Scottsdale, Arizona-based headshot photographer Tony Taafe went from selling $60,000 in his first year of business to $250,000 in his third, and he wants to help other photographers do the same thing.
Taafe knows a few things about sales. Before becoming a photographer, Taafe was an award-winning sales associate in the UK for luxury car manufacturers Audi and Bentley. Those companies spent thousands of dollars teaching Taafe how to sell a luxury product, so when he became a photographer and saw the standard portrait photography sales model, he realized how much money his peers were leaving on the table. He decided to take what he had learned from luxury car sales and put it to practice in the photography world.
I recently got the chance to interview Taafe and pick his brain about some of the techniques he thinks are vital to increasing the income of portrait photographers. One of the first things I noticed about Taafe's approach is that it is client-focused. At the beginning of our conversation, he said: “people buy based on how they feel,” which is a maxim commonly understood in sales. Customers don't necessarily by products, they buy how a product makes them feel: younger, more beautiful, part of the in crowd, nostalgic, confident, etc. So, if a photographer wants to cultivate good feelings in their client, they have to give the client a fantastic experience. The photographer should clearly understand what their client needs and wants and should pay close attention to how the client feels and behaves during the process. Taafe said that if a photographer's goal is nothing but profit, they will quickly run into roadblocks. The goal must be taking care of the client, being responsive to their needs and desires, and giving them a fantastic experience. The money follows.
Client experience above all.
The next thing Taafe does is something many portrait photographers find surprising, if not outright terrifying: he includes the client in the culling process at the end of the session. Rather than send clients home with a proofing gallery or having the client come back to the studio at a later date to see and choose their finished images, Taafe sits down with the client once the session is over, and they take 10 to 30 minutes to narrow down the portraits together. The client then purchases their favorites at the end of the session. Taafe says there are several benefits to approaching the selection process this way.
- If the client has questions or concerns, the photographer is on hand to answer and guide them — never to make decisions for them, Taafe says, but to help them when they're struggling over choice, to guide them through the process, and help them feel confident in their choices.
- Too much time between the portrait session and the image culling and purchase allows feelings to cool and doubt to set in. Many clients appeal to friends and family for advice when choosing images, and those differences in opinion and potential disagreements could hurt the client’s confidence. Doubt makes clients spend more conservatively.
- Finally, allowing clients to choose their own images gives them responsibility and a sense of ownership in the process. Rather than just receiving the photographer's picks, they’re taking home images they chose. In moving to a client-assisted culling process, Taafe says it's important for photographers to remember that clients don’t look at images the way a photographer does, and their favorites may not be the photographer's favorites.
After including clients in the selection process, one of Taafe's biggest recommendations is getting rid of packages and package pricing. His reasoning is that creating packages sets a limit on what the client is likely to spend, because clients are unlikely to add additional images to the package they have already purchased. The cost of your most expensive package is, in essence, the most a client will ever spend with you, because they’ve set mental expectations based on your guidance. Of course, there may be exceptions to the rule, but income works on laws of averages. Instead of using packages, Taafe recommends going with a session fee and a per-image price. He says this helps remove limitations clients might feel about how many images they buy. The way he suggests setting up the pricing helps you make your current average every time a client works with you.
His suggestion is to charge a flat session fee and allow clients to buy images a la carte. This way, the bar to entry is lower, and there is no upper limit on what a client can spend. Since they haven’t already invested in a package with a set number of images, they can just buy what they want. This makes them feel more in control of the situation, a psychological bonus, and takes the imaginary cap off how many images they can buy. I asked him what I suspect most photographers would ask: “wouldn't this set up make clients hesitate, paying for a session upfront knowing no images were included? Wouldn't that feel like more of a risk to a potential client?”
His answer was that this question is more of a mental block for photographers than it is an actual issue for clients. Out of all of the people he has photographed, Taafe says he has never been asked this question. He told me that photographers will often try to put themselves in the client's shoes, but are making assumptions based on inside information. Photographers need to remember they are far more familiar with the photography business than clients are and shouldn’t look at the process assuming clients will think the same way.
When I asked him what he suggests as a good average for session fees and image pricing, he said that that will vary widely based on the market, but a good rule of thumb is to take your current sales average and reduce that by the price of a single image. Then, make your average price (minus the cost of one image) your new session fee and the difference your new price per image.
So, to keep things simple, say your average income per session is $250. Make $50 the price per image, and make $200 your session fee. Then, as soon as the client books, you’re already almost to your current average. And once they’ve bought an image, which they’re almost guaranteed to do, Taafe says, “everything beyond that is profit.” And those little additional sales stack up over time — in Taafe’s case, to the tune of an additional $50,000 between 2018 and 2019. And while his main business is headshot photography, he says these are principles that extend beyond that genre and can work across the board.
To summarize Taafe’s advice:
- Make client experience and customer service your number one priority.
- Remove packages and use a session fee plus per-image pricing that will get you to your current average with no extra work.
- Include the client in the culling process to preserve their emotional connection to the images and help them feel empowered in the process.
These are some of the steps Taafe used to increase his profits nearly four-fold in the first three years of business, and he is convinced that other photographers can do the same. But I'm convinced that the most important part of Taafe's approach, what may make photographers fail if they miss it, is that he truly cares about taking care of his clients. Speaking to Taafe, it was clear he wants clients to feel heard, to know that their wishes are respected, and that they aren't just a cog in the wheel of a photographer's income. I think if photographers get this step right, the rest will fall into place.
Do you use or have experience with any of these techniques? What has your experience been?
Lead image shared with permission of Tony Taafe