My studio receives client inquires anywhere from once per week to several times a day. Obviously not all of these inquiries turn into paid work, some are a downright waste of time. Dealing with client inquiries is not my favorite pastime, but if everything goes to plan, at least a few of them get me behind the camera and end up paying the bills. Here's a few things to keep in mind when making initial contact and responding to client inquiries.
- Vetting prospective clients. We use their contact information, email signature, email address, and even search their name on the interwebs. We like to know who we're dealing with. Is this a start-up, or an established company? What price range are their products or services in? What does their past photography look like? Often times with a little research you can get a decent idea of what their budget might be. I know, I know, never judge a book by its cover, but it's good to know who your speaking with regardless of whether your preconceived notions are accurate or not.
- Get all the facts. Usually when a client emails, it's something like "We came across your website and love your work. We'd like to know what you'd charge to photograph our widgets. Please let us know your pricing and availability." There's simply not enough information here to create an estimate (although I'm always surprised to run that scenario to workshop attendees or students and hear them start coming up with prices). Often times I just want to reply and say "How long is a rope?" just to see if they can come up with an answer. It's basically the same inquiry, there's not enough information to answer either question. I need to know what exactly these widgets are, what they look like, how many of them are there, where the shoot is going to take place, how many images are needed, what the usage is going to be, what kind of styling is involved, how quick do they need them, etc. There's a bunch of facts that I need before I can accurately build an estimate.
- Sleep on it. Never give a quote/price on the first contact. When someone calls (rather than emails), get all the facts during that first call. Then think about the job for a while. Visualize what it's going to take to successfully execute the project. If you're the eager beaver and spit out a number during that first conversation, you'll undoubtedly forget something. It's a lot of information to process and that's exactly what you need to do. The phrase "sleep on it" was derived from the fact that your brain has a way of problem solving while you sleep, it's your subconscious or something. If time isn't critical, then use it to your advantage. If it's an email you've received, then same thing applies. Don't just fire back a number until you've gotten all the facts and then given it some thought.
- Pencil it out. Okay, you can use a computer, but my point is that you need to actually build a line item estimate while you visualize the project so you don't forget anything. It's also a good opportunity to flush out any additional questions you may have for the client. Don't be afraid to contact the client again with a few more questions (even after the first round of questions). Most clients can appreciate your attention to detail and the fact you're putting some serious thought into their project. We build our estimates in Blinkbid, which also has a bid consultant built in that helps us get an idea of what others are charging for the same type of work.
- Ask for a budget. Flat out. You'd be surprised at what some people will tell you. Most won't. Usually they say they haven't set a budget yet, which is just a way to dodge the question. It's rare that a client has an infinite budget. That's not to say they have a hard number set, but if they're the decision maker on a project, they should have a general idea of what they can spend. That doesn't mean you have to burn the entire budget, but it gives you an idea of what you have to work with and whether or not this is a client that you want to work with (i.e. can they afford you). For example, if a client wants to shoot a pair of swim goggles, I can break out a piece of foamcore and take a decent shot of their goggles in the studio. Alternatively I can gather my team and all our gear, fly down to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA for a few days, and hire Michael Phelps to step out of the pool with the goggles on his head. One of these scenarios is going to cost more than the other. So I ask again . . . what's the budget?
- Who's your competition? In addition to asking how a client found me, I always ask who else is bidding on the project. If you know your local market or the people you normally bid against, the answer to this question should give you a pretty good idea of where you're going to land in regards to experience and price. You can adjust your tactics based on this information. I normally don't find much resistance with this question, potential clients normally don't hesitate to tell me who else they're looking at.
- Talk to the boss. Or at least the decision maker. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to negotiate with someone who has zero authority and can't make any creative decisions. When you ask questions, they don't know the answers because they've been tasked by their boss to "find a photographer" for the project. More than once I've gone through the entire process outlined above only to have the person I'm dealing with tell me that their boss found someone else to shoot the project, or that I'm way outside of their price range. This makes me want to reach through the phone and choke them. I have no doubt that if I'd been talking to the right person, they'd have appreciated my experience and insight during the previous steps. If they'd heard me asking all the right questions, maybe price would have been less of an issue.
- Follow up. If you submit an estimate, be sure to follow up with the client after a few days (if you haven't heard anything). Maybe not something as forward as "Did I get the job or what?", but just stay in the front of their mind. Let them know it sounds like a great/fun project and you're excited to be a part of it. Doesn't matter they haven't chosen you yet, act as if. Let them know you're available if they have further questions and since you've never estimated a project for them before, you'd be happy to discuss any line items in further detail. If the whole thing goes sideways and the job is awarded to someone else, follow up anyway! Ask them what the deciding factors were in selecting someone else for the job, and what you could do in the future to earn their business.
- Follow up again. Even after all that, follow up weeks (or months) later and see how the job went. I've actually picked up work this way. The photographer they hired (based on cheaper price) botched the job and they're in a bit of a pickle. They needed to reshoot the project and now I'm in the driver's seat. They won't always tell you they screwed up, sometimes they'll say "we'd like to talk with you about adding a few more images to the project", but you can read between the lines. Sometimes the images they got from the other photographer are "good enough" to get them through this project, but they weren't nearly as good as they'd hoped, and the next job is yours!
These points aren't foolproof, but they're certainly a good baseline for operating in a professional manner and working through the early stages of a project. There are business coaches, and marketing experts, and all kinds of people out there who can help you navigate this sort of business. If you think about your client interactions with the same level of detail that you put into creating the images, I'm confident things will work out in your favor. It always has for me.