Setting client expectations in your photography business

The phrase "exceeding expectations" has become a buzz word with regards to customer service. Everyone knows that it's important to over-deliver for your clients, but the challenge with this as it is traditionally presented is that it assumes you have set the expectations appropriately so you actually can exceed them.

The phrase “exceeding expectations” has become a buzz word with regards to customer service. Everyone knows that it’s important to over-deliver for your clients, but the challenge with this as it is traditionally presented is that it assumes you have set the expectations appropriately so you actually can exceed them.

In the conversations that I’ve had with photographers, it is often the case that they haven’t set expectation at all or that they’ve assumed a policy was implied when it in fact wasn’t. How can you over-deliver on an expectation that is either not accurate or hasn’t been set at all? In this article, I’m diving into the topic of setting expectations – what expectations to set, how you can set them, and some very specific examples that you can put into play right away in your business.

The root of client expectations

Expectations can be defined as:

A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.

The word “expectation” is synonymous with the words “assumption” and “prediction”, and this is where we encounter the first challenge. We all know what happens when we ass-u-me, right? We need to understand and appreciate that everyone has their own expectations, assumptions and predications in almost every situation. For example, perhaps your client assumes that you will be giving them the digital files with their session because that’s what their last photographer did, or maybe they’ll expect you to answer your phone when they call you on a Sunday afternoon. Do they expect to spend only $2,000 on their wedding photography because it’s what their friends paid? Or maybe they predict that you’ll try and up-sell them after the wedding?

Every client brings their past experiences, their biases and their expectations with them when they start a conversation with you, and if we can understand this, we can approach the relationship with a fresh set of eyes. It’s up to us to assume nothing and set them in the right direction by telling them how we work. It’s ultimately up to not only set their expectations, but then to over-deliver on them.

What expectations to set for your clients

There are dozens of small details in your day-to-day dealings that you would want to have properly positioned in your clients’ mind. Make no assumptions that your client knows how you work or how something should happen with you and your studio. There are four categories of policies or expectations that you can set:

Timelines – When or how long you’ll take to do something. This is all-encompassing of the “client flow” and is closely tied to our previous discussion about designing the customer experience. This includes policies such as how long it will take to see proofs from a session, how long prints take to come in, and any other time-related deadline.

Deliverables – What the client can expect from their experience with you as a finished product. This includes obvious polices such as whether they will receive digital files or not, but it also goes further to encompass policies such as how your prints are finished, how they’re presented, their sizing, and so on. This also includes the type of photography that you’ll be producing for them, including your style and approach.

Price – What the client can expect to pay for the different services and products from your studio.

Availability – When you are available and what your business hours are. This includes your policies around when the client can reach you, how they can reach you, as well as when you’ll be available for sessions and appointments.

Before we go into specifics around how to set expectations for your clients, it’s important for you to explore each of these four categories (timelines, deliverables, price and availability) and set your own policies. Create an internal “policy manual” for yourself so that you know what you’ll be telling clients. This gives you a solid and repeatable set of “rules” for your business.

Each category can be broken down in your own way, but here are some example questions you can ask yourself to define your policies:

  • How long will it take for you to deliver finished prints to your client after ordering?
  • How long will it take for you to deliver proofs after a portrait session? How about a wedding?
  • If a client calls today, how far in advance are you booking portrait sessions?
  • Do you include digital files with your wedding collection? Do you include them for portraits?
  • If you do not include digitals by default, will they be available for purchase?
  • If you do offer digitals, what size are they? Are they watermarked? Are they retouched, or just proofs?
  • For small prints under 8×10, do you offer them as loose prints, or do you mount them?
  • For large prints, will you allow your clients to do their own framing?
  • What presentation options do you offer? Framing, canvas, mounted, aluminum, etc? What is the price difference on them?
  • Do you dictate the style that you photograph in, or will your client tell you what they want?
  • Do you charge a lower session fee with the hopes of selling prints afterwards, or do you have collections up front that clients choose?
  • Do you offer a smaller wedding album up front and then hope the client upgrades the size and number of pages afterwards?
  • What are your business hours?
  • What evenings during the week are you available for appointments and sessions?
  • Are you available on weekends? If so, is it every weekend, or only specific weekends?
  • How can your clients get ahold of you? Do you want them texting you on personal time? Facebook-ing you on the weekend?

You can break all of these questions down even further, and I invite you to take a few moments now to explore the four categories and start writing out your own policy manual. This will help in further discussions about how to reinforce your policies.

How to set expectations

Once you’ve defined your studio policies around the four categories (timelines, deliverables, price and availability), you need to brainstorm how you plan on communicating these policies to your clients.

Quick note: when I say “policy” I do not mean it in the way that the airline ticket counter employee says “sorry sir, that is our policy” but instead as a loose definition of how you work and how you want your client experience to be shaped. You should never use the “sorry, that’s our policy” line, as it’s a sure way to make a conversation go south quick. Instead, think of your studio policies as internal notes and preferences that you want to communicate to your clients to ensure that they have the best experience possible. 

There are five channels in which you can set expectations and communicate policies to your clients – on your website, personally, with specific literature, through social media and by word-of-mouth. Everyone will have different preferences in communication styles and language, but I suggest that you consider a mix of all of these channels to communicate expectations to your clients. In fact, it’s best if you can have each policy communicated in more than one channel to ensure it is actually making it through to your client.

Website – On your website, you can use point-form, short narratives, videos and pictures to set expectations. Your website is normally the first point of contact and while you want to have as much information here as possible, it’s also crucial to not overload your clients with too much detail all at once. I’d recommend keeping your website verbiage simple and strategically working your policies into your branding presentation on the web. A great way to use your website to set expectations is to blog about specific policies/expectations and then link to them in your conversations with your client, but we’ll talk more about this shortly.

Personal communication – The most effective way to communicate policies is through personal contact. This is when the conversation is one-to-one and it’s when you’ll have as much of your clients’ attention as you’ll ever have. This could be through e-mail, phone or in-person. This is where choosing the right language is crucial, and if you want a primer on how to communicate effectively through e-mail, check out this article that I wrote on this subject.

Specific literature – It’s useful to create an in-depth piece of specific literature that you can send to your client through personal communication when the time is right. This could be a brochure, newsletter, blog post, video, podcast, write-up, PDF, etc. Link to the specific literature in a personal contact so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time with every client. One great idea (as I alluded to earlier) is to create a series of educational pieces in different mediums (blog post, video, PDF) and then send these to your client at the right time.

Social media – Social media is a great vehicle for communicating your studio policies, but it needs to be used sparingly and strategically. You can’t auto-post a new update on Facebook every day saying “this is our policy”, but instead you need to strategically build it as a social conversation and into your branding. I discuss this at more length in the article “creating value first”, and I’ll also share a specific example of this below.

Word-of-mouth – This is the best communication channel with the most impact. People will always trust what their friends have to say, especially when it is a third-party review, testimonial or comment. Word-of-mouth is also the most challenging channel for you to shape and mould what expectations are being communicated. When you can get it right though, your new clients will be coming to you with their heads in the right direction, and you’ll find that these are the best clients to have.

Here’s a challenge that I’d like to give you – for every policy you have, write down three ways to communicate it in three different channels.

Examples

You must be intentional in communicating your policies, but also be sure that you’re delivering them in a way that is appropriate for the channel and that you’re always doing so in the spirit of good customer service. Here are four examples of how you can take a policy in one of the four categories (timelines, deliverables, price, availability) and communicate it through one of the five channels (website, personal communication, specific literature, social media, word-of-mouth).

Policy: I will be a full-service studio, offering only beautiful finished products instead of digital files.
Communication channel: Social media
Example: Whenever you get a new print, album, book or other finished product delivered to your studio, take a picture of it and share it on your Facebook page. Show that your clients order beautiful finished products and emphasize their importance. Be excited about them.

Policy: My wedding coverage starts at $3200 and is for time-only. Collections with albums and product are an additional fee.
Communication channel: Website
Example: Put your “starting” price on your website, and then outline your range of collections, price-wise. You could say something along the lines of “Wedding collections start at $3200. Collections inclusive of your wedding album start at $4500”.

Policy: Prints will be delivered 5 weeks after ordering.
Communication channel: Personal communication
Example: In the first phone call when you are discussing the viewing appointment, tell your client that prints will be available 6 weeks after ordering. At the viewing appointment, remind your clients that their prints will be ready in 6 weeks and that you’ll call them once they’re in. Surprise them when you actually get them in within 4-5 weeks.

I have four more detailed examples that revolve around setting expectations for availability and business hours. These examples are ones that you can put into play right away that will set boundaries for a great work-life balance. You can have them delivered FREE to your inbox one week from today by heading over here and leaving your e-mail.

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