When I talk to a lot of photographers, they seem to think that business and creativity are at odds with each other. Being a salesperson and an artist just don't go together, right? I think we've just been mislead on what it really means to sell.
I remember my first sales training. It was 15 years ago, and the district manager of the RadioShack I was applying to sat across the table from me and told me to sell him his pen. This was supposed to be a teaching moment, but looking back, it felt more like someone putting on a middle school production of "The Wolf of Wall Street." But, I was young, naive, and overly optimistic about this commission-based sales job that would make me more money than I knew what to do with. What I got instead was a lesson in how to fail in sales.
I got the job — clearly not on the merits of my sales ability — and was promptly force-fed their sales tactics on how to up-sell customers, get them to buy our brand of product (higher commission if you do!), and so on and so forth. What I learned the most from this job is how much people hate being sold to. A few short years later when I decided to start a business of my own, I turned these tactics on their head and built a business on customer service instead of hard sales.
Now, going into my tenth year in business, I've got three tips that will make you enjoy the sales process much more than I did as a teenager.
It's Not Us Versus Them
Working in that environment never felt good. Customers were treated as "marks" and it was your job to extract as much cash out of them as possible. Nothing was about the needs of the customer, and everything was about the bottom line. That will suck the life right out of you.
I love my business as a photographer because I get to work with my clients, not against them. The best thing I can do for them is to give them what they need and to create work that we're both excited about. No pressure, no gimmicks, just providing the best experience and the best product I'm able to give. Sometimes, the best service is telling your client that an 8x10-inch print won't be striking as a wall print, and sometimes it's reminding them that a 20x30-inch print may be too large for the space they're wanting to fill.
It's not about the money, it's about the service. Stay on your client's team and you'll earn their repeat business and their referrals without even having to ask.
At the Shack, our job was to up-sell everything. Coming in for an extension cord? Why not have a look at our TVs! Don't forget the batteries. And isn't it time for a new cell phone? The constant barrage of product offerings and sales pitches were mandated by our higher-ups, and failing to recite all of it meant finding a new place to work. Customers couldn't get out of the store fast enough.
Photographers have a tendency to do the same thing in one of two ways: offering too many products and showing too many images. Part of being the expert (that's what your clients assume you are) is offering them what you know they need. Listing 17 print sizes on your price sheet is overwhelming and makes decision making difficult. Be there for your client and offer only the products you love. Your style and your brand should be reflected in the products you present.
The same goes for image selection. In the early stages of your business, it may seem like good customer service to show your client as many images as possible and let them decide what they like best (in both color and black and white), but that's a quick way to snuff out their excitement. One of the hardest parts of growing as a photographer is becoming a good editor, selecting and showing only the very best and cutting the rest. It's better to have a client completely thrilled about 30 images than digging through 300 to find ones she wants to purchase.
The old "Glengarry Glen Ross" trope of ABC (always be closing) necessitates that every second we have with the customer should be driving towards the sale. This mantra was tacked up in the back room of our electronics shop as a constant reminder that if we're on the floor, we had a mission: close the deal. With this, I can't disagree with the premise, but the execution we were prescribed was flawed.
As a photographer, your client's experience should be doing the selling for you. You are, of course, in the business of selling photography, but your focus should be on the client, not the sale. Did the client mention wanting a new image above their mantle? Make sure you show them the perfect photo for it. Get them excited about it from the moment you click the shutter. This isn't sales, it's giving your client what they want. They came to you for a reason.
In the end, the best advice I've gotten is to just sit back, shut up, and let the client make their own decisions. Of course, you should be there to make suggestions, answer questions, and make your client's time enjoyable, but when it comes time to purchase, remove yourself from the conversation. If you've done your job well, your client is well-educated about the select products you offer, they're being presented with images they can't help but love, and they likely already have a good idea of what they want to take home. Just let them.
The last thing they need at the moment of the sale is to feel coaxed. Remember, you're on their side and their happiness is the number one goal. If you've priced yourself properly, the income will follow, but it will never come if you don't have happy clients.
Doing these things has made my career both profitable and enjoyable, and I would never feel embarrassed if my clients read about my "sales techniques." I'll take that any day over where I started.
Great tips! Thanks, Aaron!
There is some great stuff here! I'm an amateur photographer and I have been in a sales position since graduating college in 2002. For the last 11 years I've been a pharmaceutical sales rep. That is what pays my bills, the income I earn from photography simply helps me cover cost of my gear. In the four companies I've worked for since graduating college with a BS in business management I have one at least one major sales award during my tenure. These sales awards are no trivial matter. The reward for one of them was $10,000 cash and a 6 day trip for two from my home in Orlando to Sydney Australia, all expenses and excursions paid.
Like this author, I completely disagree with ABC. I have my own initialism and it is NFC. No, not near field communication. Never f'ing close! I don't ever close anyone. In fact, I don't view my job as being a salesperson, even though it's in my job title. I view myself as an educator and a consultant. It is not my job to push anything. It is my job to provide information and provide context and answer questions. If they ask my opinion I am happy to offer it.
These days there are numerous alternatives to most things and as stated in the article, no one likes to be pressured or pushed into buying something. However, people love it when you help them. Especially if you do it because you genuinely care about what's best for them. That is the approach I have taken and it has served me incredibly well. And, I don't have to feel like a schmuck for it. In fact, I hold my head up high.
That’s a stellar track record! Any other pointers to add? I’d value your insight!
The best part of no-pressure sales is how good you can feel about it. Every client leaves happy, and that’s something to be proud of.
Oh, there's TONS of stuff. But probably the single most important tactic to being a good "seller" is to ask questions! The more information you know about your customers' wants/needs, the abler you are to position your products/services as solutions. And be honest, if your product/service isn't the best solution for their money, TELL THEM! Guide them down the right path. In my job, I'm VERY explicit about where my products are NOT the right fit and where other products are a better solution. In a products/upselling discussion, that might look like this: they LOVE a certain image and you offer canvas and traditional prints, but perhaps a metal print is what's REALLY going to set this image apart in their setting. Unfortunately, you don't have much/any experience with a great provider of metal prints. TELL your client that you're going to do some research by getting in touch with your peers and find the best provider of metal prints for their budget and you'll get back to them. Even if it means you make less money (for whatever reason), it's the right thing to do.
Speaking of alternative solutions, one of my strengths is being a product expert (I'm also a Field Sales Trainer for my region). And that's not just being an expert on my product, it's being an expert on all of the products that my customers (Doctors, Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants) can choose from to treat the same condition. For me, that means knowing A LOT about a handful of other treatment options. For photographers, that might mean having a small network of referral sources who specialize in certain "looks". For instance, if a photographer bills themselves as a "natural light" photographer with a "light, bright, and airy" style and the inspiration images they receive from a client are dramatically and artificially lit images with bold colors, they're CLEARLY not the right photographer for that client. They should refer them to someone else and not take their money because "it's a job". It's simply not a good fit and NO ONE is going to end up happy.
All of this points to a genuine desire to help people. Ultimately, that's at the very core of a good salesperson. If above all else, you want to help people, there's nothing stopping you from making your potential customers happier than your competition/peers and ultimately, that'll make you rise to the top of your field.
Excellent advice! Thank you, Jonathan!
Yea, I hate going to companies that you described. Radio Shack stores used to be everywhere; now, they are nowhere.
I worked in three different ones as a teenager, and they were all the same...and you’re right, now they’re all gone.
Great post Aaron. I too was a salesman over the years of many different things and learned a lot. I've always applied what worked for me, and discarded the tactics that I didn't like or thought were just too over the top. And it has worked for me in my photography business (for 15 years now). Treat your clients like you would like to be treated.
Good article, Aaron. Since we seem to be talking about retail clients (as opposed to commercial clients), I'd add that this kind of soft approach begins from the first contact, working hard and using our artistic expertise to determine what will ultimately satisfy the client best in the long term. You pointed out, for instance, guiding them on the best wall portrait size. But doing that with the most effect also means, if possible, a pre-consultation where you walk with them through their home and discuss where and what kind of portraits will work best--get them thinking in that direction and also plan your shooting list for size and location. One thing I work hard on, too, is guiding them away from trendy looks that seem great today but will be a "portrait fail" example ten years from now. But this is all in the line of good service. We want to make them happy to have done business with us every time they look at our work.
The hard sell doesn't work very often these days.
When I was a mechanic, if I found fault with a customer's car I would tell them what the problem was, and give them options, including just taking the car away. I let them decide and not pressure them (I would, of course, warn them accordingly if it was a safety issue). It was never worth lying and pressuring them. This helped keep people loyal and prevented them going elsewhere.
When I was involved in used car sales, I saw the result of hard selling - customers would often not be 100% happy with their purchase (AKA "buyers remorse") and would actively find fault with the car and would be less forgiving or understanding when there was a genuine problem with the car.
I would often get berated for letting people walk off the lot without buying a car. But it was surprising how many would come back, and I am sure that was in part due to the way they were treated.