Russell Smith offers some more advice for professional photographers – How to get new clients and hold onto them.
By Russell Smith.
I went to a motivational talk last week by the GM of Protea Hotels and was inspired by one of his simple truths that an important rule in business is to get new clients and hold onto them!
We spend a lot of time and energy trying to acquire new clients and spend less time looking after and keeping them around. Photographers, just like so many others in business, are in the service industry. And I don’t mean just in producing magnificent images for our clients but all the stuff that goes around taking pictures. I started out naively believing that all I needed to do was produce unparalleled images and they would come running and never leave. Yes, it is very important to have a superior product to compete in the creative market place but no it is not enough!
Everyone and their aunty is a photographer.
The digital age has changed the playing field forever! It has in effect narrowed the gap between photography professionals and Joe with the latest DSLR; the barrier to becoming a ‘professional’ photographer is almost non-existent. In the days of film, one generally invested in medium format camera or top of the range SLRs. Costly Polaroids or contact sheets to check exposure and composition were the only back up. Film and processing costs as well as portfolio prints and that ubiquitous black leather porty case all cost dollars to produce and tested your commitment. Today with minimal investment required, the digital camera has made it all accessible and the web has made it free to present your work to the world. And the result of this all is that there is so many more people for your clients to go to for photography (most of them not having to leave their day jobs).
My message to professionals is not one of gloom though and am not suggesting packing it all in but rather to use this as an opportunity to differentiate and stand out. Your work is one way to do that but you will need to market and add value to your offering like never before to keep those interested parties well, interested!
The days of photographers being prima donnas are over.
I remember working in Paris as an art director with top photographers who had paid their dues and now were on the top of their professions. They had 4 assistants and when the first assistant had pulled the polaroid, the photographer would walk in, look at it, move a light and walk out again. Those were the days!
Not to say that there isn’t a small cadre of photographers in the world who are not larger than the subjects that they are shooting but for most of us mere mortals we need to be good partners to our clients. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we must give up our creative integrity because that is sure death, but to listen and collaborate with them. You need to make sure they are looked after. Everything from making sure the music playing in the studio is likeable to having good coffee to offer. The experience from the first call you make to the time you hand over the images must be one that is considered positive in general. You won’t get it all right but the take out must be positive!
Make it difficult for your client to leave you! Offer your creative input on a campaign sometimes before it gets to the shoot. Ask if you can sit in on the brainstorming session if the agency has asked you to quote on the job. Be careful though as you don’t want to start doing the art director’s job and stand on anybody’s toes. So be proactive but not annoyingly so and your level of sensitivity will be your guide on this. Be part of the creative team and not just the last step in the production. Another example, I have a good network of people around me that I can call upon from stylists, assistants to retouchers and lighting suppliers when a job arises and in a fairly short turn around time put a production together. This clear advantage to my client gives them peace of mind that the whole shoot is taken care of and that you are working with a team of people that has worked together before. I am in this case more than a photographer, I become a mini agency!
Communication and reliability is also crucial. There are many photographers out there but as a ‘professional’ photographer you need to make time for preproduction meetings, be at the other end of the phone or at least email, and make good on timelines and deadlines.
The truth is you need to shoot and schmooze!
You have to be good with people to a large extent too. People like working with people they know and like (sometimes regardless of the quality of the work). You do need to make effort with people and spend time schmoozing a little. If this is not your thing then it takes more of your energy but a little will go a long way and it needs to be genuine as much as possible. I must add that don’t expect loyalty from clients and you will not be disappointed. I have mentioned before to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket and not to depend on one client no matter how big. Also don’t expect to get on with everyone. Sometimes you just gel with a client and with others, no matter the quality of work, there is no connection. This also applies to stylists and art directors.
Showing that you genuinely care about your work and the clients’ objectives will help form bonds. Offering your time to chat or go and recce locations, that may be beyond your duty, will mean so much to them. You need to go the extra mile! Your current clients, assuming all went well on the shoot, have already formed a relationship with you. This is a great foot in the door and opportunity to turn the relationship into a long term one.
Don’t play the price game!
A piece of advice that I learned from another photographer once was not to compete on price and make low fees your added advantage. Sure if they are on a tight budget or they are good clients you can negotiate but be careful that you are not just the cheapest! The clients often perceive your worth this way too and will not give it a moments thought to look at other portfolios next time a job with a bigger budget comes around. The flip side to this is that you shouldn’t milk them dry either. Rather price yourself fair and keep them coming back.
So with the slow down in ad spend and the closure of magazines, the mind blowing number of images flying around on the net, a smaller client base with interesting budgets and a ton of competent photographers out there vying for the job, you need to be holding on to your existing clients with all the heart you have.