The 90 percent solution for photography sales
Thirty-five years ago, when Bruce Hudson, M.Photog.Cr., and his late wife launched Hudson’s Portrait Design near Seattle, they handled proofing and sales like most studios at the time. Bruce would photograph a client, who came back a few weeks later to pick up paper proofs and take them home to review, calling the studio two weeks later to place an order. One common problem: Those two weeks often turned into two months, and sometimes into two years. The Hudsons sat on a growing pile of lost sales built from client indecision.
In 1986, Hudson switched over to projection sales, which was a somewhat radical idea at the time. Back then slideshows were literally produced with 35mm slides made from negatives, displayed on a slide projector that had to be manually advanced. “We got a lot of pushback from clients because it was new,” says Bruce. “However, it resulted in much higher sales for much larger prints because our clients could see the images projected at actual size, as opposed to a 4x5-inch paper proof.” In fact, sales for the studio doubled and then tripled, and purchases of large-scale wall décor increased substantially.
At that time, Bruce’s son, Josh, was a kid growing up in a photography studio. He remembers sitting in a side room while his parents worked on slideshow presentations, hearing the click, click, click of the projector. “That sound was like the sound of money dropping into a piggy bank,” Josh remembers. “My dad funded my sister’s and my college funds entirely, with no debt, from wall art sales. ‘Starving artist’ was never part of our vocabulary.”
These days, Josh works with his father at the studio full time, managing operations and marketing. The duo adamantly stands by the value of in-person projection sales—a process that has evolved over the years with new tools and technology but still maintains the same core fundamentals.
Why it’s so effective
The key to an effective sales system, say Bruce and Josh, is the underlying client work that’s done before any photography takes place. They encourage photographers to imagine an iceberg floating in the ocean. You see about 10 percent of the iceberg above the water. But 90 percent of the iceberg, the whole foundation that holds it up, is invisible below the water.
“That 90 percent is what we focus on,” says Bruce. “All that behind-the-scenes work includes zeroing in on a target client, figuring out what that target client wants, building desire for your products through marketing, and creating a well-produced presentation to display those products.”
Josh points out that Hudson’s Portrait Design has taken 35 years of information and experience and distilled it into a specific profile of an ideal client. True, they have the advantage of three-plus decades of business from which to draw information. However, they insist that any studio—even a brand new one—can follow the same process. You build your picture of an ideal client bit by bit, and adapt that picture as your studio evolves. As you get to know your target market better, you can customize your offerings more specifically. When you can do this effectively, you not only improve sales, but you also put yourself in a position to better address the needs of your clients.
It starts with a conversation
The process begins with the initial contact. Compiling years of customer insights, the Hudsons have created a series of scripted responses for team members to use when answering inquiry calls or responding to emails or text messages. Based on the prospect’s initial questions as well as their answers to follow-up questions, the Hudsons can pre-qualify them for the next step. They can also disqualify prospects who are looking for a quick, inexpensive session. If the prospect seems like a good fit, then the goals of the initial contact include:
- Explaining next steps
- Building rapport
- Establishing confidence in the photographer’s abilities
- Creating excitement
- Qualifying the final sale by discussing ballpark pricing
From there, the process moves into a six-step pre-session consultation:
- Introduce. The clients come into the studio, where Bruce or Josh walk them through the process and set the tone.
- Show the possibilities. Using a slideshow, the Hudsons illustrate all the products and options they offer. They can also show the prospects physical samples, including multiple large-scale (30- and 40-inch) wall portraits they have displayed around the studio. This helps create a sense of need and plants the seed for future sales of specific items.
- Ask questions. How did you hear about us? Why did you decide to do this now? What do you like to do as a family? This stage is important for building rapport and understanding motivations.
- Educate. To create a sense of value, it’s important to educate clients about the work and the artistry that goes into each engagement. The Hudsons talk about the artistic process as well as specifics about options, pricing, and policies. They note that the price conversation is important to have before the portrait session so everyone is on the same page. If clients get sticker shock during the sales presentation, they tend to walk away, and that represents a big loss of time and effort for the photographer.
- Close and go see. Get an honest assessment from the clients. Are we in the right ballpark? Are you still interested? If so, it’s time to book a “go see” session to view the client’s home and the space for the portraits.
- Book the session. This step includes getting a deposit payment. This payment represents a commitment on the part of the client, meaning they are more invested in the process and less likely to walk away without making a purchase.
The go see session mentioned in Step 5 is an in-person visit to the client’s home prior to the session to view the space, take measurements, get a feel for the client’s style, and assess colors and tastes. Based on this visit, Bruce is able to photograph for specific products. “Size, style, colors—these are specifics we figure out before we ever click a shutter,” says Bruce.
After clicking the shutter, of course, is where all the hard work pays off. This is the projection sales session, during which Bruce invites clients into the final image selection and editing process to ensure that they’re getting exactly what they want. Sales sessions are set to music, and Bruce walks the client through a process of choosing from an artist-selected group of images. Clients then pick the size and final products based on recommendations formulated from the go see session as well as options displayed at scale during the sales presentation.
Does the extra work pay off?
During a recent appearance at Imaging USA, Bruce and Josh were detailing all the steps and background work that goes into their portrait sales when a photographer in the audience raised his hand. With all of this work, driving to clients’ homes, the customization, you’d have to be averaging at least $5,000 or $6,000 per sale, the audience member suggested.
Bruce and Josh looked at each other, then at the man in the audience, and shrugged. “Yes. And?” they replied.
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.