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5 Lessons Professional Photographers Can Learn From USPS

I hate the post office. I hate the hours, I hate the response time, I hate the entire thing. And if there’s one thing worse than the post office, there’s the post office in New York. It’s amazing how much of a difference one small letter can make.

“Your package is shipping by UPS.” OK. That’s fine. I can live with it. I’ve had the random incident here and there, but for the most part, they get the job done.

“Your package is shipping by USPS.” What a difference an “S” makes. I suppress the fear welling up in the pit of my stomach. I tell myself it will be alright. But the sweat beads and my skin grows cold. It’s a $1,000 order. That matters. Especially when it’s an order I’m looking forward to! I curse under my breath, and I brace myself.

This is what I expect to happen:

  1. The item will show up late
  2. I will have no sense of control over this process
  3. It will be delivered during an off hour, leaving me with a sticker on the door and forcing me to take a trip to actually pick the item up, which, based on prior experience, means going to the station, ringing a bell at an unattended desk, waiting for them to find it, and sitting around watching people stand in line in misery.

Woe is me. Now, I’m a sucker for mirrorless cameras. Have been since the first Olympus PEN. So, I’m eager to get my hands on the E-M5 making its way through the morass that is the USPS as I write this. Normally, I buy something. I wait. I don’t think about it too much. It eventually arrives. All is good.

But when I actually want something – that’s a different story. I sign up for email updates. I check the box to get text message updates. The tracking number gets a special browser window to refresh.

But here’s my point – I can’t help but think what it must be like for couples out there. If I sound a little crazy over a $1K purchase, what is it like waiting for your wedding photos? A huge purchase memorializing the most important day of your life? How eager must couples be?

As a vendor, it’s natural to see business as business. To see it in terms of proper and normal. To see good not through the biased eyes of someone eagerly awaiting something, but through the calmer lens of the person who creates the product. And, sure, most clients will be calm and patient. But don’t you want them jumping up and down with anticipation? Don’t you want them to get a little obsessed? Imagine waiting one month. Six months? What about being told it will be ready four weeks after the wedding, then not seeing photos for another two to three weeks? Getting an album a year after the wedding? Or hearing it shipped, only to find out it hadn’t, because you didn’t get a chance to drop off the package?

Game time is the wedding. But that’s not the measure of service. It’s just the mandatory stuff. You miss it, you don’t perform. Well, you’re screwed. And so is the client. And even at that, I’ve seen people show up late (my wedding, as a perfect case in point), I’ve seen people disappear at key moments, I’ve seen people walk out the second the coverage time was up, regardless of what is going on, and I’ve seen people shoot the day in flip-flops and a t-shirt, and I’m not talking about a destination wedding here! If that’s the wedding day, I can only imagine what the rest of the process is like. If you want to make a connection, don’t look to the big day. Do that part right. Get the pictures, treat people well, and respect the event. But look to the rest of the process. That shows real commitment and care, and that creates connection.

Here are 5 lessons professional photographers can learn from from USPS:

1. Set up expectations properly
Project managers are outstanding at creating expectations. Small business owners are not. The top pitfall? Not telling people what to expect and when to expect it. Give people accurate information and give them context for what you do. And don’t overestimate your ability. Build in wiggle room and over-deliver. People are more excited to hear it takes ten days and receive it in eight, than to hear it takes four days and receive it in seven! All too often, I’ve heard people talk about the benefits they conferred to their clients. Outperforming other studios. Beating prices. But did the client even know about the other studios or the great pricing they received? If not, then you haven’t given them something to value.

2. Be available
Not picking up your phone? Taking a day to answer your emails? Not good. Even if you can’t get to people, at least let them know when you will get back to them. It’s a 24/7 world, and though people will be patient, they won’t if they feel ignored. If I knew it was possible to call USPS and that they’d do something or trace things for me, I might not bother to do so, but I’d feel empowered and wouldn’t worry as much. Making yourself available doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself at the receiving end of a huge time-suck. It means that people won’t have to worry, and probably won’t even take advantage of that fact.

3. Keep clients informed
People will forgive you if you’re running late. People will forgive you if you don’t hit the mark and things are stalled. As long as it’s the exception and not the rule. But not if you don’t keep them in the loop. No one likes being kept in the dark. It’s that feeling of being strung along. It’s an annoyance that gets under your skin. When you see “Out for delivery” 24 hours after the fact, what you really learn isn’t that USPS is keeping you updated. It’s that they’re utterly out of date.

4. Be predictable
How long will the line at the post office be if I have to pick it up? What time of day will the package come? During office hours? Predictability gives comfort. Unpredictability creates tension. If you answer emails in one minute sometimes, five hours at other times, and two days occasionally, then there’s no routine clients can comfortably settle into. Give people a predictable, reliable experience.

5. Show that your clients matter
This is the key to everything. Because when you add it all up, what you really get is a picture of an organization that just doesn’t care. Everything comes as too little, too late. The experience is miserable. The concern is absent. And you just feel plain bad for dealing with them. I didn’t even realize how much I dreaded USPS until I saw that Amazon chose to send my camera that way. But everything adds up. Every experience you have with your clients in the past, not just the quality of your images, will determine how accepting they’ll be, how happy they’ll be, and what they’re willing to forgive. Make sure to show them that they matter, and they’ll respond in kind.

About Spencer Lum

Spencer is a storyteller with an indelible belief in the raw humanity of weddings. 

With 10 years of experience running Brooklyn-based 5 West Studios, he has developed a style that combines influences from fine art and photojournalism. He has also enjoyed time as a designer, creative director, and filmmaker. 

Spencer is the founder of the industry blog, Ground Glass, as well as a doting husband and father of two beautiful children in Brooklyn, NY. 

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!