Build Relationships, Not Clients

Build Relationships, Not Clients

Some years ago, I got started in photography and started looking to find clients that would pay me for my work. I showed up to client meetings, polite, cordial, and generic - hoping that my portfolio would "wow" them. I was sure that keeping a personal life and business life separate was the way to go, boy was I wrong.

Since then, I know better. I realized that my body of work is a part of who I am. Sure, I use inspiration boards, but my work never looks like what I set out to make it look like, it has something else… something more. It has a part of what I do and who I am with it. That’s is exactly like how my business needs to be as well.

Perhaps my fear was always that I’m a bit of a smart ass in my personal life. I like to have fun, I like to make rude jokes, and I like to stay out entirely too late on the weekdays. But perhaps my problem before was that I didn't realize that that is exactly what my client wants (Well, maybe not EXACTLY, but they’ll prefer it over a body without much personality). They're not hiring you for your equipment list, they're hiring you for your vision, your experiences and your personality and you need all three of those to really help build your brand.

You've all seen the stereotypical artist story line in films before. The disheveled artist, getting art gallery owner to bend over backwards for them because they’re eccentric and “you just wouldn't understand”. If you haven’t seen this before, may I direct you to one of my favorite photographers, Martin Schoeller. The appeal doesn't come from the dirty t-shirt, and bedhead; it comes from the honesty. There is no facade, no arrogance, no insecurities - just an honest person doing what they know best, and not caring what others think about their work.


Now the majority of my work comes from actor head shots. It’s not necessarily the most glamorous work, but I enjoy it and it pays the bills. It also means that I’ll have people 3 feet from me and my camera for a couple hours at a time. This gives me a luxury or a means I have to constantly interact with my client. Sure, I could go on and tell them to move slightly to the left, now turn your head a few degrees clockwise, and I’ll fill the dead air. But two solid hours of direction isn't going to get the best for my clients either - they'll leave the shoot feeling slightly insecure on the photos, and unsure if their photogenic. So what I do, is I talk. I talk about myself, and what I've done. I talk about my fears, and my strengths. I talk about my goals, my future, my past and everything going on in the present. Perhaps the most important thing I do, is I ask them about all their stuff too.

Sure, I end up getting a lot of photos with their mouths half open, mid sentence and completely unprepared for a camera shutter to click open and close. And when we go through the photos, I delete them, giving them the assurance that I am not holding on to bad photos of them, but that I’m getting them the best photos, because I’m their friend.

What I'm left with, is a more personal and honest photo. By talking to them as a friend, I'm separating the camera from the equation, and putting them in a much more comfortable environment. Lets face it, having a giant DSLR stuck in front of your face is uncomfortable to even the most photogenic of people. A great example of this is displayed below.

Albuquerque Photography

Some people have suggested that this is misleading, that I’m building a business on a tactic, but I’m not. I’m truly interested to get to know them, and for them to get to know me. Aside from my brief role as “Waiter #1” in a student film, I have no idea what it’s like to be an actor, and I’m genuinely interested and what it is for them. I’m building relationships, not entertaining a client for the sake of getting good photos.

What I’m left with, is a community of clients who want to get a beer with me sometime, who friend me on Facebook and see my unsuccessful career as a comedian unfold - and a community that wants to refer me to friends and family. Because a friend is far more likely to look out for me and my business than a client is going to.

So when people ask me - "How did you move across the country without knowing anyone, and successfully rebuilding your business without the help or knowing anyone beforehand?" I tell them that my strategy didn't come from a book on marketing, it came from my desire to meet new people and make friends.

Zach Sutton's picture

Zach Sutton is an award-winning and internationally published commercial and headshot photographer based out of Los Angeles, CA. His work highlights environmental portraiture, blending landscapes and scenes with portrait photography. Zach writes for various publications on the topic of photography and retouching.

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this is something I've been grappling with the past little while. I struggle with how much of my personality goes into each shoot, and I think I agree with you completely. Put yourself fully into it, and treat people like friends, and equals

This is something many, many photographers seem to struggle with. Your personality and the way you conduct yourself has a huge impact on your business as a whole. Cultivating relationships with clients that may soon turn into great friendships is definitely the way to go. I learned this very early on and it has given me a tremendous advantage over other photographers.

Nice post. I find that involving the clients in the planning process really helps build a relationship. I will usually meet up with clients for lunch and tell them to bring their laptop, magazines, or anything that allows them to share their vision with me. The collaboration is a good relationship builder because we are working together towards one goal.