Today's post is an excerpt from the book Wedding Photojournalism: The Business of Aesthetics, by Paul D. Van Hoy II. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.
Even if you’re an established professional wedding photographer with a couple seasons to your credit, client consultations can still be hit and miss—which means you could be leaving a lot of money on the table. The best way to ensure your business’s continued growth is by upping your consultation IQ and becoming a strong closer!
CONSULTING WITH CLIENTS
Consulting with prospective clients often proves to be a precarious game of cat and mouse. For beginning professionals, consultations are as nerve-racking as tightrope walking over a pit of angry alligators. No kidding—some of my first sessions were so awkward and uncomfortable that I seriously reconsidered whether wedding photography was the right profession for me.
Fourteen seasons later, I’ve concluded that the key to becoming an effective closer is control; you must know how to establish and maintain it at all times. When I say take control, I mean lead the pacing and progression of the consultation from start to finish. This doesn’t mean that you should bully or browbeat your clients. Rather, you must be personable and charismatic—and above all, a good communicator.
Whether you’re a wallflower or a social butterfly, I believe that everyone possesses the ability to be charming and engaging. The real challenge is being able to win over the many types of clients who might come through your door. This means that, beyond being personable and persuasive, you must also be able to accurately read your clients so that you can quickly “change up” your approach to suit a variety of interactive scenarios.
What's your primary style? Posed and formal, relaxed, photojournalistic, creative, artistic, candid, or traditional?
One way to build confidence and overall preparedness is to be preemptive; know what questions your clients are likely to ask you—and, more importantly, know which ones they’re unlikely to ask. Be prepared for those curveballs. Having a well-practiced repertoire of rebuttals and redirections is essential to becoming an effective closer.
It’s common for brides to come prepared with their bulging three-ring binders (I jokingly refer to them as “matrimony manifestos”), complete with a copy of “Questions To Ask Your Photographer.” Here’s a sample of some of the stock questions you may be asked:
• What’s your primary style? Formal, relaxed, photojournalistic, creative, artistic, candid, traditional?
• Do you shoot in color or black & white? Or both? Do you shoot in a digital format that can create both color and black & white versions of the same picture?
• What kind of input can we have on the direction of the shots? Can we give you a shot list?
• Are you the wedding photographer who will actually take our pictures? If not, can we meet the person who will be?
• Can we meet any assistants who will also be taking our pictures?
• How many times have you worked as a wedding photographer? How many events were similar to the size and formality of our wedding?
• How many other events will you also photograph that weekend?
• What kind of equipment will you bring with you? How intrusive will lighting, tripods, other equipment or assistants be?
You should familiarize yourself with these questions so that you will be able to provide full, detailed answers upon request—but never let your client lead the session with their list of questions. An invaluable tip here is to be informative while remaining conversational; satisfy these questions before they’re asked. This is a hallmark of a seasoned professional.
By providing a thorough and comprehensive breakdown of your services you will demonstrate to clients that you have a sincere interest in allaying their questions and concerns—and, more importantly, that you identify with them. I strive to go above and beyond just answering the cursory questions like, “Do you bring backup equipment to every wedding?” I make it a point to introduce new questions for my clients to ask of other photographers they might interview after their session with me. I inform them on a range of topics from the importance of shooting in RAW to why a legitimate professional wedding photographer should carry liability insurance.
As much as I would like to secure a signed contract and be the last photographer my couples meet with, I will actually urge them to consult with other professionals before making their final decision.
You might be scratching your head and thinking that this tactic completely undermines the desired outcome, but I’ve found it to be a highly effective psychological strategy. Attempting to close clients on the day of the consultation can be off-putting; it may seem pushy or desperate. Even if I feel that I’ve won the couple’s favor, I grant them time to weigh their options. I tell them that I understand that selecting the right wedding photographer is a significant decision not to be made in haste, and that they should meet with others and give themselves ample time to determine which photographer is right for them. Last but not least, I alleviate assumed pressures and deadlines for issuing a decision by letting brides know that, as a courtesy, I will tentatively hold their date until I receive a definite yes or no from them.
Playing it cool is a definite winning strategy for closing prospective clients; it conveys that you have a great deal of confidence and trust in your own work and professionalism, which inspires reciprocal confidence and trust from your clients.
Never regard clients as customers. Some photographers feel most comfortable getting down to business the very moment a couple passes through their door. For me, it’s common to spend the first fifteen to thirty minutes engaging the clients on a personal level. I’m genuinely interested in learning about the lives of those who may potentially commission me to document their special day. Be sure to inquire about their careers, educational backgrounds, personal interests, passions, avocations, etc.—and don’t forget to ask about how they met! The answers you receive to these questions will break the ice and open the door to discourse.
Do you know what the average bride in your regional market expects to pay for her wedding photography? Do you know what inclusions and amenities she expects in a basic or premium wedding package?
The more you know about your clients, the easier it will be to develop a personal connection. While professionalism, quality, and price are all determining factors, clients are far more likely to book with a photographer they like and feel a strong rapport with.
My best advice is to abandon premeditated sales pitches—and to stop relying on an encyclopedic set of albums to distract your clients and spare you from the awkwardness of making small-talk. Trust me, if a bride schedules a consultation session, she is already familiar with your photographs; she’s interested in familiarizing herself with you, the photographer. Yes, she’s interested in learning more about your packages and philosophies, but ultimately she wants to find out more about your personality. Will you contribute to the stress and chaos of the wedding day, or are you the calming type who has a knack for diffusing stressful situations? Are you likely to have positive interactions with her wedding party, family, and guests, or will you be the aloof type that avoids eye contact and incites awkwardness in others?
So, when it comes time for your next consultation, proceed as you would if you were casually meeting with old acquaintances to help them choose the best wedding photographer and demonstrate how you fit that profile. Be genuine and forthcoming; satisfy all their questions and concerns in a conversational context. Your goal should not be slam-dunking a pair of prospects, it should be to make new friends and share your profession—and your passion for it—with a captive audience.
DO YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT BRIDES WANT?
Do you know what the average bride, in your regional market, expects to pay for her wedding photographer? Do you know what inclusions and amenities she expects in a basic or premium wedding package? Do you know how your business model (i.e., the services and products you offer as well as your pricing/packaging structure) is perceived by prospective clients?
Knowing your audience is one of the most critical, yet often overlooked, aspects of building a successful enterprise. Gaining awareness of what appeals to prospective clients can help you align your business model so that you can increase your yearly bookings and ramp up your yearly revenue. It can also help you get a leg up on your competition and take over that number-one spot within your local market.
I workshop with a lot of wedding photographers who understand technical aspects of image-making and the logistics of business. When it comes to relating to clients and their concerns, though, they often return a blank, confused look—much like your clients would if you tried to engage them on the topic of color space.
Simply stated, most wedding photographers understand the business relationship from the photographer to the client, but not the reverse—from the client to the photographer.
So, how does one gain access to the client’s perspective and all the valuable insights they have to offer by way of critical and candid discourse? You simply ask.
During my consultation sessions, I always make it a point to ask, “Have you had an opportunity to speak with or meet any other local wedding photographers?” If they have, I follow up with, “What was your experience/interaction with that individual like?” Quite honestly, if they were head-over-heels for another photographer, they know your audience wouldn’t be sitting on my couch looking for something they had already found elsewhere.
If you’re hesitant to ask these questions, fearing they might come across as prying or offensive, don’t be. In my fourteen years of experience, I can’t recall a single occasion when I offended a client by asking these questions. Some might feel more comfortable withholding the names of those they’ve met with, but generally clients will talk freely and openly about their interactions and experiences with other professionals.
The answers you receive will provide you with a more precise idea of the couple’s decision-making criteria. Are they most concerned with price, product, or personality—the personal connection they feel toward their wedding photographer? The feedback you receive will help you focus on the topics most relevant to your client’s list of concerns.
UNDERSTANDING THE COMPETITION
Equally important to gaining awareness of your audience is having understanding of your competition and how you rank among it (in your own eyes). If you haven’t already, you should acquaint yourself with the other professionals—their portfolios and business models—within two hundred miles of your studio/area of coverage.
If you can find out who you’re up against and learn their strengths and weaknesses, you can even the playing field, so to speak, by emphasizing aspects of your business (shooting style, product quality, packaging, pricing structure, etc.) that might rank favorably over your competition and help persuade the client to select you.
The bottom line is this: although you may know the ins and outs of what you’re selling, unless you know whom you’re selling to, you may be fighting a frustrating and futile battle. (As my grandfather used to say, you might be trying to sell snow cones to Eskimos.) It’s very easy to sell people what they want—and finding out what they want is as easy as paying attention to your audience and asking a few simple questions.