In photography, the technology gap has closed between professionals, enthusiasts, and the general public. Gone are the days when photographers could set themselves apart by owning and knowing how to operate the most advanced camera equipment. To remain viable entrepreneurs today, professional photographers must differentiate themselves through their professionalism. Creating effective business systems is part of that differentiation.
Crystal Washington is a technology strategist and futurist who’s spent years examining ways that entrepreneurs can build better businesses by creating effective processes with technology. She’s well versed in the concerns of PPA members since her husband is a professional photographer, and she’ll be sharing her insights at Imaging USA 2020 in January.
Washington urges photographers to focus on the underlying processes they need to run more efficient businesses. With that understanding, they can build out systems using simple tech tools to make the business more automated and more adaptable to customer service.
“This is about making sure you’re using technology to become a super photographer,” says Washington. “If you do this process well, you can actually use technology to make your business more automated and more personalized.”
Look at how you can systemize your business, says Washington. Many photographers—and entrepreneurs in general—are amazing at their craft but less adept at creating good business systems. If you want to have an efficient business with the potential for growth, good business systems are essential.
Washington suggests starting with a brainstorming session. Consider how you could create a turnkey system that provides value to your customers. Certain processes are ripe for automation, like contact, billing, and appointment reminders. Start with several lists:
Then consider how you can automate as many of those elements as possible.
“Help your clients understand that they are dealing with an expert, not just an artist,” says Washington. “That will color their perception of the work. When you show that you are an expert working at a higher level in all areas of the business, that helps your client see you and your work in a better light.”
When you look at specific technology applications, choices abound. The key is to find solutions that can fit together into a cohesive system so you’re able to manage multiple processes without logging in and out of 25 different programs. Washington recommends starting your research by reaching out to your professional network and seeking advice from organizations like PPA. TheLoop social network is a good place to start since it’s populated by professional photographers only (theloop.ppa.com). Seek out the “extreme givers” who are willing to share info about their systems, processes, and insights.
Take a look at project management applications like Basecamp, Active Collab, Trello, or Asana to help consolidate multiple project management tasks into one system, with automated reminders, task tracking, scheduling calendars, and document storage. Invoicing apps like Square can be useful for auto-generating invoices, receipts, and reminders when invoices haven’t been paid. If you’re already using studio management or accounting software, dig deeper into the automated processes within them to maximize their efficiency. Most accounting applications allow you to set up rules for certain types of transactions to automate the bookkeeping, trigger invoicing, and streamline other money management practices.
“How can you leverage someone else to take on the non-revenue-generating activities so you can focus on the creative aspects?” asks Washington. “Train your assistant on the systems you use in your business so you can focus on what makes you money.”
If you don’t have the budget for an assistant, then look into a virtual assistant. These flexible, contract-based aides work remotely to help you manage critical everyday tasks, often at considerable savings over an onsite employee.
An assistant can also provide a human connection when something in your system breaks. When that happens, people want to feel heard, so make sure your assistant has good customer service skills and access to processes that address clients’ needs.
It’s important to put the client into the process, says Washington. In other words, build systems around clients’ needs, preemptively addressing FAQs, scheduling issues, billing specifics, and other details. When you take care of your clients’ concerns up front, their impression of your professionalism improves dramatically.
“Help them understand that the systems are created for them to give them a better experience,” says Washington. “The experience of working with you on the logistics and other details should be the same high quality as the photography experience and the pictures you produce. It’s all about perception, and those perceptions need to be consistent.”
Automation doesn’t have to be impersonal. No one likes feeling as if they’re stuck in an automated loop with only robots for company. Every good system includes places for you to insert personal touches, so make use of them. These could be personalized notes that you add into reminder messages. You can send emails explaining your process or introducing your assistant. You can set up automated reminders to perform personalization tasks like sending handwritten notes or congratulating a client on a significant milestone. Or use a system like TouchNote to send personalized e-cards and image previews from your session.
“When you do have opportunities to provide personal touches, blow the clients away,” says Washington. “Show that you’ve done research and know who they are.”
“A personalized touch doesn’t mean it has to be you all the time,” says Washington. You can build the personalized touches into any system, including chat bots and other artificial intelligence-powered communications. Some of these systems are so good at interacting with people that your clients may have no idea that they’re communicating with a bot instead of a real person. Put a little of your personality into the system and you’ll make it a lot more human.
A good system requires continual adjustment to adapt it to your evolving business and clients’ changing needs. One of the best ways to strategize those adjustments is to ask clients how you can improve their experience.
Washington suggests scheduling debriefing calls with clients. Ask them for 10 minutes of their time to gather a little feedback. “This can be a very simple call,” she says. “Start by asking, ‘What’s your feedback on the process?’ Then let them talk. Sometimes people are hesitant to offer criticism so you might need to dig a little deeper. Ask something like, ‘If you look at this whole process, what’s one thing I could tweak to make it that much better to work with me?’ Present it as if they’re offering you a huge gift if they can tell you one thing to do better, because it is. That’s some of the most valuable information you can receive.”
“Many photographers think that shooting great pictures is enough,” says Washington. “They believe if they do this job really well, they’ll have a successful business. Unfortunately, that’s not true. There are people who are less talented, with inferior skill and equipment, but healthier businesses. Why? Because they’ve created a better overall client experience through good business systems.”
The solution: Make the technology work for you, not the other way around. “Make the business processes fun by embracing your creativity and bringing it over to the business side,” says Washington. Translate your spirit of innovation into business processes that are as engaging for the client as they are efficient for you. Your clients will thank you, and so will your business.
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.