Has Anyone Seen My Oasis?
By Mariah Ashley, SNAP! Photography
It's hard to believe that the Imaging USA conference is already a month behind us. We brought home so many valuable ideas and discussed the subjects most critical to our business. One topic we discussed at length is the concept that discounting ultimately hurts your business. I had pretty much adopted this philosophy prior to attending the conference in January. Saying no to price shoppers was hard for me at first, but it became easier with each conversation that didn't include me apologizing for our prices. Trish made me a little banner to hang above my desk which says "No Exceptions." To really give it the one-two punch, above it she hung a photo of our kids laying in the grass and smiling back at me as if to say, "Mommy, don't you want us to go to college someday?" This is a very effective deterrent to giving discounts.
Intellectually I understood that I'd get a lot more NO's from prospective clients before I would get a qualified discount-free YES. I could handle that as long as the YES's consistently trickled in. But sometime around November the small stream of YES's dried up and so did our cash flow. Enter sleepless nights, doubt, and the worst feeling of all - desperation. WHERE were all of the brides? Why weren't they calling? Is it our new website? Is it our new pricing structure?
I thought through each issue. We hadn't raised our prices, just restructured our packages, so that couldn't be it. We had 25 weddings booked at those prices with a decent average sale and it hadn't been a struggle to book them. It couldn't be our website. It is clean, simple and user-friendly and does it truly represents our brand. I couldn't look at a lack of referrals as the culprit. I'm confident in our customer satisfaction and our vendor relationships. So why the Brides' silence? I started to entertain crazy thoughts about discounting. Panic was setting in, but I decided to wait to do anything until after Imaging. I felt (or at least hoped) that the answer would come to me there. (IMAGE © MARIAH ASHLEY)
The first seminar we went to was Sarah Petty's, "Create Value For Your Photography So You Can Charge What You're Worth." Sounds perfect right? It was. Sarah had a great program packed with a ton of useful information, but what I really took away from it was this: Your brand is everything. It's like your good word. It takes a really long time to build it up and an instant to tarnish it. Discounting tarnishes and devalues your brand. Every time. As soon as I made this connection I started to feel the desperation melt away and be replaced by another equally strong emotion, protectiveness. We had something very valuable to protect- our brand. We've spent a long time building relationships, establishing our identity and creating an impressive track record of happy clients. I wasn't about to throw that away by slashing my prices and join the mass of photographers in the shallow end of the pool. I’d rather tread water alone in the deep end. I believe there are clients out there with the financial resources to choose us, understanding the value of our work.
Toward the end of the lecture Sarah showed us a slide of her newly designed soon-to-be constructed studio. The plans were drawn by her husband, who is an architect. Suddenly a second question was thrust into the foreground of my increasingly crowded brain. "If you don't have an architect husband, and despite your greatest efforts, business falters (i.e. you cannot pay yourself), how can you afford NOT to discount?"
We all know that success is not going to happen overnight, even if you are doing everything right. So how do you make it from Point A (modestly paying yourself and not much more) to Point C (feeling comfortable, having a nest egg, and looking to expand)? Point A and Point C are like outposts in the desert. There's water at Point A... but it's running out. Point C has a natural underground spring and a juice bar featuring frozen piña coladas. The problem lies in moving past Point B, a vast expanse of desert wasteland with not a trickle of water in sight. I guess an architect husband would be like a water boy crawling alongside you. Even if you don't use him, it's good to know he's there with a couple of bottles of Evian strapped to his belt. Trish and I don't have water boys. If we run out of water crossing to Point C, we are going to get very, very thirsty. Cue the circling buzzards.
So, the new question is, how do we get from Point A to Point C? How do we go from a sad cash flow and constant stress to a growing, thriving business without devaluing our brand through discounting?
I think I've found the answer in the most unlikely of places. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion to "Have You Seen My Oasis?" when I share my next A-Ha! moment.
**Disclaimer, the above paragraphs are by no means meant to disparage Sarah Petty. She's a marketing genius and a business dynamo with a remarkably generous spirit. I'm merely pointing out the difference in our situations. Obviously she has worked extremely hard to achieve her level of success and I'm confident she would have done so with or without her water boy!**