Response time and turnaround – how to beat the competition for free

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on April 23, 2011

in This is Business

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There are plenty of ways to spend money to try and get a leg up on your competition.

But there are equal opportunities to spend nothing and pull ahead.

One of the easiest ways to offer added value for your part time photography clients without touching your business checking account is to improve your response and turnaround times.

In case you hadn’t noticed, today’s society is deeply in love with immediate satisfaction, and consumers are willing to pay top dollar for convenience and speed – sometimes even at the sacrifice of quality.

Let’s look at the two biggest opportunities you have to serve your clients in a way the competition may be unwilling – or unable – to match.

Response Time

“You’ve reached James at Outlaw Photography – please leave a message after the beep and I will get back to you as soon as possible.”

That’s what you’ll hear if you call my cell phone, assuming I don’t answer because I’m already with a client or (entirely likely) asleep at some random part of the day.

The clock starts ticking from the moment a potential client sends you an e-mail or leaves a voicemail message searching for a return call. It’s easy to gloss over these “call me back” messages and save them for batch processing later in the day…or week… But I don’t think I have to harp on the fact that procrastination will do nothing to ingratiate you to customers.

If someone has taken the time to e-mail or call, they’re as qualified a lead as you can get – they are interested in what you have to offer and are proactively trying to give you money.

If you want to pull ahead of the competition – don’t make a buying client wait.

A lot of newbie professional photographers have, like any human being, a notable fear of the unknown. Confidence takes preparation and time to build, and in the interim, picking up the phone to call back a potential client can sometimes be curiously challenging. Sometimes you feel like you barely know what you’re talking about, and you fear coming off as a sham.

Like breaking through the first 15 minutes of a good run or gym workout, you’ve got to muscle through the discomfort so you can get In The Zone.

Some obvious, but valuable and often ignored, protips:

  • If the phone rings, answer it – preferably with a big smile and introduction. If I’m calling to spend my money with you, the two worst things you can do are to sound bored or answer with a frustrating, “Hello?”
  • If you can’t answer the phone – for reasons of proper or illicit nature – have a nice, professional voicemail greeting recorded. Then get back to callers as quickly as you can – within minutes is best. As soon as possible should mean just that. The sooner you call back, the less time your client has to lose interest, or worse, shop the competition.
  • Same goes for e-mails – keep an eye on your Inbox and get back to people as quickly as possible. If they leave a phone number, try calling first, unless it’s after dinner hours. Just as it’s easy for you to ignore an e-mail, it’s easy for clients to ignore or simply fail to respond to yours. If you can get them on the phone, you show a real interest in their business and they’re more likely to book on the spot.
  • Even if you can’t answer a caller’s question immediately, such as if they want to talk about dates and you’re cruising on the Interstate, answer the phone or call back anyway. They will appreciate just getting to consult with you about the shoot, get their questions answered, and you can ask to call them later in the day when you’re in front of your calendar. They’ll already be sold that “you’re the one” and will wait for your contact instead of shopping around.

An example of this practice in action: I was working late at the office last week and got an e-mail from a woman shopping around for wedding photographers, the typical “I’m interested in wedding photography, please send me your prices and packages,” message. So I took two minutes to shoot off a quick response. We e-mailed back and forth a few times over the next 15 minutes, and set up a consultation at the coffeehouse here in Bandera.

When we sat down and visited, by the end of the conversation, my new client told me the number one reason she met with me was because I responded so quickly to her e-mail. She said she e-mailed a dozen photographers – half took days to get back to her, and the other half she hadn’t even heard from a week after.

Unbelievable.

Actually, it isn’t unbelievable – because it happens all the time. And this is yet another of the big, hairy, audacious opportunities that your competition is leaving open for you to take advantage of. Certainly not just for wedding photography, this applies to any client need – the faster you can turn around a response or request or order, the more impressed and loyal your clients will be.

I don’t buy the manipulative grognard horsesh*t of not responding “too quickly” because you want to look busy, and not desperate. Buyers are shoppers – if I’m hungry, the restaurant that’s open now is the one that gets my money. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve eaten at Church’s Chicken just because it’s walking distance from my office.

Much as we photographers, we artists, like to pretend otherwise, most clients are not anxiously waiting by the phone for our return call, desperately wanting to shoot with us and only us – especially at the start-up end of the market.

My new wedding client drove over an hour to visit with me out in Bandera, coming out of the metroplex of San Antonio – over a million strong in population and overflowing with photographers. And she volunteered the reason was primarily because of my response time. That’s knowledge you can take to the bank.

Turnaround Time

I can talk a blue streak just about responding to client inquiries as fast as you can.

Your second opportunity to use speed to stay ahead of your competition is in turnaround time, how long you take to turn around client requests and orders.

This is especially crucial near your local high schools’ graduation ceremonies. Parents love to have great, up-to-date photos of their seniors to send out with graduation invitations. But like most folks, they procrastinate until the month or so before graduation.

I used to tell people it would take about a week to turn around proofs. I mean, that’s what everyone else does, right? Don’t want to look too desperate – and we want to make it appear that we spent a lot of time being artistic in preparing these precious proofs!

Well, that was all BS.

The real reason was that I was lazy, and I justified that laziness with the idea of trying to mindfreak my clients into thinking I was busy being an in-demand artist.

That’s disingenuous and the kind of manipulation I abhor – as a consumer and as a businessman. As with an honest mechanic, if something takes 15 minutes, it takes 15 minutes; if it takes three hours, it takes three hours, not three days or three weeks.

I’ve refined my workflow to dedicate about an hour to post-process a shoot for proofing and sales. Barring dinner or other engagements, guess how long it takes for me to turn around proofs for my clients? That’s right – one hour.

Unless another photographer moves into Bandera County and starts shooting and selling portraits like a good rodeo or event photographer (two-person team, one shooting and handing cards to a second person who processes and has proofs ready as the shoot is ongoing), nobody could beat my turnaround times even if they wanted to.

And this is the point I don’t want you to lose in this sea of advice:

You won’t start out with the best art, the most business savvy, the best marketing – but you can start giving your clients an exceptional experience right away.

Ignore what the grognards do and say, or “how everyone does it,” and ask yourself how you can do better by your clients right now – ask yourself how you’d prefer to be treated.

Stepping up to a faster turnaround is a no-cost opportunity to add value to your professional photography services. You’re just shifting processing time from later in the week to immediately after your shoot. It takes some energy, some stamina to give your all on a shoot then get on your computer and start processing, but the good word of mouth will fatten your bank account much faster than procrastination.

Next Steps

  • How fast can you turn around proofs on your next shoot? Race yourself, just for fun – apply the 80/20 rule and see what 20 percent of processing you’re doing that’s giving you 80 percent of your artistic results. Try to get your post-processing time below one-hour on a one-hour shoot – this includes all post-processing, including offloading the camera, backing up the shoot, culling, processing proofs, black and white conversions on your favorite shots, and walking away from the computer ready to show and sell. No room for self-indulgent perfectionism here. Keep practicing – it does get easier and faster with time.
  • Brainstorm session: Take an evaluative look at your competition, any other photographers or studios marketing to your potential clients. Look at every detail a client might consider: artistic style, uniqueness of art, personality, session fees or minimum orders, print pricing, availability and pricing on files, forced package buys, friendliness of policies and treatment, speed to turn around proofs or orders, simplicity or complexity of their marketing message and policies, social proof (are they using testimonials well?), social media, permission marketing (e-mail newsletter), keyphrase-richness and personality of blog posts, professionalism and warmth on phone calls, informative content of web site, transparency and speed of e-mail responses, speed in returning voicemails, who their coop marketing partners are, so on and so on. Some of the best marketing education you can get is in shopping your competition. Which of their strengths can you match or better? How can you maximize on their weaknesses? Where’s the gaping hole of opportunity? File this in your Brainstorms folder.
  • My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • What’s your competition doing wrong? What can you do to capitalize on it? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeremy Madore April 27, 2011 at 11:01 am

As usual, another home run of an article. For some reason this article didn’t pop up in my email like the last one did – did I fall off the email list?

When I started doing paid photography, I used the approach of “too soon = hungry and desperate” but quickly found that was a bad approach. Since refocusing on speedy service and responses, I’ve received a larger amount of bookings and client meetings. For example, last year I had only 3 weddings. This year I have 8 contracted and a few contracts awaiting deposits.

I admit that I do need to work on my turnaround for final product though.

Can you (or did you) write an article on what the expected workflow is for shooting, proofing and delivery? I’m sort of skipping the “proof and edit” stage and going: shoot->edit->finalize (with my edits as the only edits) without client input. The clients have all been pleased, but I can’t help but feel I’m robbing them of opinions.

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Taylor May 20, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Hey there Jeremy! Not sure about the article in your e-mail – I haven’t sent out a newsletter recently, but I’m due up! You can subscribe to the posts themselves via feedburner, if I’m not mistaken.

Yes sir, had a group of articles on shooting, processing, proofing, sales and delivery, all linked from here in this summary post.

I used to fully edit all my images before showing them as proofs, but I eventually learned to ‘let go’ and just show clients lightly edited images. If I think an image is much more salable with a few edits (like getting rid of power lines or a nasty blue trash can in the background), I do go in and do that extra work, but I really try to apply that 80/20 rule – what 20% of post-processing can I do on proofs to get 80% better sales from this client. I used to spend hours post-processing a full set of hi-res images to end up only selling a handful – which still profitable, the extra time invested didn’t translate into a commensurate multiplication in sales.

If I were doing luxury photography – the kind where you spend a day shooting with a client, show them only 10-15 proofs, and sell them $1,500-plus in wall hangings and frames, I might go whole hog on those few proofs. But with my style of shooting and my business model, the 80/20 rule reigns supreme.

So glad to hear of your successes with your wedding clients! There are so very many ways to better your photography business, and the best part is, you only get better as you work within your community and learn what works to grow your profits, your client base, and the size of the grin on your clients’ faces. We’re blessed to do the work we do!

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DeWaun Simmons May 20, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Good info, James. Really enjoyed the post! It should remind us all that we have to “work” to earn the trust of our clients. 🙂

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor June 6, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Many thanks DeWaun, great to hear from you again!

So many photogs get caught up in gear, in process, in policy, in minutiae – my advice definitely leans on getting past all that and just working hard to do what’s right for clients, to create value for them, and charge a fair price. If you’re willing to just show some effort, work, enthusiasm, desire to satisfy, you’ll sail past those established photographers who have grown bored in their own routine and success. The market is yours to thrill.

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Joel Dennis July 13, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Great article James! I had a great experience with a client because of my fast response time. She was so pleased with how fast they got their photos back after the wedding as well as how quickly I would respond to her emails. She was so happy that she even offered to write up a testimonial for me. It always makes the job even more enjoyable to have a happy client!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 17, 2011 at 12:28 am

That’s great Joel, and real, tangible proof that it really is the little things that can make such a big difference. One easy way to improve your business is to think about times you’ve been a customer yourself, and been let down in some way. Much of the time, the reason isn’t straight-up cost or quality, but a problem in service, in misrepresentation, in draconian policy, etc. As always, artistic talent and business acumen grow with time and practice, but there are many actions you can take right now to create a better experience for your clients.

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Vaughn July 13, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Thanks for the article James, turnaround is a big consideration for myself. Often I spend far too much time in post-process chasing perfection. Thanks for the turnaround/service angle. Keep up the great work, I just came across your site here but “I’ll be back”

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 17, 2011 at 12:42 am

Very welcome, Vaughn, and glad to have you as a reader! Photography is such a mixture of emotions, fears, and rewards – chasing perfection in post (or in anything) can so often result in a monumental amount of time spent to achieve a tiny percentage of improvement. The photographers getting paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for their work can afford the luxury of chasing perfection – indeed, it’s a likely requirement at their level of art and clientele. But here in the trenches, where we’re doing honest work for honest folk and honest pay, the 80/20 rule is the key to success – in balancing both work and life, and art and business.

Try to aim for no more time spent in post than you spent shooting the photos in the first place. Just set a time limit and make yourself stick to it – your brain will quickly separate the wheat from the chaff and force you to do only the most important, effective work with the time you’re allowed.

So goes Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Thank you again for your readership!

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Bryan Knitter May 15, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Excellent advice. This is something I’ve been trying to do without really trying. All of my clients so far LOVE the fact that they get to see their photos so quickly (they’re used to waiting 3-4 weeks from the “other guys”).

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor May 22, 2012 at 11:09 pm

That’s great Bryan – those “other guys” have been doing it their way for ages, and they’re so set in their ways, there are plentiful opportunities to do and offer what they refuse to. If you can show people a better experience, not just better art, they will become lifelong clients and tell all their friends – you can’t ask for better advertising.

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Naomi August 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm

I have seen this eternal wait time for prints on other local photographers as well and I believe this is something I can do better than them. One I know has an entire month to get prints. Really?? The lab I go with has next day service, so I’m taking advantage of that and getting prints to my clients ASAP! So far I haven’t seen any direct business relating to this, but I know they’re happy to have the prints so fast. So yeah! Also, on the speed thing…I always try and put a couple samples of the session/wedding on Facebook or my website very soon after I get home. (It would be sooner if I didn’t have to wait so long to get them off the 2.0 USB CF card reader… 🙂 I’ve seen lots of thrill with that – people love to see a couple photos only an hour or two after I take them. Would highly recommend that! Thanks for another great article!!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor October 8, 2012 at 10:31 pm

Thank you for your comment and readership, Naomi!

Using Facebook to show off “sneak previews” from a shoot shortly after finishing is a great way to build buzz – with the client, with their friends, and with your fans on Facebook. The sharing effect of Facebook is an incredible marketing tool for photographers – we produce the very media that is most easily and quickly shared via social media, so it’s a true marketing playground for us, and for our clients to share our work and do the marketing for us.

We’re all busy in life, but keeping your turnaround times as fast as you can gives you a big advantage over larger, older, and more stagnant photography shops. When you treat each client like they’re the most important, most valued client you’ve ever had, they’ll treat you like you’re the only photographer in your market. In a competitive environment, you always want to change the game, so that it’s a one-on-one game: You versus Everyone Else.

Keep up the great work! Your clients are blessed by the work you do for them. Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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