture our client’s vision in the images we produce
  • The assurance and peace of mind that the job will be done correctly the first time

Notice that “time” is absent from the above list—we may charge based on the number of hours devoted to a shoot, but that is not what’s being sold, nor does the our “time” add value to the client. Clients, particularly those who are employees of the hiring company, may initially balk at the price for an eight-hour shoot, comparing that amount to what they would make in an eight-hour day. What they likely do not see is the time spent scouting the property, planning the shoot, working in post-production, and the various costs involved in procuring equipment, insurance, education, marketing and advertising, etc., adding up to many hours and multiple costs that reduce the “hourly rate” we receive from an assignment. This presents us with an opportunity to educate the client throughout the process—this is part of the sales process.

Asking the right questions in order to achieve your client's vision is part of the sales process.
Asking the right questions in order to achieve your client’s vision is part of the sales process.

You’re Already Selling

I guarantee you’ve been “selling” throughout your photography career; you just might not have known it. Each of the following seemingly routine scenarios is actually part of the sales process:

  • Asking the client what elements of a project they want to emphasize in the photos
  • Sending a shot list with scouting images for client approval
  • Recommending a sunrise photo shoot to capture the best light on a building
  • Informing the client they can save money through cost-sharing arrangements
  • Providing the client with a preparation list to be completed prior to the photo shoot

Each of those situations reflect one or more parts of the sales process: asking the right questions, being a good listener, and making recommendations in service of finding solutions to the client’s needs.

To demonstrate how vital the sales process is to your business, let’s look at a simple example: you receive a phone call inquiring about your services. The first version below is probably the typical way a photographer who dislikes sales would respond.

Caller: “Hi, I’m a builder and need some photos of a recent project. What are your rates?”

You: “Hi, my rates start at $XXXX plus a post-production fee of $XXX per image.”

Caller: “Oh, okay, thanks.”

Where does the conversation go from here? Probably nowhere. The caller may have been surprised by the number you threw at them, or they may have been unsure of what to expect for the price you quoted. You will likely never know. This type of dialog might work if you plan to price yourself at the lowest tier in your market, because when you lead with pricing, you will attract clients who see your work as a commodity and care only about the price. But if your intention is to garner the attention of clients who understand what sets your work apart from your peers’, and who appreciate those differences enough to invest in your work, a more thorough approach is necessary. Remember, you are not just a photographer—you are a skilled consultant whose responsibility is to guide the client through what can be a difficult and complicated process, particularly if the client is new to hiring photography services.

Let’s look at the same phone call, except that instead of simply answering the closed-end question that was asked, you ask them open-ended questions to find out how you can help the client.

Caller: “Hi, I’m a builder and need some photos of a recent project. What are your rates?”

You: “Hi, thanks for reaching out! May I have your name, please?”

Caller: “It’s Bill Smith.”

You: “Nice to meet you, Bill. I’d love to get some more information to see how I can best help you. Can you tell me a little about your business?” (While you wait for Bill’s answer, run a Google search to check out any current photographs Bill’s website might already have).

Bill: “Well we’ve been around for a few years now, just finished up a couple really beautiful residential projects. We’ve been talking about re-doing our website for a while but haven’t had a chance to sit down and figure that process out yet.”

You: “I understand. Can you tell me a bit about those two homes?”

Bill: “Oh, they’re gorgeous custom builds. Both modern. We spared no expense. The master bath took the longest to finish because we had to rework an entire wall for the tub we decided to put in. But it looks so perfect now.”

You: “Wow! Sounds like it was worth the effort, Bill. You’ll definitely want all that hard work and skill to come through in the final photographs.” (This lets him know you are paying attention and also gives you at least one area to focus on at the photo shoot).

At this point, you’ve already established that you want to help and have begun to develop a rapport by showing genuine interest in Bill’s work. You can ask more open-ended questions to better determine the caller’s expectations and needs, and by the time you get around to price, he will have a much better understanding of all the work that goes into successfully executing the photo shoot.

For those who feel uncomfortable doing this on the phone (looking at you, fellow Millennials), imagine trying to have the discussion above via email. Do not expect to just send the client a form to fill out and receive complete answers (if at all), much less the subtle but valuable cues a phone conversation provides. And remember to actually smile when you are talking. Believe it or not, the person on the other end will be able to “hear” your smile.

Sales is a fundamental requirement to demonstrate your value to clients.
Sales is a fundamental requirement to demonstrate your value to clients.

The Sales Process Establishes Value

I’ve never considered myself much of a fashionista. I like to dress casually and comfortably, and buy clothes that are fairly interchangeable. Though I’ve always believed in buying quality, designer labels are something I’ve never had much interest in. Nordstrom Rack is about as close to couture as I’ll get. Recently, I accompanied a friend to a Louis Vuitton store. My friend wanted to buy his niece a clutch, as she’d been pining for an authentic LV piece for the better part of the last two years. That little purse was about $1,200, whereas the most I’d ever spent on something that could hold that little stuff was probably a $20 Trapper-Keeper binder in grade school.

I asked the salesperson (non-ironically) what made this bag so special. She could have replied with a flippant response about how if I have to ask that, it’s not meant for me. Instead, she told me the story of the brand and how it came to be. I learned that Louis Vuitton dates back to the 1850s and was most known for their incredibly durable trianon canvas, which they used on their stackable shipping trunks and also on upholstery for luxury passenger railroad cars. Resistant to water, stains, and rips, the material was ideal for tough uses requiring longevity and aesthetic appeal for decades. That same material was used on the clutch my friend was about to purchase. Suddenly, that $1,200 bag went from being an extravagant purchase, to an opportunity to own an exquisite piece of history. Though I did not purchase anything that day, that experience established my internal value of the brand, and the next time I’m in the market for a wallet, I’d definitely consider investing in one made by Louis Vuitton.

Embrace Your Role in Sales

If you’ve previously avoided engaging in the sales process, whether out of resentment toward past sales experiences or a misunderstanding of what sales is really all about, I hope that you now see how critical sales is to the success of your photography business, and that you are willing to give it a go. Watch for future posts on this topic, where we will go into more detail about the sales process and how to be an effective salesperson as a photographer.

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