Note: If you haven’t read my previous article on sales, “Photography Doesn’t Pay Your Bills—Sales Does,” I would recommend doing so, in order to get the most benefit from the information we’ll cover here.
How often are you frustrated with trying to find new clients, or manage relationships with existing ones? Have you recently ended a call with a potential client, convinced you completely blew it but not knowing why? Perhaps you feel like every inquiry for your services focuses on price and ends with the client telling you that you’re way too expensive. Maybe you made a cold call and got the dreaded, “We already have someone for that.” How does that make you feel? Is it any wonder why so many people say they hate sales?
With experiences like this, sooner or later, a mindset of scarcity sets in. Opportunities are scarce, so you need most or all of your inquiries to agree to work with you, even if it means charging less than you know your services are worth. Money is scarce, so when a few inquiries tell you that you’re way above their budget, you assume a low price is the biggest reason anyone will hire you (“The industry’s changed, no one values photography anymore, people can use their smartphone,” etc.). And with such “scarce” opportunities and money, you dare to think you can charge rates that your colleagues keep reassuring you are both fair and sustainable? Forget about it, right? It’s almost enough to make you throw your hands up and say, “I quit.” Unfortunately, many do.
If any of this applies to you, dear reader, fear not. The truth is that the universe is full of abundance. Opportunities are abundant. Money is abundant. Talent is abundant. No, I’m not trying to get all “metaphysical” on you. While I believe in the power of manifestation, that is not the direct focus of this article. What I’m referring to is the thoughts that drive how we interact with potential and current clients, ultimately determining our ability to serve our clients as sales professionals. As I’ve previously stated, photography is our trade—sales is our business.
“Okay,” you’re probably thinking. “I get it—I’m a salesperson. But how do I sell?!” Good question. There are specific steps to the process that are actually simple and repeatable. The problem is, they are worth very little without the proper mindset. Given the plethora of available self-help books on sales, it should come as no surprise that becoming successful in sales starts from within. If my last article on sales could be considered Part One, Consider this Part Two of a three-part series. Whether you are just starting out as an architectural photographer or are seeking to take your business to the next level, you must begin from within.
First and foremost, you must value yourself. This is an absolute prerequisite to your success. If you don’t possess something of value, you have nothing to sell. If you do not believe in the value of what you provide, how can you expect any potential client to believe that you are worth what you charge? As humans, our ability to sense insincerity is often more finely calibrated than we realize. If you do not genuinely value yourself, your clients will pick up on your insincerity and will question either your price or your ability to deliver on your promises.
We often under-value ourselves because we compare our photos to a colleague’s work and subjectively determine that we are “not as good” or, worse, somehow deficient as a photographer. The slightest bit of poorly-worded “cc” on a photo we post online can not only deflate our pride in a recently-completed project; it can leave a lasting impact as its mental reverberations peck away at our sense of self-worth. But regardless of our unfounded insecurities, it may surprise you to learn that most clients have trouble differentiating between a “good” photo and a “great” photo, at least by the harsh criteria we use to evaluate our work. Certainly there are technical proficiencies you should master prior to charging for your services. But once you are worth charging, you are worth charging a sustainable price, right out of the gate. Embrace your worth as a professional and charge accordingly.
Remember that your value doesn’t come strictly from your technical skills as a photographer, but from the collective skills you bring to the table and the experience you deliver to the client. Notice I said the experience you deliver, not the photos you deliver. Imagine walking into Tiffany & Co., where you’re about to buy a watch you’ve been eyeing for months. As you eagerly anticipate adorning your wrist with this timeless timepiece for the first time, you are likely just as excited for the buying experience: the watch will be carefully placed in a beautiful box with a crisp ribbon, then presented to you with a flourish in a signature “Tiffany blue” bag. How would you feel if the salesperson just tossed the watch into a fast-food takeout bag and handed it to you? Or what if the salesperson was extremely rude to you while ringing up the sale? It’s the same watch, isn’t it? So why are you now either asking to speak to the manager, or leaving the store feeling completely disappointed? The answer is simple: your experience was not consistent with the brand’s promise to you. We think nothing of having fast-food casually thrust in our general direction from a drive-thru window (by very hard-working and generally friendly people, mind you), because the brand’s promise is efficiency and economy, to get you fed and back on the road as quickly as possible. Luxury and boutique brands are built by creating consistent, memorable experiences for the client. Ultimately, the experience you deliver is the principal determinant to the client’s perception of you as a professional photographer.
Also, be mindful with the words you use when communicating with clients. Casual industry terms, without the proper context, are often unintentionally self-deprecating. How many times have clients asked you for the cost to “snap a few pics” or “grab a ‘quick’ shot from this angle, too?” How did you respond? It’s tempting to use casual terms in order to be approachable and friendly, but this often has the effect of stripping the meaning and value of the work we do. “Snap pics” or “grab a shot” implies that we show up, haphazardly point our cameras in the general direction of a building, and deliver the results as-is. “Just Photoshop that out,” to me, makes it sound like the software does the work. Even if an object removal or sky replacement takes only a few minutes, we often practice our retouching skills for many hours to get it right. Consider the contrasting effect of the following phrases:
I snap pics
Swing by to see the property
“Use me” for this project
Photoshop that out
I produce images
Conduct a scouting session
“Work with me” or “commission me”
Notice the difference? The word choices are subtle, but the implication of each phrase is noticeably different. The left-column phrases might describe someone trying to get their start in the business (while also perpetuating the myth that Photoshop is what does the work when we retouch). The right-column phrases are not to impress the client at our immense image-making prowess or portray grandiose arrogance in our work; they merely reinforce the client’s trust that we take ourselves seriously—and that they should, too. For many, particularly those who are relatively established in the industry, most of your clientele will already understand the significance of the work we do. However, while to other photographers (and some clients) your work speaks for itself, I’d argue that the primary reason you feel respected and appreciated by your clients is because your experience and industry standing have made you more comfortable being assertive and showing your clients how you deserve to be treated. Those without at least a decade in this industry often struggle with finding their voice, and I believe it plays a large part in many photographers not reaching their potential.
Scholars who have earned a Ph.D. typically list that designation next to their name, in part because it conveys the investment of time, energy, and money that goes into earning a degree of that level. Skilled photographers unfortunately don’t have such a widely-recognized designation. Our clients don’t see the nights and weekends we’ve spent reading books on photography, absorbing information from tutorials, asking questions in discussion groups, attending educational workshops and trade conventions—not to mention the expense of investing in and building an effective kit and the hours of trial and error involved in building an optimal workflow. Absent formal accreditation, we must establish and continually reinforce our value as artists and as professionals in all aspects of our business, including pricing, client communications, and the experience we provide.
Remove Money Blocks
Money blocks go hand-in-hand with self-value (or lack thereof). The distinction I would make between the two is that self-value determines your ability to realize your professional worth and to construct pricing and policies in line with that worth. Money blocks happen at all stages of the process, but often occur after a client says “yes.” Pertaining to our discomfort with asking for and accepting money, they are one of the more insidious barriers to our success, particularly because they exist on such a subconscious level. This likely varies somewhat from one culture to another, but in general, it’s sadly common for us to be uncomfortable with the idea of accepting money. I suspect that for many of us, this likely began in childhood, when we would receive a generous gift and would be taught to say something like, “Thank you, but you really shouldn’t have!” But what would be the reason the person who gave you the gift “shouldn’t have,” other than that…you don’t deserve it? Thus, the idea is internalized that the acceptance of money must be accompanied by guilt and shame.
Think for a moment about past interactions you’ve had with clients, and how many times you’ve done any of these things:
- Asked several experienced colleagues for pricing advice and then quoted the client at least 30 percent less than the range your colleagues all recommended, because it “just seemed like too much”
- Discounted an invoice simply because the amount seemed high to you (but was definitely correct)
- Performed additional work for free to avoid having to discuss additional fees with the client
- Avoided following up on past-due payments because you were uncomfortable asking to be paid
There are many ways money blocks manifest in our business, but it is important to recognize and work through them. This is not only for our own benefit, but that of our clients. As with self-value, when we show discomfort with discussing, asking for, and accepting money we have earned, this subconsciously indicates to the client that they should also be uncomfortable. This is detrimental to the client’s experience, but thankfully, it’s entirely avoidable, provided we are willing to do the work to realign our thoughts surrounding money.
Lead with Service in Mind
An attitude of service should be your compass to navigate every sales opportunity. It’s easy to get caught up in the goal of getting a “yes,” whether because you need the money, you’re eager for a “win,” or your sense of self-worth hinges on whether or not this client decides to work with you. These motivations are all selfish in nature and will ultimately suppress your ability to truly listen to your client and give them the best service you can offer. It’s perfectly natural to want a client to say “yes” to working with us, and we would be remiss not to educate them on the reasons why we believe they should do so. But there is a big difference between being interested in working with someone and being desperate to work with them. Your role is not to get the client to say “yes.” Your role is to be a skilled and trusted consultant upon whom the client can rely for honest guidance.
A common question I receive is, “You keep talking about attracting target clients, but how do I actually find them?” This begins with an end-to-end attitude of service. Think of it as being similar to online dating. You want your profile to communicate some basic things about you that will help attract people who are more likely to be a good match. Your profile photos should be reflective of your personality and likeness. Once you match with someone, that doesn’t on its own mean that the two of you are compatible, but you can then begin asking questions of the other person to learn more about them and how you might fit into each other’s lives. Sometimes you go out on a first date; sometimes it doesn’t get that far. This is all part of the process.
Let’s put that in terms of your business. Your website and all other touch-points should properly reflect the way you run your business. When someone reaches out to inquire about your services or, if you reach out first, agrees to a phone meeting with you, that’s a bit like a “match” on an app. Now is your opportunity to ask questions to help determine how you could be a good fit for you and this client to work together. Your goal is to identify the client’s needs, both expressed and unexpressed (this is where being a good listener really helps), and how you can fulfill those needs. During this process, you may realize it’s just not a good fit. Maybe the client expects you to emulate another photographer’s style that is incongruent with how you create images, or perhaps the client’s budget does not align with your rates. Not every client is the right client for you, and that’s okay. Selling with a mindset of service allows you to quickly recognize when you might not be the best person for the job (which is rarely a reflection on your skills or professional standing). In acknowledging this, you not only avoid stress and frustration for both you and the client; you free yourself up for an abundance of opportunities better suited to your professional goals. In other words, an attitude of service to others actually still leads to obtaining your own wants and needs, but in more of a win-win fashion.
Practice a New Mindset
Yes, practice. The concepts we’ve introduced here are not something you learn and automatically retain. Left unchecked, the influences of the defeatist scarcity mentality will likely creep back into your thought process, working only to your detriment. Philosopher Dan Millman once said, “There are no enlightened people; only enlightened moments.” It’s not easy to react with kindness when a potential client scoffs and says you’re not “worth” what you charge, or dismisses your recommendations for how to best capture their project. But it does get easier with practice. Handling objections and hearing “no” are part of the sales process, and it is entirely possible to do both from a mindset of service and gratitude, while maintaining your dignity and self-value. When you value yourself, you don’t need validation from others that you are worth what you charge—you already know it’s true. Without money blocks, you are able to welcome an abundance of opportunities and ensure the sustainability of your business. With an attitude of service, you will organically attract clients and projects that are a good fit for you.
Stay tuned for Part Three, where we will dive deep into the actual mechanics of how to engage in the sales process with clients. And this time I promise to publish it faster than they release new seasons of Better Call Saul.