Clone your best clients and lose the rest
It feels like a crush. An adored client calls to book another session, and your heart flutters at the thought of working with them again. No, you’re not in love … in that way. You’ve simply found your ideal client—the kind you wish you could replicate over and over and over again.
And what if you could? So many photographers run themselves ragged trying to serve any and every consumer who calls. But for a photography business (or any business, for that matter) to be successful, argues Mike Michalowicz, it must identify its best clientele, clone that clientele, and then do the unthinkable: ditch the rest. Michalowicz is the author of four books on entrepreneurism and will address issues specific to professional photographers at Imaging USA in January 2019.
How to identify your ideal client
In the beginning stages of building a photography business, it’s best to experiment with a breadth of customers. This is how you find out which ones are best for you. Perhaps you thought males between the ages of 30 and 50 with families would be most attracted to your work, but it turns out matriarchal portraits of women aged 60 to 80 are resonating. In the beginning, all you have to go on are your assumptions. But over time patterns emerge to help you identify your ideal clientele.
How to define that ideal? Figure out who’s spending the most money. “I have a saying that customers speak the truth not through their words but through their wallets,” Michalowicz says. If you ask a client whether they enjoyed their experience with your studio, most likely they’ll say they did. But are they being truthful or just polite? A more accurate measure of a client’s satisfaction is in the numbers. Who is spending the most, again and again?
But money isn’t everything. The other side of the coin is how you feel about the client—what Michalowicz calls the “cringe factor.” If you cringe at the idea of doing a second session with a client, they’re not your model customer no matter how much they spend on your work. The ideal client is the client who is both spendy and a joy to work with. “Do you love when they call you? Do you get excited to do a shoot with them?” he says. If they’re also shelling out dough, then that’s a client you want to clone.
How to clone your ideal client
Once you’ve identified your ideal client, it’s time to seek out their doppelgangers. But how to find them? Start by noting the basic demographics of your good clients: age, gender, relationships, residential neighborhood, etc. Then dig deeper. Where does this customer spend their time? Where do they eat? Where do they buy groceries? Do they belong to a particular club? What podcasts do they listen to?
Acquiring this type of information can’t be done via a survey or simple observation. Michalowicz recommends an authentic, face-to-face conversation. After you’ve delivered your work to a beloved customer who is 100 percent content, say, “I enjoyed working with you. Would you be willing to grab a cup of coffee so I can learn how I can serve you better?” If the customer asks why you want information about their daily routine, don’t say, “So I can get more leads,” Michalowicz stresses. Tell them that if you know more about the vendors they use, you’ll be able to collaborate with them for smoother sessions.
The data to collect is “congregation points” (places where the client spends time with others) and vendors (places where they spend money). If you find out the customer belongs to a particular club, you might join that club to connect with similar customers. If they use a neighborhood dry cleaner, you might team up with that business to offer discounted rates on sessions to its customers. While teaming up with a makeup artist or hair stylist your customers use might make sense for your business, it’s often the unexpected vendors that make the biggest difference. So don’t dismiss a seemingly insignificant common denominator vendor.
How to shed your unfit clients
Once you’ve zeroed in on your ideal client and made a plan to clone them, you might think you’re finished. But to make room for more of your best clients, you need to shed the unfit ones. Pruning away unsatisfactory clients sounds scary, but it’s absolutely necessary. Bad customers cost more money and suck more time than good ones. Consider the client who threatens to pan you on Yelp unless you redo their portraits for free. It makes no sense to deliver your highest level of effort to serve somebody who doesn’t pay you, Michalowicz notes.
In addition, just as a happy customer will evangelize the superior quality of your work, an unhappy customer will do the same but with a damaging message (“I told the photographer that I didn’t like her work, so she redid everything at no cost”). Before you know it, you’re gaining more customers who think they can manipulate you into unpaid work.
So now comes the process of stripping away unfit clients. It’s not that difficult if you again look to the wallet. “Raising prices is the most important thing that a photography business does,” says Michalowicz, and it’s the surest way to eliminate unfit customers, who by definition want the cheapest option they can find. The second strategy is to niche away from them. “Look at your best customers, evaluate what serves them best, and amplify your service to do more of that,” he says. This laser focus on your best clients’ shared needs will be to the detriment of your worst clients’ shared needs. When you remove the work that once served them, your unfit clients will fall by the wayside naturally.
It can be hard to see clients go—even ones that drive you crazy—when you have bills to pay. And often the biggest naysayer to raising prices is the photographer’s own inner voice, warns Michalowicz. But this is one time you shouldn’t listen to your gut. It’s assuming the worst outcome, he says, when the best outcome is just around the corner: a profitable business serving customers who make your heart flutter.
Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.