PSA: Don’t Make the Mistake of Lowering Your Prices When Business Resumes

PSA: Don’t Make the Mistake of Lowering Your Prices When Business Resumes

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.

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12 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

That is a fraught proposition for the average professional. The market is saturated with excellent photographers; all of whom will be competing within a depressed economy. With that economic context comes much reduced discretionary expenditures by prospective clients.

The outcome is obvious purely on a profit basis. Cash flow is going to crush many businesses; and any business with significant exposure to debt is going to struggle to survive.

I would suggest survival is entirely reliant upon slashing costs to the bone, and therefore slashing rates; accompanied by diversification of revenue streams.

Adam Ottke's picture

If your margins are high enough to do that and actually survive, maybe. But I don't think most photographers are the high-end $10,000+ wedding photographers with room to spare. Most (by volume) are almost certainly doing weddings for $500-$3,000 depending on whether they're starting out or established, but on the more affordable end, etc. And that includes an album or two, maybe a night or two at a hotel, local travel, and other baked-in costs, which means the profit is likely already slim. Dropping prices more just won't help photographers in that situation, even if it seems like it at first. It'll just dig them into a hole, especially when you're finished paying the assistant and editing the whole week after the wedding.

And again, I keep coming back to the concept of people continuing their $30k weddings but asking for 30% off on photography services for what ends up being a relatively low savings on the overall cost of the event. Why should we photographers have to take on that chunk? Just a fair question to be ready to ask clients should they push for that. (Also, side note, most weddings are budgeted for, so the money is already there. But if anything, it's the photographer they're still going to ask for the discount).

Dan Howell's picture

You are making an assumption that the $30k wedding planned in January will still be a $30k wedding in September after the bride and groom have been out of work for 2 months. This is an assumption that I would not be banking on.

Adam Ottke's picture

Well, maybe. I suppose I'm just trying to say IF they're still doing the wedding to make sure you're not the only one taking a massive cut. I think a lot of people will be looking for discounts they really want, but don't strictly need. And that shouldn't come solely at the photographer's expense.

Not willing to take a cut assumes that you are not replaceable. Photographer is a easiest to replace unlike a venue or wedding dress. For each wedding photographer there are 10 others that are willing to push a shutter in exchange for thousands of dollars.

How does it matter if you are the only one taking a cut? If the caterer's cost structure is different and they don't take a cut it doesn't affect you in the slightest.

Deleted Account's picture

I understood your thesis perfectly; however, it would seem my response was less than clear.

No amount of magical thinking will alter macroeconomic realities.

the demand for photographers will be slow even if tomorrow they said, wedding venues are open from today. its a ball that needs to get rolling and will take a while. photography (weddings specifically) is not short notices events. it will be months ahead that people find slots to get married and most have already postponed till next year in my books. there will be a lot of "hungry" photographers who will take a cut to do work. I have a backup job so I will leave the crumbs to others.

Adjust your package strategies. Wedding only. Wedding plus reception. Wedding phus reception plus bride prep.However, you want to split it.
Once they commit to a small part, you can contact thm closer to the wedding date to remind them of the other services available for their "once in a lifetime" chance to preserve memories.

While this article and the comments seem wedding centric, there are a lot of other markets to prospect in.
Retail photography, weddings and portraits, are the most competitive market and are the most price sensitive as you are working with clients who think your prices are high.
I shoot architecture and focus on clients who are architects, builders and designers. They are used to hiring pros at pro prices and understand the issues of licensing, billing etc.
Commercial photography in general is a better place to be as the work is better priced and the negotiations are with people who have a clue.
Yes, cut your costs to ensure survival with fewer jobs but cut price last. Recovery from low price is very difficult and your brand can earn the worst badge ever: "Cheap Photographer".

Blake Davenport's picture

Running a special the the fact that your base line pricing structure doesn't change would be the way I would (and most likely will) go about this as it shows compassion towards clients who may just be hurting due the stupidity we call Congress. That doesn't mean you are slashing your prices, you are essentially setting a sale for post corona services with a timeline attached. Some clients may not need the cuts as they are not hurting money wise but trust me. Most will be very frugal because of what is happening and a lot of photographers are going to be straight screwed if they don't figure out a way to adapt.

It is compassion in the same way that I am getting offers of luxury goods at special pricing. It is still a luxury good and as such, just like most photography, not a need but a want. I scarcely think that my lab or my camera shop are really worrying that much about me any more than they are, rightly, worrying about their own economic survival.