Selling is a fundamental part of being a professional photographer. That goes whether you’re an advertising photographer, corporate portraitist or wedding shooter. Although they can be effective, aggressive sales strategies aren’t particularly appealing to many of us. That begs the question: Is it possible to sell more effectively without resorting to, well, selling?
Behaving as a trusted advisor versus a salesperson—meaning you ask questions and listen more than you speak, then tailor your recommendations to what you’ve heard—is a good practice for any contractor, freelancer or business owner.
Enter the trusted advisor approach to sales. Instead of quickly offering a new customer your preferred solution, start by listening to what they really need. In short, diagnose before you prescribe.
The concept of actually listening to customers may seem like common sense, but the world is full of aggressive sales strategies that offer solutions before the customer has a chance to explain their needs. It doesn’t engender trust when we’re buying cars or home appliances, and it won’t when we’re selling photography either.
According to business writer Andrea Emerson, although we may be eager to skip ahead to explaining our tremendous solutions, slowing down and listening to the customer’s problems can be much more effective. It’s a fundamental part of becoming a trusted advisor.
“Think about it this way,” Emerson says. “Imagine you’re living in pain and seek out a doctor to make that pain go away. The first doctor you meet asks you no questions and runs no tests before handing you his brand of supplements and asking you to sign off on a treatment plan. The second doctor asks you appropriate questions and carefully considers what you have to say—your habits, past incidents, where exactly it hurts, when it hurts, pertinent lifestyle info, and maybe orders a test to make sure he gets this right. Armed with this knowledge, he then prescribes a treatment plan.”
“Which doctor would you trust?” she asks. “Recommend to others and return to the next time you have an issue? Which would you comply with if they had some hard truths to tell you? A trusted advisor asks questions and listens before offering a solution. They can also charge higher rates and get more repeat business because people view them as guides, not money-hungry peddlers.”
Not only does listening to the customer inform us about what they’re looking for, it helps the customer to feel heard, their input valued. This is imperative for building the trust that’s necessary not just for an eventual purchase but also for building an ongoing relationship.
“If you don’t know anything about the customer before pitching a solution,” Emerson explains, “your recommendation could miss the mark and have no appeal to the customer. Your assumptions may be wrong, you might focus on something the prospect doesn’t even perceive as an issue, and miss bigger opportunities you wouldn’t know about without asking. Say you pitch a headshot package but I have no interest in a new headshot. But if we had a consultation you might learn I need help launching a new product and could use some compelling images of people using that product.”
Find The Pain Points And Solve Them
Perhaps most importantly, listening helps you determine the customer’s pain points. These are the root issues that have prompted them to accept your offer of a consultation in the first place.
“’Pain points’ is marketing lingo for problems your customers have that you can solve,” she says. “For example, people don’t buy diet plans because they enjoy eating salads. What they’re really buying is a fitter, healthier body. Their pain point is excess weight or health issues, and that diet plan can fix that. I imagine with photography, people don’t hire a photographer because they enjoy sitting through a photo shoot or having photos to stick in a drawer. What they’re really buying is a way to capture a moment in their lives, to help them relive it years from now. Or they might want to increase their income and the right images are a tool to make that possible. Figure out what problems your service can solve for your prospect, and focus your messaging and conversations around that. What transformation will you deliver? How will your prospect’s life, business, routine, income or whatever be better because they did business with you? Paint that before-and-after picture for them.”
Be A Consultant Instead Of A Critic
Taking a consultant approach to a sales meeting inevitably leads to the opportunity to offer expert advice and tout your own offerings over the competition. Sharing insights is a great way to demonstrate expertise, but it’s imperative to know when to do it and where to draw the line. Criticizing the prospect’s existing content—or worse, insulting it—is a great way to kill a sale dead in its tracks. And Emerson, a former marketing executive, has encountered that sales strategy more than once.
“I don’t think that approach is formally taught by most sales experts,” she says, “but it’s something I’ve experienced a few times as a corporate buyer on the receiving end of vendor pitches. Some freelancers report having success with this method, but I think it’s awfully risky.”
Show That You Can Score A Win For The Client And You Stand A Great Chance Of Getting The Gig
Ultimately, most photographers aren’t expert salesmen—which we can use to our advantage since we’re more likely to be comfortable in a trusted advisor role anyway. Sure, there are times when a customer has come calling, checkbook in hand and eager to buy. But most of the time, when we’re the ones pursuing the business, why think about selling when it’s so much easier to simply listen to what the customer needs and try to help them solve their problems?
“Behaving as a trusted advisor versus a sales person,” Emerson says, “meaning you ask questions and listen more than you speak, then tailor your recommendations to what you’ve heard—is a good practice for any contractor, freelancer or business owner. What is their goal? Is that goal being met? Why not? Once you identify some weaknesses or blind spots, you can make a recommendation that will move them closer to their goals.”
“You might find that makes some prospective clients even more interested in what you have to offer,” she adds, “even if they don’t hire you right now. They’re also much more likely to refer you to their friends and professional network.”
Andrea Emerson is a writer and mentor who helps freelancers build highly profitable businesses. Learn more at andreaemerson.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.