The biggest mistake that most photographers make in talking with prospective clients

You often talk about what you do as a photographer to prospective clients. It's one of the most important conversations you can have; it can make or break your business. If you can communicate effectively with a prospective client, and they book you, then you'll have more work. If not, you will find yourself with an empty schedule.

You want to be heard. You want to help people to see your point-of-view. Who doesn’t, right?

You often talk about what you do as a photographer to prospective clients. It’s one of the most important conversations you can have; it can make or break your business. If you can communicate effectively with a prospective client, and they book you, then you’ll have more work. If not, you will find yourself with an empty schedule.

Let’s get the elephant out of the room. I’m talking about that dirty 5-letter word … sales.

Communication in the context of sales is not talked about often, yet it’s such a huge part of what you do.

In this article, I’m going to share exactly how you can analyze your prospective clients and then speak in a way that is most relevant to them. I want you to have a higher likelihood of booking more clients.

But first, let me be completely upfront. You must become comfortable with selling if you want to be successful as a photographer.

Period. It’s as simple as that.

If you’re not comfortable with selling, then re-frame what the word “selling” means to you.

To sell means to communicate value in a way that creates a win-win for both you and your prospective client. 

I’ve discussed the bigger picture of “selling” many times before here on SproutingPhotographer.com:

The three elements of successful sales communication

There are 3 elements that will make (or break) a sale from a communication stand-point:

  1. Context – You need to speak in way that is relevant to your client.
  2. Approach – You need to have the right tone, intent and clarity in your communication.
  3. Product – You must have the chops to back up what you’re saying. Your product (your photography) must deliver on the promises you make with your words.

A successful “sale” needs all 3 of these elements. In this article in particular, I’m going to discuss the first element – context. This is where most photographers need the most help, because most “sell” in the wrong way, and in the wrong order.

Understand the clash of worldviews

Let’s establish some ground rules, first.

You must understand two fundamentals:

  1. There will always be a clash of worldviews.
  2. Everyone has a different level of understanding and awareness about photography.

First. There will always be a clash of worldviews whenever you enter into a dialog. This isn’t just the case for “sales” but for any conversation. It is inevitable.

No matter who you’re talking with (and what you’re talking about), everyone has a set of biases and opinions. Everyone views the world slightly differently. Understanding that everyone in a conversation starts off with a different worldview is an important first step.

Second. You must understand that everyone has a different level of awareness and understanding about photography. Some prospective clients may have no experience with a professional photographer, whereas others may have a lot of experience. Some may have no clue what is involved in hiring a photographer, whereas others may read every article about the “the top 10 things to ask your photographer”.

Everyone has a different worldview, so we must treat every conversation uniquely.

Everyone has a different viewpoint; a different level of awareness and a different understanding about photography.

You start every “sales” conversation with prospective clients on an uneven playing field.

That’s exactly why you can’t just jump into our “pitch” or start talking about you and what you do from the get-go.

Before you start talking about you, you must listen to them. You must understand exactly what your prospective client is looking for. You must discover their level of awareness and understanding. You must gain context. You must then be their guide and present your ideas in a way that is relevant to them.

Stephen Franklin Covey, in his popular book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has a whole chapter dedicated to this:

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

– Stephen Franklin

Imagine a ladder

Let’s imagine a ladder. At the bottom of the ladder are those who have little understanding about photography, and no awareness of you or what you do. At the top of the ladder are those who have a great understanding about photography and much awareness of you and what you do.

It’s your job as a “guide” to move a prospective client up the rungs on the ladder. The closer a prospective client is to the top, the more likely they are to book and buy from you.

Along the ladder, there are 5 “states” a prospective client can be in with regards to their understanding and awareness of what you do and who you are. I borrow this concept from the legendary copywriter, Eugene Schwartz. Eugene first invented this model for identifying what kind of copy marketers should write in their direct-mail advertising.

I’ve adapted it for our conversation here today, because I think it’s extremely relevant, and gives a solid framework for identifying how you can be communicating in the context of sales.

The 5 “states” that a client can be in, as they move their way up the ladder are:

  1. Unaware – This client has no idea of the need or use for you or your service. This client is completely unaware of you and what you do.
  2. Problem Aware – This client feels the pain of the problem that you solve, but hasn’t quite discovered that what you do is the solution to their problem.
  3. Solution Aware – This client understands there are solutions to their problem, but they don’t know too much about you as one of the solution providers quite yet.
  4. Product Aware – This clients knows you could be a solution to their problem, but they still lack a deeper understanding of why you are the right choice for them.
  5. High Awareness – This clients know all about the problem, the solution and they’re fairly confident you’re the right choice for them.

As a prospective client moves up the rungs of the ladder from being unaware to having a high level of awareness, their likelihood of booking you increases.

Based on all this, depending on where a prospective client sits on the ladder, their level of awareness and understanding varies. Therefore, how you communicate to them and what you say should also vary.

This is what I mean when I say that your communications must be contextual and relevant.

A real-life example

Meet Katie.

Katie recently got engaged and therefore is well-aware of the problem; she knows she needs a wedding photographer. She’s already been to a couple bridal shows to scope out the options, so she’s also pretty well-aware of some of the solutions, too. Katie’s cousin didn’t hire a photographer for her wedding, and ended up regretting it. Katie definitely wants to avoid that same mistake. Katie was recently in a wedding party, and didn’t enjoy working with that photographer. Katie’s friend, Martha, had you as her wedding photographer last year, and had nothing but great things to say about you.

Katie picks up the phone and calls you.

On the ladder, Katie would fall into the “state” of being solution-aware. She understands the pain, is aware of the solutions, and is vaguely familiar with you as one of those potential solutions.

You can see how it is important to discover where on the ladder Katie sits, and then speak to her needs and her level of awareness and understanding specifically.

When talking with Katie, if you went into a pitch about “why wedding photography is important”, or “things to avoid when hiring a wedding photographer”, then you’d be speaking completely out-of-context for Katie. Those are the kinds of conversations you’d need to have with someone who was on the “problem aware” rung of the ladder. But not Katie.

Let’s explore each of those 5 “states” quickly so that you can get a deeper understanding for how to speak to prospective clients in each of them.

Clients who are Unaware

This client has no idea of the need or use for you or your service. This client is completely unaware of you and what you do. They don’t feel the “pain” yet. This is likely not your client because it may be someone not even in the market for photography. You probably won’t be meeting with someone who is unaware.

I wouldn’t worry about putting too much focus on this “state” of prospective client, other than to know that they exist.

This is the kind of client that will benefit from content marketing and educational campaigns. When you blog about “why hiring a professional photographer is important” or “tips to improve your own photography”, you’re writing for this kind of client.

Through education and a steady stream of content, this client can be moved up the ladder. Often, though, they are moved up the ladder by something completely outside of your control. For example, when someone gets engaged, they are suddenly more problem-aware since they now need to look for a wedding photographer.

In this case, they’ve moved themselves up the ladder and are more prepared to talk.

Clients who are Problem-Aware

This client feels the pain of the problem that you solve, but hasn’t quite started exploring the solutions to solve their problem. This might be someone you meet at a networking event who says “my babies are growing up so quickly, they seem to be changing every day”. They understand the “pain”, but haven’t quite started considering the solution yet.

You typically won’t get too many client inquiries at this level, because if they’re calling you, it means that they’re at least considering the solutions. However, these are probably the kinds of prospective clients you’ll meet when out-and-about networking. Don’t brush them off as not interested just because they don’t say “I need to hire a photographer”, they’re just uneducated and unaware that photography is the solution to their problem.

It’s your job to help them through that discovery process.

When speaking to this client, you need to focus on the basics and really build trust and rapport. It’s important to tell broad, discovery-style stories and talk about past-clients who had similar problems that you’ve helped to solve.

Clients who are Solution-Aware

This client understands there are solutions to their problem, but they don’t know too much about you as one of the solution providers quite yet. This is likely where a good chunk of your inquiries will fall.

This is the client who Googles “wedding photographer in Niagara Falls” and then stumbles upon your website. This is the client who sees a beautiful family portrait hanging up in their friend’s home and says “I should get family photos done, it’s been a long time”.

These clients are very aware of the problem (the pain) and the solution (hiring a photographer), but perhaps they aren’t quite aware of you, your style, and why you might be the right fit for them.

When speaking to this client, it’s all about your value proposition; you must describe the value you uniquely provide. Your job is to tell them what you do and why you do it. You don’t necessarily need to educate as much about photography in general or about the importance of hiring a professional, but instead you must focus on why you are the solution to their problem.

Clients who are Product-Aware

This clients knows you could be a solution to their problem, but they still lack a deeper understanding of why you are the right choice for them.

If you’ve built a solid reputation and deliver a great customer experience, then you should get lots of inquiries from prospective clients at this stage.

When speaking to this client, you must speak to the “why” of what you do and further emphasize your value proposition. However, this client is also interested in details. You can spend time talking about the “how” to these clients. By this, I don’t mean the “how” of photography, but instead the “how” of your process. Talk about what it’s like to work with you. Help them visualize the experience.

This client is on the edge of booking you, and just needs that extra push – the proof – that you are the right one for them. Use stories, feedback, testimonials and specific details to explain in more detail exactly why you are the right fit for them.

Clients who have a High-Awareness

This clients knows all about the problem, the solution and they’re fairly confident you’re the right choice for them. This is the ideal client.

This client is the sister of a bride you photographed last year, who is now engaged and wants to hire you.

This is the mom-to-be who has stalked your Facebook page for over a year, waiting until she got pregnant to hire you to do her maternity and newborn photos.

We all want more of this kind of client (and we can, with the right marketing and branding).

When speaking to this client, just get out of the way! Let them book you! Tell stories, focus on building a rapport and establish a long-term relationship. Make it easy to book you and it’s safe to assume the sale.

How do you discover where your client is?

Now that you know how to address each type of prospective client, wherever they are on the ladder, it’s clear to see that how you speak to one is completely different than how you might speak to another. This is why it’s important to discover where your client is on the ladder and communicate accordingly.

How do you figure out where your client is, though? Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Ask questions
  2. Dig deeper and clarify the questions
  3. Go even deeper and ask the question “why”
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 several times
  5. Establish an “agreement” stance
  6. Present yourself and your ideas in context to their “big picture”
  7. Use other tools and communication strategies to communicate in relation to them. These tools could include stories, summaries, comparisons, before-and-afters, building-on their existing knowledge, and so on.

I’ll be going into more detail of this process in my next article, so check back soon for that!

11 Comments

  • Nadine says:

    Great words Bryan.
    I own a photography studio my self and I used to struggle turning potential clients to actual clients, mostly when they ask for my pricelist before hand. They normally run away and can’t justify the prices. I recently started a blog and keeping my website and social media accounts fresh with photos and I simply refer them to see the end product of their potential shoot! Its been doing wonders! They seem more keen and accepting to my prices

  • My photography business is really taking off, and I have to say what you are writing here makes a lot of sense, but I have sort of appealed to people due to my lack of salesy attitude. I don’t know if it is the millenial generation or what, but any selling you do must really be buried deep in layers of apparent authenticity. The key is making it work for you I guess.

  • Ria says:

    Just heading out to a big wedding fair today so this was very useful. Thanks!

  • April Melton says:

    Thank you for the great information. I’m a family & children’s photographer over in El Paso, TX It answered a lot of questions I’ve been having about learning where to find clients. I will certainly be implementing your suggestions over at http://elpasoportraits.com

  • Andrew says:

    Great post, thank you! It’s really hard to learn to listen and it’s probably one of the most important things. I know that I’m often far too keen to blunder on talking about my wonderful service and pictures when all I actually need to do is listen to what the client really wants, where they really are and react to that. Actually it’s far more comfortable for me that way round as well as I don;t feel as though I’m just delivering a standard sales pitch!

  • Richad says:

    My communication skills are very poor. I am always hesitating specially during talk about fee. Majority of time this habit give loss to me. But this is helpful for me specially during communication from my client. Lot of thanks to you.

  • Antonio E says:

    Thx for the “5 states” – being a shy and not overly aggressive (w/ sales pitches), and somewhat new photographer, I have copied these and will use them for future “reference.” Hope you don’t mind!

  • Amruta says:

    Great read and very nice explanation of concept SALES. Loved this saying – “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood”
    I am definitely going to use these tips in my work .

  • Client’s approach from different vectors… knowing the vector helps know what the client’s impression and knowledge is.

  • As you say building trust is the most important factor. Again, if you offer a unique product the value of it becomes more easily recognised.

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