By Tim Sullivan
We’ll never forget the look on one of our earliest client’s faces when she arrived at her photoshoot. She stepped out of her car and saw our smiling faces waiting, cameras in hand, ready to take her photo. Abject terror is an understatement. We spent half of the shoot calming her down, soothing her nerves, and making her feel right at home with the camera. Meaning we had half has much time to get the stellar images we were being paid to get.
Her deer-in-the-headlights expression has stuck with us as a constant reminder, that no matter how comfortable we are as photogs BEHIND the camera, most of our subjects in FRONT of the lens are not used to being there. We think of her every time a new client books with us, because the fault was entirely ours for not properly educating her before her shoot.
An educated client is a confident one. The onus is on you as the photographer to over-educate the client before their shoot: it doesn’t just create happier, more comfortable photo subjects, it helps you create the images you’re both dreaming of. Our goal is to always become stronger in educating our client at each stage of their shoot. We divide client interaction into four distinct categories, each with its own ideal outcome:
#1 Pre-client phase
This phase is when a future client knows about you, but isn’t necessarily in the market to hire you right away. This is the time to develop an indirect relationship with them, and begin the education process before they ever hit send on your contact page.
Your brand is spread out across multiple locations: everything from Instagram, to your interactions with guests at weddings, is announcing who you are, and what you’re about. One of our biggest goals with clients, is for them to be confident that they can trust us to be really solid humans. Being a genuinely good person, is an increasingly valuable commodity in this complex world of endless information. So, when we first started out, we set the simple plan of introducing ourselves to future clients, with every piece of media we created, no matter how subtle.
We knew we had zeroed in on our voice when we began getting email after email saying things like, “I feel like I know you so well already!” or, “We’ve never met, but I just think you’d be so fun to have at our wedding.” BINGO, this was our goal!
Creating a client who trusts you, begins way before you think it does. It doesn’t only hinge on email conversations, or some copy on your website. People research: your personality, brand, likes and dislikes, are attached to every piece of information you put out there, whether it’s a Facebook post or an interaction with a wedding guest.
If you mention something in a blog post that you absolutely love shooting, whether it’s a location, style, or piece of inspiration, people hear that. We casually mentioned that we love having dogs come with on engagement shoots, and suddenly our next three bookings all brought their pups, as we jaunted around town taking their photo.
This also works in reverse—without getting negative, if there’s something you despise during shoots (for example, we cannot abide jumping shots or fake smiles directly at the camera), talk about the opposite so people subconsciously gravitate away from it. Keep your brand consistent and true to yourself, and your future clients will begin developing trust in you, and understand what you’re all about before they ever contact you.
Education Goal: Let the world get to know your personality and trustworthiness, and in the process, subtly educate people on what you want.
#3 New client, pre-shoot phase
Woohoo! You’ve got a new client who just booked a shoot, and now they’re sitting around twiddling their thumbs while they wait for the shoot date. What are you going to do with them in the interim?
This time frame is solid gold, if you use it well. We realized early on that we could save ourselves a ton of time, and repetitive emails, if we just listened a little more closely to what clients were asking us, and beat them to the punch. The most common questions we get before a shoot are:
- What should I wear?
- Where should we go?
- Do you even KNOW how stupid I look in photos? Wait, this isn’t a question, really. I’m telling you I’m the most awkward human on the planet.
Since we can confidently predict that a client will email us with those questions (and a few more that are more or less consistent depending on the shoot style), we head them off at the pass, and send out a handy little info packet as soon as they put the deposit down on the shoot. In this fun little PDF, we cover clothing options (including How to Put Together an Outfit 101, How to Coordinate with your Lovah, and so on), recommend locations in their area (or lead them to come up with their own ideas by suggesting types of locations that you prefer shooting in), and tell them in no uncertain terms that even Naomi Campbell thinks she’s awkward (probably not a true fact) and that we have our tried and true methods of making anyone look good. At this point, an educated client is a confident client, and confidence is the #1 thing you want when they walk in the door to the shoot.
Education Goal: Have the client prance into the shoot feeling like they brought the right clothes, look bomb as can be, are in capable hands, and won’t seem like a nob on camera.
#3 Current client – shoot day phase
The day has finally arrived, the batteries are charged, the lights are on, the client is taking their first foray into being a model. What’s the best part about being the photographer? You are the one in full control of the mood, atmosphere, and pace of the shoot. Ah, the sweet smell of owning your territory. There’s nothing better, or more important on a shoot.
Okay, so you’re also at the mercy of the person in front of your lens, but the goal for the shoot is to create an ongoing verbal education, so your client is equipped to work with you in creating images together. Every photographer is a unique snowflake, and you’ll have their own methods and style for how you arrange and conduct yourself during a shoot. But the only way to tackle this, is to keep it real by continuing the extension of your brand, that you’ve been putting out there all along.
Our personal strategy, honed through shooting each other through long stints of travel (and never wanting a client to look like a deer in the headlights again), is to talk a ton. Keeping the atmosphere light is what suits us best and makes our clients happiest, but that’s not necessarily the best fit for all photographers. We just watched a documentary on Richard Avedon and couldn’t stop laughing because he was SO DARN SERIOUS all the time—talking about dead dogs, and the end of life with his clients, and otherwise basically being silent! His whole methodology gave us cold sweats, but it was completely true to who he was, and more importantly, obviously produced master-level work. We have complete and utter respect for him, because he practiced his craft in the precise manner that got him the results he was looking for, and was truest to his own brand (even if he wouldn’t have described it as such). Be the same way: cultivate your own methods of shooting and own them.
Education Goal: Make the person in front of the camera think like Beyonce. Or a dead dog, depending on what kind of shot you’re going for.
#4 Archived client – post-shoot phase
The shoot is over… now what?
Post-shoot is the time when it’s easiest to drop-off in terms of client education. The normal routine is to send the images their way, drop them a little thank you note, and move on with your life. But this is such a great time to step your game up, and help yourself out in the process!
Depending on how you deliver images, sending along a detailed explanation of next steps is a lovely last touch. Explain to your clients how to download, share, and order prints—the things that seem so simple to us, when we deal with them all day long, are surprisingly complex for the first-time print orderer or mother-in-law trying to download a set. We strictly use an online gallery for deliveries, but many photographers are still sticking with a thumb drive or other physical delivery systems. Whatever you choose, make it user friendly and simple, and explain it in detail!
At this point, your client is riding the high of seeing their own images come to life, after so much thought and effort went into them. May we humbly suggest taking advantage of this energy by asking for what you want! In most cases, we are thrilled if a client is happy and recommends us to their friends. At some point, we realized, “Why are we just sitting around hoping that will happen? Why don’t we ask them for help with referrals?”
The key here is to provide excellent service throughout the customer experience, and help educate them towards an experience that benefits not only them, but your business in the long term. Be specific about what you’d like them to do; ask them to like your Facebook page, follow you on Instagram, or tell their friends about their experience with you. This isn’t opportunistic or tacky when it’s done right, and most importantly, when you’ve gone above and beyond in customer service, most people are MORE than happy to pass your name along!
Lastly, sending a thank you note or gift, depending on the client, is a classy little touch that we absolutely adore doing. We look forward to the end of each wedding season, when we sit on our living room floor surrounded by individually-chosen prints and gift boxes and handwritten notes to each of our couples and send a bunch of love out into the world.
Education Goal: deliver an excellent product and encourage the client to rave about you to their friends.
At the end of the day, the relationships we create through photography never fail to blow us away with their depth and compassion, and educating a client throughout their experience with us makes all the difference. This is a work in progress, and we’re always looking for ways to improve our game, so we’d love to hear your strategies in the comments.
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