Can outstanding customer service take your portrait photography sales to the next level? Megan DiPiero thinks that it can, and she’s here to tell you how.
DiPiero has a $4,192 per session sales average. If that makes your jaw drop, you are not alone. If you want to join her at this level of income (don’t we all?), you are not alone. And though it may seem like a pipe dream to believe you can reach those levels, DiPiero says it’s totally achievable for anyone who’s willing to put forth the effort, and the excellent customer service that keeps these high-spending clients coming back for more.
DiPiero is a portrait photographer based out of Fort Meyers, Florida. Her portrait business grossed over $400,000 in 2018 (yes, you read that right). She attributes this success to in-person sales and excellent customer service, something she learned the same way most of us do, through trial and error.
I recently attended DiPiero's presentation at PPA’s Imaging USA, “Rich Begins With Risk,” where she talked how she put herself out there to rise from what she calls a MWAC (Mom With a Camera), doing shoot-and-burn sessions for $250 a whack, to a successful entrepreneur with multiple portrait lines (she specializes in business headshots, but also offers a wide array of portrait services, including maternity, newborn, boudoir, and family sessions) and a thriving photographer mentoring business.
None of this success came to her without a lot of hard work, and yes, multiple failures.
“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried,” DiPiero said, reciting one of her favorite quotes from Stephen McCranie. For DiPiero, this meant a lot of trial and error, followed by education and good old fashioned hard work, including facing fears and working through them.
Many of those fears are the same ones most of us face when we first begin to try to work our photography hobbies into a real, viable businesses. Raising prices is a big one. DiPiero, like many of us, first tried the shoot-and-burn approach, charging far too little for a huge amount of images burned on a disc, and then struggling to cover the rising costs of running a legitimate business: taxes, insurance, equipment upgrades; you know the drill. Raising her prices was an absolute necessity, and when the time came, she went for it in a big way.
She did the research, and she realized that the middle of the road was not for her. Being at the top in terms of both service and prices was where she wanted to be.
“A lot of people just don’t graduate out of that,” she said of the lower priced, shoot-and-burn market. When they get frustrated with how much time they are putting in, and how little profit they are coming out with, many give up completely.
Others take the approach of doubling their prices, but DiPiero said that doesn’t work, either. She said this approach lands them in a middle market, which can be a confusing place, because now you’re competing with everyone. “You’re competing with the shoot and burn photographers who are half your price, and you’re competing with the luxury photographers who are perhaps 10 times your price,” which DiPiero said can leave the client confused. After all, now you’re priced higher than the shoot-and-burner, but you’re not giving the level of service of the luxury photographer.
DiPiero knew that she needed to shoot for the top, so she immediately began to charge around 10 times her shoot-and-burn price, and she also began to offer her clients 10 times the level of service. When she asked herself what she needed in order to reach that upper-tier, luxury photographer status, she knew the answer: education, outstanding product and service, and the ability to package all that up and show a potential client why it was worth the money.
This is a leap that she sees so many struggle with making. Her advice to them? “Invest in education, and charge big,” advice DiPiero said many new photographers are afraid to follow. When they tell her they can’t afford to invest in educating themselves as photographers, DiPiero tells them to look inside their camera bags.
“If you can afford $2,500 in gear, you can afford to pay for some education,” she said. On this same note, DiPiero said that if you or I are willing to spend that much on camera gear, there are endless others out there who will spend that amount for beautiful, lasting portraits of the ones they love, which is what she tells photographers who are afraid that nobody will spend big bucks on images.
So how do you go about getting those clients to spend that kind of money with you? It’s all about selling the entire experience. And DiPiero said that selling that experience begins with what she considers the required first point of contact, which can be another fear-laden obstacle to someone who is new at this: the phone call.
Phone calls with potential clients can be a daunting thing, especially when it comes to broaching the inevitable question: how much does it cost? For someone whose prices are much higher than the average shoot-and-burn photographer, it can be downright stomach turning to answer that question and hope you don’t hear crickets on the other end. It’s a concern that comes up so often in DiPiero's “Rise to the Top!” Facebook group, she actually made a scripted telephone cheat sheet for group members to use.
While some photographers use a questionnaire as the initial point of contact and first way they get to know a client’s needs, DiPiero believes that a large part of her success in the sales room begins when she speaks to a client on the phone about their needs.
“I actually think that 70 percent of the quality of my sale is determined on that phone call,” said DiPiero. You have to sell them on the entire experience, not just the images they will ultimately end up with. It takes practice. DiPiero said that she was once so afraid of her prices, that she literally choked on the words as she was saying them to a potential client.
But, she pointed out, the more phone calls you take, the easier it gets. You can’t be afraid to fail, and you have to keep at it, over and over. One day, selling, from the first phone call, to the final point where your client chooses their images, will be second nature to you.
So what is the best way to handle that initial phone call, the one where selling begins, in a way that will get you to those top numbers in the sales room, later down the road? “Get them talking, and sell them on the experience,” said DiPiero.
She acknowledges that the first question most potential clients ask is about pricing, but that’s not always the first question she answers. Instead, she digs in and finds out exactly what they client is looking for, and they talk together about what best suits their needs. Sometimes this is a full photo shoot, and sometimes she refers them to a date when she is going to hold mini-sessions that will better suit that particular client’s needs.
The important thing, according to DiPiero, is to make that connection. The client often doesn’t even know what they need or what is available to them. So getting them on the phone and explaining the process, the options, and the value of it all is so important from the very beginning, so that you can provide them with the exact options that suit their needs when it does come time to sit down and show them images to purchase.
DiPiero said her approach at that point, when the session is over and it comes time for the client to view their images and decide what to purchase, takes one of two routes, each determined by what will best suit that particular client. She sees most clients as falling into two categories: the Relationship Client and the Individual Client.
The Relationship Client has chosen a portrait session that focuses on a particular relationship. Be it a couple, family, boudoir, or senior portraits, these sessions focus on some aspect of a relationship, and these clients are likely to want wall art. She shows them different groupings of images for different areas of the home or office. She focuses on selling the larger prints first, and then moves on to folio packages for the rest of the images.
For the Individual Client, DiPiero takes a different approach. These clients are often looking for business headshots, but some are individuals who want a certain kind of photo shoot just for themselves to enjoy. In these cases, DiPiero sees a need for more of a volume sale, rather than an emphasis on large wall art. These individuals often need digital images for web use or business products, so in these cases, DiPiero's sales approach focuses on larger packages of images they can use for different purposes, versus larger sized artwork.
In the end, DiPiero said success comes down to providing the ultimate customer service. She said you can’t make this kind of money without providing outstanding value to your client. In the beginning, she asked herself how she could make her clients more ready to spend this kind of money with her. The answer was client satisfaction.
“You have to guide them through what they need to know,” DiPiero emphasized. So she goes to their homes and helps them decide what to wear. She helps them decide where their wall art will hang. She solves all of these problems for them, thereby taking all the pressure and anxiety away from them. “Clients yearn for this kind of experience,” said DiPiero. “You have to be their trusted advisor.”
Images used with permission from Megan DiPiero Photography.