Eileen and Phillip Blume had run their photography studio outside of Atlanta for several years when they realized their sales model wasn’t working. Like many photographers, the Blumes were intimidated by the idea of selling directly to clients, so after each wedding or portrait session, they’d put up an online gallery, invite clients to log on, and then hope for the best.
The images were good. The photography experience was good. The sales were terrible. The Blumes knew they needed to make a change, and fast. They restructured overnight, introducing in-person sales and a more guided sales model. They couldn’t afford to invest in a fancy display, so they used a laptop to host clients for sales sessions to review choices and offer image selection help.
You’ve read this story before, so what happens next shouldn’t be a surprise. Sales increased dramatically, then Phillip and Eileen worked about half as much and generated about double the income. They were less stressed and the business ran smoother.
However, the unique thing about the Blumes’ sales transformation was they didn’t ditch the online sales entirely. Instead, they kept a guided online sales element that allowed them to work with distant clients who couldn’t make it to their studio for an in-person sales session. You might be surprised at how well the process works.
“The reason online sales don’t work for most people is that they’re just putting a gallery out there and then hoping the client will buy something on their own timeframe,” explains Phillip Blume. “That almost never happens. So we decided to take the principles of in-person sales and apply them to an online environment.”
Using basic technology that’s available to anyone, the Blumes offer a fully guided ordering experience. They schedule it like any other sales appointment and come prepared to demonstrate sizing, explain options, and walk clients through the process as if they were sitting next to them on a couch. To make the system work effectively, Blume offers these suggestions:
Never email a gallery. Never, ever just email a gallery of someone’s pictures to them. “Many photographers want to send galleries to clients to share something with them as quickly as possible,” says Blume. “But it’s more important to give them a good experience than to give them something quickly.”
But don’t abandon the online gallery entirely. Instead, use an online gallery as a proofing tool so you can review images during your presentation session and mark client favorites.
Schedule it. Schedule an appointment, even if they’re on the other side of the world. Don’t make it an on-demand thing whenever the client feels like logging on. “The fact that you’re scheduling the time with the client allows it to be an experience that puts distractions aside,” says Blume.
Make a human connection. The Blumes use Skype to video chat and make as much of a human connection as possible. They feel the video element is important because you’re not just a disconnected voice on the other side of a phone. Instead, you can look clients in the eyes, virtually speaking, and build some rapport.
Improve your video. You don’t need professional video production, just a higher-definition web cam than your computer’s built-in camera. Add a video light so you look more professional than the typical Face-Time call.
Provide a process. Explain the process, even if it seems ridiculously obvious. Walk clients through the steps. That helps take their mind through a logical sequence, so they understand what comes next.
Present a slideshow. And watch the clients’ reactions. You can do this in person or online during a video chat, allowing you to see which images elicit the strong emotional connections.
Share your screen. And demonstrate how to mark favorites in the gallery and designate items for certain products.
Simplify the options. “We put in pricing options and discounts for the most popular products that we want to guide them to,” says Blume. “There are quite a few total options, but we simplify that down to three to four key options. That way we’re guiding them to our recommendations (and providing financial incentives to choose those options) versus overwhelming them with endless choices.”
Show physical samples. In a video chat, the clients won’t be able to touch or feel, but you can still hold up samples to give a sense of size and construction.
Set an expiration date. If you’re asking for a purchase decision during the video call, great. If you’re letting the clients finalize their decision afterward, be sure to remind them that there’s an expiration date. “Our galleries stay up for three days,” says Blume. “That is their time to place an order and take advantage of special discounts.” If the gallery expires, there’s a re-posting fee to put it back up.
Communicate expectations. Communicate pricing throughout all of your interactions in advance of the online presentation. That way there are no surprises and clients come to the presentation ready to purchase.
Have them put skin in the game. The Blumes’ price menu includes a $150 fee for hosting the online gallery, but that $150 becomes a full credit toward the client’s order. “The gallery costs them nothing when they order, but it gives them skin in the game,” says Blume.
Make pricing clear. Don’t hide pricing or make clients ask. Everything should have a price clearly associated with it so clients can consider their options while you’re presenting the images.
Show images at scale. This is a little tricky without sitting in the same room with a large-scale display, but you can use software to create mockups of how certain images would display in the clients’ home. Ask them to provide snapshots of wall areas and then superimpose framed portraits or canvases in their home, displayed to scale. There are multiple applications that make this process easy, including some proprietary software from labs that automates the process and allows ordering from the mockups.
Relate to real-world experience. “I always mention what I would be doing if they were in the studio,” says Blume. “That little transition reminds them that we’re there for them at the next level of service.”
Following this system, the Blumes have been able to create a heightened online ordering experience that’s resulted in larger orders and more orders placed on time. Compared to their in-person sessions the Mobile Premier sessions yield comparable sales, with portrait sessions coming in about $100 less on average, and wedding print sales landing in an identical range.
Ultimately, the Mobile Premier allows that all-important guided sales experience that clients crave. “A lot of times, photographers avoid the sales process because they don’t want to be pushy,” says Blume. “But it’s really important to give clients something that will have inestimable value to them. As photographers, we don’t appreciate it sometimes, but this kind of artwork is incredibly important to people. So making a sale is not pushing someone into giving us money; it’s a trade of something that is valuable to them for something that’s valuable to us. The more you can guide that process and provide professional insights, the happier everyone will be.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.