Pre-Selling for Portrait Profits – by Laurence Kim

June 28th, 2011
black and white photos of kids

Laurence Kim is a Seattle-based portrait photographer. When not shooting portraits, he blogs about the business of photography and coaches photographers worldwide. Today he shares some of his insight on the photography business and how a quick pre-portrait consultation can make a big difference.

Pre-Selling for Portrait Profits – by Laurence Kim

I’ll give you the bad news first: nobody needs your photography. Professional, high-end portrait photography is a luxury, discretionary purchase. As a luxury purchase, it is driven by emotion, not rational decision making. This is especially true in today’s economy. Stop your average person on the street and ask them if they’d be willing to spend $899 on a canvas print of their child and see what response you get. They can take a picture of their child with their Canon Rebel and get a pretty good-looking canvas print at Costco for $20.

Now for the good news: Non-essential, luxury items get purchased every day. BMW’s sales have gone up for 3 years in a row in the weakest economy since the Great Depression. Nobody needs a BMW.  You can buy a Honda instead, at ⅓ the price and with probably better reliability. So why do people buy a BMW?  One word:  desire. They just want it! Who needs a $700 iPad? Nobody, but they’re flying out the door as fast as Apple can make them. Who needs a $4.50 Venti Latte from Starbucks when brewing a cup of joe at home costs 10 cents? At my neighborhood Starbucks there is always a long line. You get the idea.

The trick, then, to selling high-end portrait photography is in creating that irrational desire. But how do you do it? Unlike BMW, Apple and Starbucks you don’t have a multi-million dollar marketing budget.

Answer: The pre-portrait consultation. The pre-portrait consultation will not cost you a dime. It will take just 30 minutes of your time.  And it will double, triple or even quadruple your current average sales revenue when combined with a properly-run selling session (but that’s a story for another day).

Here’s how I do it. I’m not saying my way is the best way, or the only way. But my average revenue per session is probably 3x what it would be without it.

I require a pre-portrait consultation. If a potential client balks at doing this because they’re busy, I politely decline. I will not agree to a portrait session without the consultation. It’s that important. I tell them that the purpose of the consultation is to plan the shoot (location, date/time, clothing, etc.) and to review their choices. I rarely have a potential client that refuses. 

Pretty much 99% of the time I am dealing with the mother. If she asks, I tell her that her husband is not required. I’d rather not have the husband there. The mother will be your ally and the father your adversary. More on this later.

To maximize revenue, you have to sell big, so I spend time showing her the big prints on my walls and explaining the story behind each image. I might ask her to guess how big the images are and if they look too big for the space they are in. The answer is always “no, they look just right”. Then I hold up an 8×10 against that same wall space and show her how ridiculously small it is. All of this is not to sell any particular product, but just to get her used to the idea that a wall print is something that needs to be much bigger than an 8×10.  

After the wall prints, I show her a few albums. Here’s exactly what I say: “Most of my clients end up buying an album because they love 20-30 or more images from their session, and the only way you can display that many prints is with an album. Otherwise, all the prints end up inside a shoebox.”  

Building desire. While showing and telling her the story behind my prints and albums, it is easy to see the gears turning inside her head. The mother is visualizing her own kids inside the images on my walls or in my albums.  She often gets a little emotional right there – and that’s before I’ve taken a single picture! This is where your profit is made. This is where that emotional, irrational desire for a BMW instead of a Honda is built.

Review your price list. Now comes the time when I review my price list with her. When I explain my price list to the mother, she is silent. She’s silent because she’s shocked by the prices. She came to the meeting thinking that she was going to spend maybe $300-$400 and now she realizes that to get what she wants she’s going to be spending $1,500 or more. Then as she gets used to the prices I see the gears turning again. She is thinking to herself “how am I going to convince my husband to go for this?” That is precisely the point of the entire consultation – build desire and turn the mother into your salesperson for you! Now she is going to go home and do whatever it takes to convince her husband that they need to do this.  

Review shoot logistics. Pretty self-explanatory:agree to a date/time/location for the shoot.

Give the mother some homework. Before the meeting ends I say exactly this: “Before I let you go I’m going to give you some homework. I want you to walk around your house and figure out where you’re going to display your artwork. Is it behind the sofa or over the fireplace?”. I have black foam core templates cut out to various wall-print sizes. I offer to loan them to her so she can hold up the templates against the wall to better judge what print sizes work best. She’s unbelievably grateful that I’m providing this service.

That’s about it! The entire process takes no more than 30 minutes. Let’s review what was accomplished:

  • The desire to purchase large prints and/or albums was created. Prior to the consultation, the client probably imagined she was going to buy a handful of 8x10s and 5x7s.
  • You’ve reinforced the mental decision to buy big prints by assigning homework and having the client visualize their own wall space.  
  • Most importantly, you have turned the client (most often the mother) into your advocate and salesperson.  

And you did all of this without giving them a hard-sell (e.g. “what would it take to get you into this 20×30 canvas print today?!”). You’re simply helping them to get the most out of their session using a consultative selling approach. Now think about the alternative – instead of the consultation you simply emailed your price list to the client without having them experience your work and connecting emotionally with it. Not only won’t you sell as much, the client might even back out of the session. Epic fail.

That’s about it. Just remember to keep it simple, and strive to touch your client’s emotions. Emotions are the lubricant that will help unlock a rusty (i.e. stuck shut) wallet.