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Winning Word of Mouth Referrals – it’s a Marathon not a Sprint!

I’m the poster boy of how NOT to utilize social networks to help grow your business.I don’t have thousands of Facebook fans or Twitter followers. I don’t update my blog often enough, and my blog gets moderate (but very welcome) traffic. However, I’ve been fortunate enough to grow and expand my business year after year, despite downturns in the economy. And 2012, my ninth wedding season, will be my best year ever.

I’m also somewhat lucky because my clients generally seek me out based on past referrals. It’s not uncommon for me to see one or two former clients at any given wedding I shoot. The referrals I get from past clients mean everything to me and have been the building blocks of my business.

However, this word of mouth has not come by chance. Every decision I make takes into consideration how my clients will feel, perceive and react. It’s built into the very DNA of my brand. My strategy should be plain common sense for most. Yet I’m surprised by how many stories I hear about photographers who rub clients and/or guests the wrong way by their behavior during their consultations or worse, at a wedding!

To me, it all begins with the client’s experience. As photographers we are artists, but we are also service providers. If you treat people exceptionally well and deliver a product that you’re proud of and excited to share, clients will want to talk about you and share their experience with friends.

I challenge you to a little mental exercise to get you to think about the way you interact with clients. Try to be as honest with yourself as possible.  These questions will go a long way to helping you understand whether it’s a pleasure to do business with you, or a hassle.

Do you request that your potential clients fill out a pre-screening questionnaire? Believe me, I see the value, but aren’t these folks busy enough?  Wouldn’t a telephone call be more personal?

Are you as flexible as possible about finding a meeting time and location? Try to empathize with your clients’ work schedules. Often they’re buying houses, planning weddings and bridal showers, all while trying to keep their bosses happy. 

At the meeting, do you give the potential client a list of “I don’ts?”  Here are a few examples: “I don’t work with videographers,” “I don’t shoot formals,” “I don’t care if you didn’t cut your cake yet…I’m leaving,” “Don’t feed me past midnight (or get me wet)!”) What message are you sending to clients about your ability to be flexible and adaptable?

Are you exceedingly helpful and flexible at the wedding, or pushy and insistent that you get your shot? This goes for venue managers as well as well as clients….believe me…they refer people they like. Not necessarily those whose work is best.

What type of footprint do you leave at a wedding? Is your gear piled up sky-high in the ballroom they paid thousands of dollars to decorate?  Do you hammer guests with 14 different flashes to get that “Las Vegas Strip” effect? I was a guest at a wedding where the photographer had two huge lights at waist height on each corner of the dance floor. Guests had to leave because the lights were giving them headaches!

Are guests paying attention to you or to the couple during the ceremony? Churches often treat photographers like criminals. Why? Because there are photographers who are simply loud and obtrusive. The shots might be great, but no one in that audience is going to hire you!

Do you pooh-pooh the “great” ideas from bridesmaids and groomsmen about “super fun” poses? As I said before, at times you have to balance the fact that we are both artists AND service providers. Bite your tongue and take the shot.

Do you charge extra for incidentals (shipping, parking)? Consider building these incidentals into your pricing. Clients are willing to pay a premium for premium services, but a higher level of service is expected. Does Tiffany’s charge extra for those gorgeous boxes & wrapping?

Your camera manual doesn’t have a section that tells you how to treat people. Just ask yourself how you’d like to be treated.

One of my favorite things is when a guest approaches me to tell me what a great job I’m doing at a wedding, without even seeing a picture! One time I asked, “how do you know I’m doing a good job? You haven’t seen a picture yet?” The response was surprising. She praised my hustle, tactfulness, cheery demeanor, and explained that at all the weddings she’d been to, that was NOT the norm for photographers. Every interaction you have is representative of your brand. And in my case, my brand is my name.

Winning word of mouth referrals doesn’t happen overnight. But if you build your business on the fundamentals of treating people exceptionally well, eventually you are going to build one of the most loyal and consistent fan bases that will keep your family fed for years to come.

About Ned Jackson
Ned Jackson is a Boston based photographer who has been photographing weddings in New England since 2003, building his business organically by focusing on strong client relationships and creating classic, clean and timeless imagery.  Originally a teacher, Ned enjoys connecting with the photography community and sharing ideas with peers around the country.  Ned is a featured photographer of Pinhole Pro, a member of The Best of Wedding Photography and has been a speaker at the Pictage PartnerCon and InspireBoston.  He lives North of Boston with his wife Amanda, son Nate and their dog Jake.
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!