Technology has become a major part of modern American life for all of us, but for professional photographers in particular, it’s revolutionized every last part of our business. From the image files we create and their digital delivery, to the marketing of our work via the web and social media, this high-tech environment is immensely helpful in countless ways – but it does have its drawbacks. Namely, it’s become more difficult to effortlessly forge the connections that build meaningful relationships with customers.
According to entrepreneur and customer service expert John DiJulius, savvy photographers should look to this challenge as an opportunity. In his new book on the importance of cultivating business relationships, DiJulius advocates for making an effort to deliberately go beyond the basics. Portrait photographers, in particular, are often thrust into situations where they need to quickly engage and connect with clients on a surface level. But if we took it just a bit further, he says, we’re able to better build a lasting business relationship.
“Technology has provided us with unprecedented advantages,” he says, “but it has come at a significant cost. That cost is human interaction, which is the number one thing for customer loyalty, employee satisfaction and just overall happiness. The world has changed and technology is not the enemy. Using it to eliminate the human experience is.”
Build A Calendar To Keep In Touch
Wedding and family photographers have a relationship-building advantage, DiJulius says, because they are tapped to photograph important milestones: weddings, anniversaries, bar mitzvahs, babies, senior portraits and more.
“Photographers know the biggest dates in everyone's lives,” he says, “so why aren't you working ahead of time and making sure you're reminding me of my anniversary that's coming up next month? You're doing me a service! And hey, it’s a great opportunity to say, ‘It’s been three years since we've done a family portrait.’”
Business-to-business photographers would also be well served to keep track of their customers’ important dates and timelines. “If you’re doing corporate work,” DiJulius says, “you know the big dates, and with social media you can use that to your advantage. If I posted that we just won Top 100 Businesses in Cleveland, or my son just got accepted into Ohio State, those are all great reasons to reach out, to congratulate me, to keep your name in front of me. So any time someone says, ‘I need to get a portrait,’ it’s, ‘Oh, you’ve got to use Jim.’”
Be Top Of Mind All The Time With Your Clients
Sometimes building relationships is just that simple. It’s maintaining human connections and showing that you care. That could be by reaching out with a congratulatory email, writing a thank you note or sending a referral when the opportunity presents itself.
“I have a great photographer,” DiJulius says. “He was my wedding photographer 30 years ago and we use him for everything. We use him for all our corporate work, my headshots, video stuff, professionally and personally. What he's really good at is making introductions to me all the time for people who need what I do. He's that trusted advisor, that resource broker – things that he will provide me that I can't buy from him. He cares.”
The other thing that happens when a vendor works to build a relationship over months and years is that the vendor stays top of mind—an invaluable place to be. “Have you ever heard of the articulate activator?” DiJulius asks. “It's in our brain. Basically it’s like a door to the attic of your brain. There's only so much that we can be conscious of, and the rest goes in storage. It goes in the attic of our brain. But it’s not in the front of your mind; everyone's fighting for that. What my photographer does a great job of is making sure he doesn't get thrown into the attic. He’s constantly doing things in a non-soliciting way: making introductions, liking and sharing stuff that I post, anything you can do. I'm constantly aware of him. And so when something pops up, be it my need or someone else’s, I'll say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to use Rob.’”
How To Build Relationships With F.O.R.D.
“I love to ask audiences, ‘Who's good at building an instant rapport with a total stranger?’” he says. “Everyone raises their hand. And I call B.S. You’ve got to prove it to me. Just because you met someone and spent 20 minutes with them doesn't mean you built a relationship. You could have been talking about yourself for 20 minutes! We're all genetically coded to be preoccupied with, you know… It's MY flight that was delayed, it’s MY client that might be firing us, it's MY son that got in trouble, right? So that's a constant battle to not just gravitate to ‘It's my life I want to tell you about.’ So I say for anyone to prove to me that they built a relationship with someone—be it in a three-minute conversation or a 30-minute conversation—you have to know two or more things of their F.O.R.D. Their F.O.R.D.,” DiJulius says, “is each and every person’s hot button. It gets them moving and talking fast.”
In F.O.R.D., the F stands for Family—Are they married? Do they have kids? O stands for Occupation—What do they do? How long have they been doing it? R stands for Recreation—What does he like to do with his time off? Is he a runner? Hot yoga? Coaches little league? And D is for Dreams—What are her dreams? What's on her bucket list? What’s her dream vacation? What's her encore career that she wants to do next? “When you focus on someone else's F.O.R.D. in a natural conversation,” he says, “it really, really helps.”
Whether Your Studio Is Big Or Small, Create A System
Practically speaking, while photographers may be naturally attuned to this sort of connection making, we need to ensure our assistants and staff are equally prepared. Better still, he says, we can take some practical steps to help us make use of our customer connections and their F.O.R.D. And this applies at least as much for a small studio with part-time staff as much as it does for an operation with a full-time receptionist and a cadre of assistants and retouchers.
“It’s creating systems,” he explains. “Teach your staff, so if your assistant is having a call with me and, you know, she finds out F.O.R.D. before you, now you can pick up that I have three boys and one of them is a really good athlete or whatever that may be.”
Ultimately, though, DiJulius says no amount of record keeping and note writing is going to create a meaningful relationship for you. The most important thing, of course, is to actually care, to actually want a personal connection with customers. This principle underpins DiJulius’s five-step plan.
“There are five really important techniques for the art of building relationships,” he says. “Some of them may sound obvious, but they're not. One: Must be authentic. Two: Must have an insatiable curiosity. Three: Must have incredible empathy. Four: Must love people. That's the only one of the list of five that can't be taught or trained. I can’t teach you to love people. And then the fifth one is: Must be a great listener.”
“Remember,” he adds, “no one's loyal to an app. You want to be the photographer customers can't live without and you want to make price irrelevant. It's easy to fire a company: ‘That's just a company that charges too much, I don't mind leaving them for someone who charges less.’ But the more people I know on your team, those become people I want to see you and them succeed.” In a marketplace that’s as competitive as photography is, where talent is a given, building client loyalty can get your studio to the top and keep it there.
To learn more about John DiJulius and his new book, “The Relationship Economy: Building Stronger Customer Connections in the Digital Age,” visit his website at thedijuliusgroup.com.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.