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As a boutique studio selling a high-dollar luxury item, creating value and a remarkable experience is so important. Especially since the competition and noise out there is fierce.
I want to make sure that I’m a step ahead of competitors, but I also want to look ahead and prepare myself for changes. So I’m always looking for trends or patterns in my market, as well as ways to improve on the experience.
Client expectations have changed a lot since I started my photography business. The bar has been raised quite a bit in this area, especially when it comes to technology.
Two areas where I’m rethinking the client experience are how I deliver finished images, and when the payment is collected.
I feel that the way in which we price our services and collect payment, as well as how we deliver digital images and address copyright, must be done in a way that benefits us as creators and also meets our client expectations.
Not necessarily how we price, but when we collect payments.
The ‘Spec + Hope’ Pricing Model That Most Photographers Follow is Broken
I’m a huge proponent of in-person sales. It’s not only the most profitable way, but it’s also the best experience for the client and increases the value of what you offer.
Over the past few years, however, there seems to be a gap between what we deliver and what our clients expect.
It seems to me that instead of addressing these changing needs of our clients, we keep crafting new policies to defend what I see as an outdated experience.
Which I believe is costing many photographers new business.
I’m very happy with my pricing and my sales averages, as well as my in-person sales process. That part is not changing.
But what I want to focus on more is the delivery experience. Because that’s what people are buying: The experience.
More on that in a bit.
Currently, here’s what I see happening with many photographers.
The traditional way of pricing portrait photography services is to charge a low session fee to get clients in the door, in hopes that clients will see how incredible the images are, want them all and spend more money on the final product.
In today’s world, however, that simply doesn’t work. And here’s why:
You’re doing free work.
You’re not getting paid for the work you do.
Here is the model of how a typical studio sale and delivery works:
1) The client calls to book a session, and holds that appointment with a session fee.
While a session fee can be high – I see a few studios charging $400 to $500 and more for the session fee – it’s still far less than what the average person will spend later in the sales session. In order for a boutique studio to be profitable they need to bring in at least $1500 per client, and that’s at a minimum.
2) A sales appointment is scheduled for the client to place their order.
Or worse, you put the images online for them order.
3) You hope they place a big order.
Once the session is over, however, the emotion and satisfaction drops or starts to wane.
For many clients, the highlight of the experience is the session itself. And after they’ve had ‘their experience’ there is almost no incentive for them to give you any more money.
The presentation of the images and the sales session are, of course, a big part of the experience as well. But the way it’s setup with the ‘pay later’ method doesn’t work, and the pricing terms make the client experience end on a frustrating note. Which leaves you equally frustrated and feeling beat up from chasing clients for money.
Busy clients become hard to get a hold of. They cancel sales appointments or put off scheduling one. Even though you went over all your policies and workflows with them up front your clients won’t remember. Or because they are human, they simply remember or hear what they want to.
Or worse, by the time their sales session comes around they don’t have the budget to spend on their portraits. Plus they’re busy, and they’ve had the experience they wanted already.
Don’t minimums take care of that?
In some cases photographers will have minimum order requirements for their clients based on the type of session they choose, as I do. But those minimums are meaningless unless they pay the bulk of that up front.
What I know is this, the longer you wait to collect the money after the session occurs the lower your sale will be, and the more the experience will diminish for your client.
This is where the experience breaks down, and where your cash flow can take a hit.
Because right after the session, that’s when clients want their images. In today’s world of instant gratification, the old way of handling the ordering of products and delivering the images is not very client-friendly or relevant. 6-8 weeks for image delivery is way too long. Custom wall art is one thing, but those digitals need to be out the door ASAP.
And if they are on a payment plan, that can stretch out even longer. Because you cannot deliver their images until they have paid in full.
Like it or not, sharing images is central to our lives right now. It’s vital for getting your name and work out there. And getting those images out there while the client is at the height of their excitement is vital to the experience. And to your marketing.
If you collected the money up front, this wouldn’t be a problem.
It seems to me that the majority of the payment, if not all of the payment, should have been paid up front.
Because they already had the experience, and now they just want their images.
That’s the worst part. The clients really do want custom art, but the way we set up the experience actually takes away the thrill of it.
If their last experience with you was having to wait 6-12 weeks for their images, the excitement is completely gone. Even if they were hard to get a hold of for sales appointments – or even if they missed making payments or they were the ones late in ordering – their last touchpoint with you was a frustrating one, and they will feel like they spent a lot of money and didn’t get much for it.
The time to collect the biggest payment is right before the best part of the experience, and that’s the day of the session.
Stop running your business on Spec & Hope.
If you hire a brand designer or a graphic artist, you pay them up front before the work starts. They don’t charge you a small fee to design an identity and ‘hope’ you like them. Not the professional in demand ones anyway.
Wedding photographers charge in full and collect payment before the day of the wedding. As do almost any professionals who deal in custom products or services in any industry.
Most portrait photographers, however, charge when the product has been delivered. Yet when the session is over, the product is 90% done.
This is where I am reinventing the way I deliver the experience for my clients.
Disclaimer: Here are a few things to keep in mind.
I am well established in my market, and most clients have an expectation that they will be making an investment with my studio up front. I’m also very well branded, and because of that I feel I can do this.
I also feel that because of this I’m able to experiment in uncharted waters. I know and understand the risks. Less established photographers without a strong brand may find it hard to do.
With that said, this year I have been experimenting with a new way of delivering the experience to my clients. Here’s why I’m doing it, and how I think it will completely change the way we do business.
I want to start with what a portrait client’s expectations and buying behaviors are today, and how we can take those expectations and create a structure that is both profitable for us and makes our clients happy.
1) Clients want their images NOW.
The excitement for their images wanes as time goes on, and so does their desire to have them.
2) Clients have the expectation that they will get to share the images you take of them.
They are spending a lot of money for their images – arguably the best images they’ve ever had of themselves – and they expect to be able to share them. You should not just give them away, but you do have to make them available or you won’t be around long.
3) Clients may or may not understand copyright – but either way, they don’t care.
You may own the images, but when the image is of your client they feel it is theirs as well. After all, you have permission to use them to advertise your business even after they have paid you, so they really don’t fully understand that they can’t just share those images, too.
Which to be honest is complicated and hard to explain, and what’s worse is that it taints the experience. Clients don’t want to be told they can’t share images of themselves because you own them. Especially when they see you using their images for promotion.
I know and understand copyright thoroughly, and I know that they are your images. But you don’t need to convince me. I’m not your client.
Having a lot of complicated copyright rules ruins the experience. It’s awkward for both you and the client. As the creator, this is hard to wrap your head around. I get mad when I see someone sharing one of the images I took that they didn’t have permission to just like you. On top of which it’s really uncomfortable if I had to try and explain to clients that even though they just spent $2500 (or $4000 or $6000), that they aren’t allowed to share or have digital images.
4) Digital products are not replacing physical products.
Clients still want wall portraits and albums along with digitals, too.
The disconnect for many photographers is they actually feel that digital images are somehow ‘worth less’ because they aren’t printed on paper.
But think about this: If a lawyer creates a contract for me, do you think I pay less because it’s delivered electronically? Do I see it as less valuable?
NO. In fact, I see it as more convenient. If my accountant made me come to his office to pick up my printed return rather than sending me a digital copy I would be completely irritated. Because I want to be able to file it in Dropbox, and have it for safekeeping.
5) You have to make digitals available for clients.
I would not hire a photographer who did not provide me with digitals. Which I’m happy to pay for, because I need digital images for social media, professional images, press images, marketing and the list goes on.
6) Clients are happy to pay for digital images and they aren’t expecting those images to be cheaper.
They just want the option to have them, without having to buy a physical print of every image. This doesn’t mean that they don’t also want wall portraits, albums and other display products, however. Part of your job as a professional is to be able to skillfully guide them through both.
7) Seniors hate watermarks across the image.
Clients love sharing images with a logo element symbol as long as it is seen as cool to them. But having a copyrighted or attribution watermark is not something seniors like at all.
8) Seniors (and clients in general) don’t want to give credit or a shout out.
The trend over the past couple of years is that many seniors will share most of their images privately. Or if they share them publicly they don’t want to give the photographer credit (or they simply won’t).
Your studio relies on word of mouth for your brand, your image and your marketing reach. So if people are sharing and using my images I want the credit, or I want to be well compensated.
Payment and Delivery Framework
In today’s world of instant gratification, clients want their images immediately. So in order to create a more positive experience at the in person sales appointment for my clients, I’ve created an option for them to leave earlier with their finished images.
1) 25 – 50 – 25
By the end of the session, the client has had the experience they wanted and their excitement level is at its highest. Therefore, no less than 75% of the total minimum order requirement should have been paid prior to going into their session.
When a client books their session, they will pay 25% of their total up front commitment at that time, and then another 50% of that commitment the day of the session (before the session occurs). At this point 75% of their commitment has been paid. The remaining 25% is due at the sales appointment (or before).
In order to encourage clients to pay in full ahead of time (for the minimum commitment), I am offering them bonus incentives if they make the entire minimum payment prior to the start of the session.
What this does is allow my clients to leave with their digital images the day of the sales appointment, which should be scheduled within just a few short days of the session. More on that in a bit.
2) Third Party Financing
For clients who want to pay in full for the minimum up front, but who need a payment plan, I can offer them financing through a third party.
By offering financing through a third party, I remove myself from having to do the dirty work of chasing clients for payments. I also remove the time and expenses involved with managing a payment plan (and the possibility of them defaulting on their payment plan).
Remember that the excitement to have the images wanes as time goes on. So if clients are on a payment plan through you they may decide to simply stop making payments, because after a few months the excitement is gone so it no longer seems worth it to them.
By using a third party financing service I get paid right away, and they get their images right away. This reduces the stress and tension that can sometimes accompany a payment plan.
3) I’ve Created A ‘Client Friendly’ Digital Licensing Framework
It’s important to put a value on everything that you do. And your time is the most important value of all.
There is a misconception that digital images ‘don’t cost anything.’ That’s simply not true.
Whether someone purchases an 8×10 print or a digital file, you need to be compensated for everything that went into the creation of that. The monetary difference of the cost between a small print and a digital file is pennies.
Another big reason that I’m doing this is because I also want a way to monetize some of my senior model shoots. This gives me a way to increase the value of my senior model program, and to make more money with my models year round.
4) This Does Not Replace the In Person Sales Session
This is along with the in person sales session.
Sales of wall portraits and albums are still a big part of what I do. And my expertise in helping my clients to properly display and enjoy their images is still a big part of my service to them as a professional.
This is merely a new framework for increasing the experience, getting paid well for my services and delivering more value to my clients.
Or No Watermark?
Client-Friendly Digital Licensing
When it comes to digital images, I’ve created 3 client-friendly options that put the decision in the hands of the client while giving everyone what they want and need from the experience.
Quite simply, the more freedom they want with the digital images (when it comes to watermarks and attribution, or ‘photo credits’), the more they will need to invest.
NOTE: ‘Digitals’ refers to web-sharing images that are for digital use only (not reprinting).
Licensed. Watermarked. No Attribution Required.
At this price level, clients will receive watermarked digitals with a license to share them freely on digital platforms. They are not required to give attribution for the images, however the images are watermarked and must remain watermarked and un-cropped when sharing. Commercial use is prohibited.
Licensed. Not Watermarked. No Attribution Required.
At this price level, clients will receive non-watermarked digitals with a license to share them freely on all digital platforms. They are also not required to give attribution for the images. Commercial use is prohibited.
Licensed for Commercial Use.
This price level is for commercial clients (which includes professional headshots) where the client will need to use the images in multiple formats, including printing. The price for these types of images is set to compensate us for the continued and ongoing use of these images in this way.
By putting a price on your digital images for each option that works for your pricing structure, and allows you to make what you need to from each session ($$ for Option One, $$$$ for Option Two, for example), you put the decision into the hand of your clients.
For example, if your senior sessions average 50 images per session, and you sell a collection for $3000, that’s only $60 per image to hit your target sale (assuming you sell them all as a collection). That’s a very reasonable price, and if they are your target client they will happily pay that.
You can price them individually, in collections, or both. The pricing structure is up to you and what your goals are for your business. You may find that selling them in collections (i.e. collections of 10 or 20 images, or ‘all images from your session’) increases the perceived value of your services, as opposed to offering them at individual prices. Remember, it is your job to guide your clients into the best way to display and enjoy all of the images from their session. If they only want one or two images, then you serve no purpose to them as a professional.
*It’s easier to sell a ‘product and use’ license than it is to say “No, you can’t share your images. I own the copyright and you didn’t spend enough money with me.” Even if your clients understand copyright, and even if it’s wrong on your client’s part, your client will become angry, have a bad experience and not want to do business with you.
I was tired of having to explain this to clients. And when I stepped back and looked at it from their perspective, I could see how they felt. I may not like it, but this is a business for me.
These licensing options remove you from being the bad guy. Clients choose what level they are happy with. We’re given credit and we are compensated.
This also adds an easy upsell to promotional shoots. Especially when we want to do quick shoots for models, non-seniors, or when working with businesses that we partner with.
For each situation, we give them a certain number of licensed and watermarked images to share freely with attribution. For example, 2 images, 5 images, 8 images (not too many).
We can then offer them the option of purchasing additional licensed images to share if they want more images for their own personal use (with Option One or Option Two).
Rules, Terms, Etc.
First and foremost, images must be paid in full before leaving the studio. By setting up the 25-50-25 payment for services, the client is able to leave with their images on the day of the sales appointment (which is held soon after the session).
Images are not to be used for commercial use (unless they purchased the commercial license).
If they purchase a licensed and watermarked image, and we find they are using it without the watermark or attribution, they are charged for that image at a rate of double what it would have been to purchase in the beginning.
What this does is put the responsibility on the client. Most of them want to do the right thing, but you have to make it easy for them. They understand licensing, and giving them the option to decide how they want to share the images benefits everyone involved.
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