The draw to lower your prices will be just as strong as the economy is weak, but while that may be good for new business volume, here’s why you should stay firm on existing business, even as rescheduling occurs. Don't know how to handle that? I also have a few tips for what to say to your clients to avoid falling into the trap of discounting services to the point of driving yourself further into debt.
There’s no doubt our industry has dried up. To the extent that great imagery helps sell a product, document a once-in-a-lifetime moment, or convey an important message to consumers and citizens, so too has it become painfully obvious that photography is not — in the strictest sense — essential. Extremely helpful? Sure. Worth the investment? Of course. But essential in a life-or-death situation? Not really.
And so here we are, many of us desperate for any kind of business that comes our way. Even if things are shut down now, it’s only a matter of weeks or months (we can’t know for certain) before businesses slowly begin to open up. While you may want to lower your prices to get anything at all (and maybe that will happen to an extent for new jobs), there’s about to be an onslaught of people asking for discounts “due to the recent situation.” Here are the reasons to listen, but respectfully decline. Read on for tips on what to you can do.
Of course, it can be hard to say, “No,” when trying to empathize with people’s hardships. But here’s the thing: you’re human, too. Remember, whatever others are going through, your business is among the hardest hit — by a long shot — so you’ve likely been through the same or worse. After weeks or months of diminished work, you’re going to need every dime you can get (not in a bad way, just as a fact of life). So for anyone for whom you may already have planned a shoot, such as an event or wedding, product advertisements, or catalog work, remember they already need you, too.
Your clients have already been sold on you, and there’s a psychological factor to having imagined a certain quality or company for your service that won’t go away. Odds are any clients that cancel their shoots outright would do so regardless. A 10- or 20-percent discount is not going to keep a client that is hurting so badly they can’t afford photography services, which brings us to another point: how much would you even be expected to reduce your prices? Are you supposed to charge half-price for a $4,000 shoot? Did that original quote include assistants or second shooters you may or may not be able to pay differently? If you keep driving your value down, you are likely to end up with more work, but at what cost? Eventually, you will simply be doing the same work while breaking even (if you’re lucky), which will quickly grow to make you resentful of your clients and the entire situation for which you, though well-meaning, would be responsible.
So ask yourself: how many jobs are you going to earn by driving your prices down, and how many would you lose by not doing so? Do the math, because to break even, you would have to earn more jobs than the discount you’re giving. So if you’re agreeing to 20-percent discounts across the board, you’re going to have to earn 20-percent more jobs to make up the difference. And again, that client is not going to leave you because you’re sticking to $3,000 instead of $2,400. The discount would be a nice gesture, but certainly not life-changing. If someone really is hurting, honestly, they probably should be simply canceling your services.
In the case of weddings, this becomes even more clear. Photographers are often the most likely to be asked for discounts. In this situation, venues may also be particularly open to negotiation. But usually every wedding service except photography is seen largely as non-negotiable. Rates are rates. But for some reason (because people “know” we enjoy doing our jobs the most — no, really, research shows this is the reason), we are the ones that can give a discount. Keep in mind for your average $30,000 wedding, it’s not unlikely your services are the smallest chunk of the pie. If they’re going through with the rest of it, you’re likely talking about a merely 1- to 2-percent change of the entire wedding budget that falls 100 percent onto you through your $600 discount. So really ask yourself: is giving a discount really helping my clients that much, or does it just feel that way? Because the answer to that (and the proper, delicate conveyance of those facts) can help put some real perspective on the situation for both you and your client in a way that will save you even further losses.
Finally, when business does resume, take the opportunity current events provide to go over your contract. Odds are it’s not as strong as it could be (it can always be stronger, right?), and we now know of at least one type of additional situation we would have never thought possible before. Do you want to be making the choice between risking your life or being sued for breach of contract if your state happens to open business earlier than you think is safe, and your client wants to continue the shoot? What kind of liability would you be looking at for assistants forced to work in this situation? In the new world we live in, there are some scary doomsday scenarios worth going over with a lawyer. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.
While these are all good approaches to take with current clients with whom you already got the job, modest discounts may be in order for garnering new business. Everyone will be on a tighter budget to some extent, no doubt. But remember, you need to be paid for your services just as much as anyone else. If we all start driving our prices down, it won’t be long before we’re accepting the equivalent of half of minimum wage for the hours worked. And I’m assuming you don’t want to be shooting fifty weddings in a year and walk away with $25,000 in proceeds, which, depending on your market and rate, is not unlikely after expenses with a heavily discounted rate. Before you get those calls from your clients, be prepared. Do the math on your jobs now so you know what is doable. Odds are you will find it’s simply not worth coming down in your prices. It will be a tough storm to weather, but don’t abandon ship for a leaky lifeboat just because it starts to get rocky.