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A Lesson for Portrait Photographers: Keeping Clients for the Long Haul

We all know that the world of wedding and portrait photography has become more competitive than ever. So how do we create a business that continues to thrive even in periods of economic downturn and industry turmoil? How do we win lifetime portrait clients by collecting and keeping them for the long haul? Not by continuing to beat the pavement year after year, constantly analyzing ROI based on old school advertising and traditional marketing, struggling for every new lead that comes our way!

This, my friends, is not how I want to live, not how I want to run my business. I believe there is a simpler way, one that I have been living for years. It sounds simple and it is.

Our businesses can thrive by collecting and keeping clients for the long haul.

Now if you specialize too much, this isn’t quite possible. If you say, “I only shoot weddings,” well then there you go…you just shoot weddings. I know plenty of photographers who are enormously successful just shooting weddings or just shooting something else. But I also know that the pressure to gather that new crop of clients season after season, year after year, can be difficult. Eventually the rat race gets old.

I personally have gone in a different direction, I’m a little more general in terms of what I shoot. For the record, I don’t have a long list of services on the door of my studio that says, “weddings, portraits, commercial, mitzvahs, events, children, families, pets, boudoir!” But I do find myself shooting all of these things. Some more than others. My personal specialty is shooting the lives and events of families.

I certainly am not the ultimate expert in every single one of these genres. I have no idea how to dangle a newborn from a tree branch and I’m sure there are all sorts of tricks to getting dogs to sit and stay long enough for a great portrait. Sometimes I fumble along. But amidst all of the fumbling and feeling my way through, I have become an expert on shooting certain people, particular families. And the more often I photograph a person or a family, the more insight I have into who they are, how to best photograph them, what they love about their appearance and what they don’t, what the relationships between various family members are. Most importantly, they become more comfortable with me, allowing me to create images that are more powerful and more meaningful to them.

A couple whose wedding I photographed in 2005, sharing their wedding album with their children during one of our portrait sessions.

Over time, I become a member of the family and once I have that footing, there is no need for my client to go out and start pricing other photographers. I become their one and only.

This is how you remove yourself from the competition once and for all. And eventually, you’re no longer afraid of the uncle with the good camera or the ‘momtographer’ down the street, because there is no quick fix, no easy in, no camera that you can buy that will replace what took years to develop.

Any business expert will tell you that it’s far easier to sell to someone who has purchased from you in the past than it is to convert a new customer. I wholeheartedly agree with this. So in my business, I do almost zero marketing. I have always done pretty much zero marketing. I have really never had to. I collect clients and I keep them. And every year my collection gets bigger. If I need to reach out for some new business, I don’t reach into the world; I reach into my collection. Currently, my collection is 10 years old and growing each year.

So I suppose the question is, how do you turn a wedding client into a lifetime portrait client?

After giving it some thought, here are my tips for creating the types of relationships with clients that lead them to come back over and over again.

Set the tone from the beginning.

Obviously we all have different ways of running our businesses, different ways of interacting with our clients. But one thing I feel is incredibly important is setting the right tone from the very beginning. Personally, I am casual with my clients and in my business. My goal is not necessarily to close the deal every time. My goal is for us to choose each another. I never want to try to convince a client that I am the right photographer for them. If you try to do too much convincing, you are likely to make crazy promises in the heat of the moment which you may be unable to live up to. If this is the case you may end up with an unhappy client and not only is this bad in the short term, it is bad in the long term. If you are working with one client you can’t please, you are missing out on building a relationship with a client you might have kept for the next 10, 20, or 30 years.

My contract is a one-page agreement that outlines main important points of who/ what/ when/ where/ how much. It is not a 10 page, line-by-line mess of legal mumbo jumbo which spells out exactly how I plan to sue them if I feel that I need to, or what will happen when they sue me when they aren’t happy. It also does not specify lots of limitations of what I won’t do for them. It’s simple. Friendly. And it’s been pretty much the same for 10 years…and it works just fine. Now, I’m not suggesting that you go throw your contract and your attorney out the window. Contracts are important. But what is equally important is the manner in which you forge relationships. What tone are you setting? Is your contract or your initial communication/ negotiations combative? Are you putting your clients on edge and preparing them to be unhappy with their experience with you? Just something to think about. I want to adore my clients and I want them to adore me back. It should be a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Everyone should win and no one should lose.

Be friendly.

Of course you’re probably not going to become best friends with every single client. You might not become friends with any of them. But remember, even though this is business, the nature of our business is very personal. It is not the same as retaining a lawyer and does not require the level of professionalism as corporate business relationships. Take cues from your clients and match their level of enthusiasm if you are comfortable doing so. I exchange many emails with my clients between booking and the wedding. If my clients share details with me about their lives, I ask about them. “How is the new house coming along?” “Is your grandmother feeling better?” Whatever it is. My communications blend business and personal. I don’t mind mixing a payment reminder with a comment about something I read on Facebook and then signing off xoxo. This is the sort of relationship I build with my clients and this is the sort of relationship I enjoy having with them. If I have a client who is all business and professionalism, I mirror that instead.

Be someone she can trust. 

Your brides selected you for a reason, they trust and respect you. Be there for them when they need you. When they ask questions about the timeline or other vendors, lighting, where to spend budget, advise them wisely. Don’t be afraid to help. Sometimes it’s time-consuming but spending the time helping them is worthwhile. On the wedding day, my brides often look to me to help them make decisions. Sometimes I’m the only one they can trust. Everyone else is busy fretting about their own appearance. I find myself being the one to tell her which earrings to wear, whether to go with or without a necklace. Where to place the veil. If she asks me if her hair looks too poufy, I know that means she thinks her hair looks too poufy. I urge the hair stylist to fix it. If I can see her undies through a slinky dress, I will tell her. Everyone else lies to the bride. I don’t. If I recognize something that might take away from the beauty of her pictures or from her experience, I make sure it gets fixed before it’s too late. I sacrifice some of my own time for pictures if I think it is important enough. Because it is about her, it is not about me. I realize that my job goes beyond taking pictures. My pictures are best when I’ve created an atmosphere that is free of unnecessary stress. I take care of her when she needs it. And the bond that forms between a bride and her wedding photographer can forge wonderful friendships and future working relationships if you allow them to.

Converting your wedding clients into portrait clients. 

By the time you’ve shot the wedding and delivered the goods, you are practically family. If you’ve done your job working with the right types of clients and have treated them with care every step of the way, they probably love you to pieces. You’ve been a part of their life for a year or two or maybe longer. You’ve delivered something special that will be a part of the rest of their lives. If they adore you, they will want to continue to have you be a part of their lives.

  • Make sure they know what else you do. I know that many photographers have separate websites for their wedding & portrait businesses. I understand this concept and I’m sure it works well for some people. Personally, I have it all on one site, simply because I believe it’s all related. I want my wedding clients to know that I also photograph babies, children and families. It’s likely that many of them will decide to start a family in the years following their wedding. The first step is to be sure that they know what you do and that you are interested in keeping in touch.
  • I also want my portrait clients to know that I photograph weddings. I get referrals that go both ways.
  • Put something in your client’s house that reminds them of you. Maybe they purchased a wedding album? Great – that’s one reminder. Maybe you also help your client select a wedding image to hang on a wall in their home. Something they see every single day. Something that reminds them of how much they love your photography, how happy it makes them to have your art on their wall.
  • Keep in touch with your clients. I use Facebook, Twitter & Instagram to keep up with clients. Of course, this means I must maintain a level of professionalism in my public persona, but I don’t think that’s a bad decision anyway. Social media is a powerful tool and it doesn’t have to be about getting tons of ‘Likes’ or running ads. Keep in touch with your clients, see what they’re up to, interact with them. Everything you need to know about their lives is right there. Your past bride just announced that her sister just got engaged…congratulate her. You don’t have to pimp your services, you just need to remind them that you exist. They are likely to make the connection themselves. Maybe you see that one of your clients is pregnant? What a great time to send her a card and a gift certificate for a portrait session with you!
  • If people already love working with you, you don’t have to be pushy to get their business, you just need to be there. Interact with them, remind them that you exist.
  •  Think long term. A wise friend once told me, “life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” I thought it was a great quote that we can apply to our businesses as well. When it comes to selling photography and creating clients for life, my goal is not to squeeze every single penny that I can out of someone. Obviously I need to hit certain financial standards in order for my business to be healthy and successful. But if I want longterm relationships with clients, my goal is to advise what is best for them. Sometimes that means less money. So be it. In order to be in business we need to sell photography. Don’t be afraid to. Your clients have engaged you to photograph them because they want what you do. But most people get stuck after that. They know that they want photographs but they don’t necessarily know what to do with them. Help them make decisions, but guide them to the best choice for them. Sometimes this means a smaller sale. If a client wants something large for the wall, advise them honestly what will look best. Sometimes that means going bigger, sometimes it might be smaller. I know some portrait photographers who are divine sales people. They can talk a client into spending a bundle and them some. They can make it seem like a once-in-a-lifetime splurge. And very often, that’s what it becomes. After that, the same client might assume they can’t have their family photographed without dropping $5000. Usually this does not lead to repeat business. Could I push and pull for a $5000 portrait sale and get it? Sure. But I would much rather stay in a realm where my client is comfortable with what they’ve spent and feels it was worth every penny. I don’t want them to have buyer’s remorse. I would rather know that they will come back and spend $1500 or $2500 every year for the next 20 years and be thrilled every single time. I want them to collect my work like they collect art.
  • Reward loyalty. I have an unspoken policy to give a 20% portrait product discount to past wedding clients. My prices are such that I can afford to do that. If yours aren’t, consider rewarding them in some other way. Whatever you do, make them feel special and valued.
  • Show your support. If you think of your clients as longterm relationships, you’ll want to invest in them. Many schools hold annual fundraisers including silent auctions. This is a great opportunity to donate a session and even gain new clients in the process. I also donate to charities that I see my clients are raising funds for, as long as it’s something that I’m comfortable supporting. I have even attended sporting events, plays, or concerts of the children of my clients.
  • Remember that business is still business. Over time, I find that I become friends with some clients. This is a slippery slope for some photographers who feel the need to give their friends freebies. But remember, clients are clients. You don’t have to be uncomfortable accepting money from them just because you are now friends. Stand your ground. They already love you, they love what you do. They have happily paid for your services and they will continue to do so. Don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty.

Again, there is nothing wrong with specializing. But if you’d rather spend your time shooting than marketing, consider the small things you can do in your business that help you to collect clients for the long haul. It’s simple yet it can be incredibly rewarding.

Written by Justine Ungaro

photographer justine ungaro

Justine Ungaro has been photographing weddings in her own clean, classic style since 2003. A second generation photographer, Justine grew up in the Washington DC area and moved to Los Angeles in 2006 where she expanded her business to include children’s and music industry portraiture and soon after began giving workshops and speaking at photography conventions. She currently maintains studios in Los Angeles and DC.

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!