Easy as Pie

We’ve been through a great deal of upheaval in the past year. In uncertain economic times, small businesses need to find an edge. For photographers, that edge may seem increasingly elusive. Everyone has access to the same educational tools and Internet-based marketing opportunities. Where is there room to differentiate?

Brian Williams, veteran sales consultant and author of the book “The Ultimate Sales Messaging System,” argues that the competitive edge for today’s photographers is sales skills. The problem is that many photographers view the sales process with disdain. Selling is not why most photographers got into the business, and so they’ve never invested in developing the skills to be more effective. The key mind shift, says Williams, is to stop trying to sell and start trying to solve problems. He advocates a system called the PIE principle: pursue, insight, empathy.

The idea is to pursue prospective clients strategically and without exerting pressure on them. Then, offer insight to help them solve their problems and come to their own conclusions about a purchase. And finally, imbue the process with empathy so you can build a stronger relationship and become a problem solver for clients instead of someone who’s perceived as trying to sell them something.

Easy as 1-2-3

“Curiosity, intelligence, and an agile mind are the biggest predictors of sales success,” says Williams. It’s not sales tricks or clever techniques to persuade people to do what you want. Instead, it’s a process of discovery, understanding, and collaboration.

Step 1: Give them what they want. Sales ultimately comes down to a simple principle: Find out what people want and give it to them.

Williams tells the story of his aunt and uncle who’ve been married for more than 50 years. When Williams asked his aunt how she managed a healthy marriage for all those years, she boiled it down to a basic concept: “I find out what he likes, and I do it. I find out what he doesn’t like, and I don’t do that.” Take that idea and move it into sales, says Williams.

When you find what your client wants, get hyper-focused on giving it to them. You probably offer some amazing ancillary products and services, but set those aside and focus on the one thing they want. If you can provide it, you’ll have a satisfied customer, and the opportunity for those other offerings will emerge. 

Step 2: Ask intelligent questions. How do you find out what your client wants? Ask a series of intelligent questions. Approach each client as a blank slate. Don’t assume you know what they want or what they like. Put to bed what the last client, the last 100 clients, wanted. Start fresh and find out what each client wants.

"Find out that emotional hook, the why-they’re-doing-it. Once you find that out, shift all that attention to that angle.”

Brian Williams

Your questions need to be overloaded with empathy because you’re really trying to determine the emotional impetus for the purchase. “Remember that all sales are emotional,” says Williams. “So find out that emotional hook, the why-they’re-doing-it. Once you find that out, shift all that attention to that angle.”

Step 3: Conversational selling. Talk to clients like real people. Ask about their thought process. In the course of a regular conversation, listen for an opportunity. Don’t think about trying to sell them something. Think about whether they have a problem you can solve.

“Approach the conversation looking for potholes in your client’s game plan so you can help fill them,” says Williams. “If most people learn they have a pothole in their game plan, they will be interested in filling it. And because you discovered it, they will assume you know how to fill it. The natural assumption is always that because you identify a problem, you are an expert in solving it.” That puts you at a clear advantage when offering solutions.

Where people get stuck

“It’s really a mindset problem,” says Williams. “Same old thinking, same old results.” That same old thinking is usually some kind of fear or misconception. Get past your negative conceptions about sales so people can learn about your great products and services. Sales is a necessary part of any business, and if you see yourself as a problem solver rather than a salesperson, you’ll change your perspective. “The ethics of sales is this: If people don’t have a problem, you don’t have a sale,” Williams explains. “But if they have a problem, they need help. You can be that help.”

For photography clients, problems are often simple needs: Everyone is getting older and we need a new family portrait, or I’m getting married and I need a good photographer on a specific date. These are problems you can help solve, but it’s important that clients recognize the problem rather than you telling them they have a problem. As the sales adage goes, “Telling ain’t selling.”

Your job is not to argue against your clients’ points or try to convince them they want something they don’t need. Your job is simply to ask intelligent questions so they can come to a revelation on their own. “Because there’s one voice that every person on the planet will always believe,” says Williams, “and that’s their own.”

Sales in uncertain times

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world, but people still have problems you can help solve. Be empathetic to their situation, their needs, and how they’re considering their purchase. When appropriate, explore ways you can innovate new solutions.

The empathetic part of this process involves a low-pressure approach. Your posture during a sales conversation should be relaxed, without any anxiety to close the deal. That can be difficult if your financial reality is that you really need to close the deal. But put yourself in your client’s shoes and remember that buying decisions are emotional. If you are anxious about landing the deal, the client will feel pressured, which can turn things in the wrong direction. However, there’s no pressure if you’re just asking questions to help them determine if they have a problem. 

Effective sales in a difficult economy may also require a new way of thinking, even pushing yourself to do things that are uncomfortable. “Sometimes, you need to get really uncomfortable to get really creative,” says Williams. “Don’t settle for the same old solutions. What else can you do that isn’t being done? It may be difficult to come up with those ideas, but that’s what’s required to move forward when what we’ve done in the past isn’t working anymore.”

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.