It doesn’t cost a thing.
It’s easy if you’re paying attention.
Want to see how easy yet profound “it” is?
Stop what you’re doing, stop reading this post, be still, close your eyes, and listen.
Try to hear and listen to every sound entering your ears.
You may hear your air conditioner, or your computer fan, or a dog barking in the distance, or a car driving by, or any of an unlimited number of possible sounds. You may hear your breath. You may heart your heartbeat.
Now, tell the truth – when you started reading these words, did you hear everything you just experienced when you focused on listening?
Of course not – your brain may have registered the barking dog or car driving by, but while you were focused on reading, your brain did its job and tuned out the rest of the world.
This is the difference between hearing the words your clients say – before, during, and after the shoot – and listening to what they’re saying.
As a journalist, listening and paying attention to the little things are the foundational skills that brought me from a teenaged transcriber to an award-winning professional.
How do you give award-winning, professional service?
How do you create the ultimate client experience?
“How am I supposed to create a ‘client experience’ out of thin air when my mind is already racing before I even shake their hand? I’m thinking about the light, my backgrounds, where I can set up for good scenes, all the crap I’m going to have to avoid so I can have clean backgrounds, am I dressed right to make a good impression, man it’s hot out here, oh geez I hope I charged both camera batteries and cleared my memory card, OH GEEZUM PETE DID I DOWNLOAD MY PHOTOS YET? DID I LOSE A WHOLE PHOTO SHOOT?!?!?!”
All this psychological self-flagellation happens in about a 15-second period between your client showing up and you saying “Hey there, it’s so good to meet you!”
We are funny, creative creatures that way.
Learning to listen – and then take what you’ve heard and turn it into an incredible client experience – is a skill you train up with practice, failure, and growth, just as with your artistic ability, your marketing mojo, and your business acumen.
Let’s talk about the three primary ways you can learn to create a better experience for your clients.
Shut Your Pie Hole
Getting your mind to shut up: this is the hardest part of listening.
I won’t make comparisons to boudoir activities, but learning to listen means shifting your focus away from your performance and into the other person’s experience, then balancing the two.
We photographers are usually introverts, so we have a lifetime of experience focusing inward – on ourselves, on our thoughts, on our worries, on our performance, especially in social situations.
Hence, when we’re doing a photo shoot with a client, it’s our natural tendency to focus inward, or deeply into our art – is my depth of field okay? Is there anything in my background I’m going to have to Photoshop later? Am I posing my client in a flattering way? How’s my exposure? Does my breath stink? Why did I eat Funyuns right before my shoot? Is my muffin-top showing?
The mind does wander.
And this is why it’s so crucial to reign in your wandering mind and bring the focus back to your client.
It’s all about balance – and unless you’re putting conscious effort into listening to and ‘reading’ your client, you’re unbalanced.
Who are the most interesting people at parties? The ones who know how to perfectly balance storytelling and listening.
Who are the best lovers? The ones who know how to perfectly balance performance and listening.
Who are the most engaging friends? The ones who know how to perfectly balance their ego and yours (by listening).
Which massive corporations earn the most loyal clients? The ones who know how to perfectly balance their business goals with their clients’ wants and needs – by listening.
Just as the first photo out of your first camera was probably a blurry mess, you’re not going to be a perfect listener with your first client – nor your first dozen clients. But just as with your art, you need to practice to get better.
What is it you’re listening for?
Recent activities (concerts, movies, vacations, took a pet to the vet; anything your client shares is probably on their mind for a reason).
Upcoming special occasions.
Children’s birthdays and anniversaries, and their likes and dislikes (and their names!).
Are you starting to see a pattern? Perhaps some opportunities to go above and beyond and really create great client experiences?
A quick aside on sincerity:
Your first thought reading this list is probably the old fashioned “Happy Birthday” card, like you or your parents used to get from your insurance agent. I’m all for it – you and I know this level of personal attention has lost priority over the years.
But, and this is a big but (and I cannot lie), hand-write any and every client letter or card.
Hand address the envelope.
Stick a stamp on it with your hands.
I cannot tell you what a waste, and how counterproductive it is, to send out generic, boilerplate letters and cards and thank-you’s and greetings to your clients.
Let’s be real: we don’t have thousands of clients – it may take you years to even say you have served over a hundred clients. Most likely you’re in the zero-to-dozens range, and especially at this level, you want to give unheard-of client service and attention. You need to build your reputation. You need to make an impression. You need to be remark-able, so your few clients will talk to their many friends and earn you more clients to whom you can show the same unheard-of service. I’d even make a case to skip the typed newsletter in favor of personalized, hand-written monthly or quarterly letters – but that’s a post for another day…
Asking specific questions will help you create specific and remark-able client experiences.
“How has your summer been?”
“Gone on any adventures or vacations?”
“Where do you guys like to take the family out for dinner?”
“Do your kids love Chuck E. Cheese?” (or whatever your local kid-friendly place is)
“Have you guys been to the Children’s Museum in [nearby metro area]? My kids love it!”
“How long have you guys been married? … Oh wow! When is your anniversary? Where did you get married? Where was your honeymoon?”
“Your kids are so much fun! What are their names? How old are they? Hey, if I may, let me write down their birthdays – we like to send out cards for all our clients’ kids, just something to let them know they’re special – is that okay?”
“Where did you guys go on your first date?”
“What’s your favorite place to go on a date?”
“Do you guys have any adventures or vacations you’re planning for?”
“Who’s your favorite teacher? Is that your favorite class? Why is it your favorite?”
“Are you looking at going to college? Where at? Hey I have a friend who graduated from there, I’ll ask them if they have any inside tips for you! What do you want to major in? What career do you want after you graduate? I have another friend who’s in that field, I’d be happy to put you in touch with them when you’re ready.”
On paper (pixel?), it can sound intrusive or corny – but it’s all in how you ask. Piece by piece, in the natural flow of conversation with clients before, during, and after your shoot, you build up this knowledge base about their family and what they like. This not only informs the experience you create for your clients, but can also influence your art and your sales as you learn about your clients’ lifestyles, likes, and dislikes.
It’s one thing to ask, it’s another thing to hear, and it’s a whole ‘nother thing to listen. Listening has layers to it – asking the right questions (and follow-up questions), absorbing and processing what your client says, observing and noting subtle hints of body language and tone to better read your client, then retaining what you now understand about your client.
Speaking of notes, let’s talk about how to actually remember all these sundry details.
I don’t know what it is about these little, expensive bundles of paper, but I’ve yet to find a better venue in which to scribe my thoughts and notes; there’s a notebook for every pocket and palm.
I’ve preached about slowing down during your photo shoot, and now we’re going to take it to another level.
“Don’t pay any attention to this, it’s just for my memory…” – Carl Bernstein, All The President’s Men
The best way to retain and follow up on all the juicy tidbits you learn during your client conversations is to take notes.
Write it all down.
Write down too much.
As you have small breaks during your photo shoot, in the moment if a detail is specific (such as asking about a child’s birthday), and especially during a big purge of thoughts and knowledge post-shoot, whip out your notebook and pen and get all the details down on paper.
Write as if you’re doing a profile on a celebrity. No detail is too small, and in fact, the small details remembered can make the biggest impression later with your client.
Okay, don’t drive the good flow of your photo shoot into a brick wall just to write something down, but as you learn to listen and see the opportunities, you’ll find plenty of moments during a shoot when you can jot down choice details.
(This doesn’t just apply to client details, either – in a future post, I’ll talk about note-taking and journaling, and how they can multiply your gains and minimize your aimlessness as an artist and business owner.)
Take notes as you go, as you can, and then as soon as you shake hands and send your clients on their way, grab the nearest seat and start pouring out all the details, ideas, and thoughts onto the pages of your notebook.
This purge is important – write stream of conscious if it helps, but purge every piece of knowledge, every idea that pops up, every thought on your shoot and your client and what they said and how you can create an amazing client experience for them. Don’t censor yourself, brainstorm away, let the nervous energy pour out onto the page. Treat every shoot like an impromptu conversation with your greatest mentor – write like you’ve been handed a Rosetta Stone to business success (because you have!).
Immediately start brainstorming ways to create a great experience for this client – no idea is too crazy or impossible or outlandish for now.
Look forward in time from that moment – what are your upcoming touchpoints where you can “plus it up,” as Walt Disney would say?
“If you want your business to thrive in a competitive environment, you need to make sure things are constantly improving, day in and day out… Military people call this a ‘force multiplier’; Walt Disney used the phrase ‘plus it up.'” – Lee Cockerell, The Customer Rules
You can pick and choose and edit later, but for now, get it all out of your head and into your notebook.
Take a deep breath. Stretch. Feel the satisfaction of a great photo shoot. Pat yourself on the back – you’ve done good work this day.
When you get home and you’re downloading photos to your computer (and backing them up to a second hard drive!), transcribe your analog notes to the digital realm for organization.
I use Google Docs spreadsheets for tracking my client and business details, making it super quick and easy to search by name, sort by birthday or special occasion, sort clients by total spend, figure per-client sales averages and expenses, and so on.
I use Evernote for archiving and organizing all of my ideas – and I am definitely an ‘idea guy.’ I have hundreds of notes in Evernote; it is the most perfect repository I’ve found for the storage and quick retrieval of knowledge and ideas.
Write it down.
Write it all down.
Your client details and your ideas (no matter how crazy they seem in the moment) will all multiply in value and usefulness when you write them down.
There are limitless opportunities to Plus It Up for your client.
Birthday and anniversary cards.
Flowers on special occasions, or when there’s a death or illness in the family.
The Almighty Casserole (in times of crisis).
Forwarding useful or interesting information. (If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you’re an avid reader in general, and you’re likely to come across articles, blog posts, magazines, or books that would be good for specific clients based on their lifestyle, interests, hobbies, or career – share those articles and information freely with them: it’s a great way to show that you’re listening and invested in what’s important to them.)
Making networking connections. (Being a business owner, you interact with local influencers and a wide swath of the community – helping make networking connections, introducing people, setting up lunches for social and professional purposes, all help make you a more involved and important part of your clients’ lives. This is how you go beyond providing a commodity or service and into the realm of having true fans who do your marketing for you.)
Attentive gifts for your proofing session. (If your client loves chocolate chip cookies, you’d best have some chocolate chip cookies on hand during your proofing and sales session!)
And that’s really what listening is all about – attentiveness. Showing you were listening. Showing you care. Creating new touchpoints, new opportunities to make a remark-able impression on your client. Taking the time to show that you honor your client’s investment in you by investing your time and thoughtfulness into their happiness and betterment.
With so many photographers out there, both established and startup, how do you differentiate?
With so many shoe stores out there, how does an online outfit like Zappos gain any traction at all, much less become a hugely successful and beloved business?
With so many smart phones out there, how does Apple charge more than their peers and still have raving fans?
With so many businesses out there to choose from, how do the ones you’re a huge fan of earn your business over and over again?
By being attentive and invested in your happiness and satisfaction.
By creating remark-able experiences you love to share with your friends.
By “plus-ing it up.”
By doing the unheard of.
If you told me the story of your last photo shoot and your client’s experience, would it be the same story I’d hear from XYZ Photography down the street, or any of the dozens of photographers within driving distance for your clients?
Step up to the next level today.
- Brainstorm session: Grab your pen and paper (or digital equivalent) and write down every way you can learn more about your clients, the questions you want to ask them, and how you can use that knowledge to create an unheard-of client experience for them. File this away in your Brainstorms folder.
- Grab another piece of paper, and write down the names of every client you’ve ever photographed (free or paid). Write down every important detail, like, dislike, hobby, career, interest that you can recall. See how much (or how little) you know about the people you’ve worked with in the past. Are there any opportunities to reach out to those clients with a thank-you note or birthday card? Never forget, it’s eight-times easier and less expensive to get new business from an existing client than it is to earn a new one.
- Take some time to read stories online or in on-topic books about truly remark-able client experiences. Here are a few of my favorites to get you started: Peter Shankman gets a steak delivered to the airport after a hunger-driven tweet, Seth Godin on being remark-able, Carl Sewell’s Customers For Life, The Customer Rules by former Walt Disney World EVP Lee Cockerell, lots of great posts from Duct Tape Marketer John Jantsch. Go forth, Google, and be inspired; then translate that inspiration into actions you can take to be more remark-able for your clients today.
- 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.
- If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!
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