Pushing the Reset Button

©Chip Dizárd

Are you working with the right kinds of clients? Are you doing the work you love? Or is your business stuck in a rut, dragged down by unappreciative clients and projects that don’t suit you?

These were questions facing wedding photographer Chip Dizárd when he took a hard look at his business a couple of years ago. “Looking through my portfolio, I realized that a lot of the people on the roster were not ideal for me,” he says. “It’s not about the money. It’s about how they make you feel. You want your customers, in a way, to be advocates for your success. I reconsidered the question Who are we really serving?”

Dizárd determined it was time to push the reset button on his business and refocus his efforts on finding his ideal clientele. In the process, he came across some fundamental truths that could be useful to any photographer looking to pivot to a new working model. 

©Chip Dizárd

The process of pivoting to a new, refocused business can be outlined in four steps.

  1. Assess where you are, what you’re doing, and how people are getting to you. Are you chasing clients or projects that don’t suit you? What role have you played in client interactions that were less than ideal?
  2. Understand where the holes are in your business. Is it in marketing, your photographic technique, planning?
  3. Engage a mentor. Reach out to colleagues about how they handled certain situations. Have them review your portfolio and messaging, then get their thoughts on what you’re putting out that might be attracting clients who aren’t right for you.
  4. Regulate clients’ interactions with you. Set parameters that help you be more productive and creative. Good clients respect clearly stated guidelines. Bad clients roll over them.
©Chip Dizárd

Bad clients will raise red flags; it’s up to you to spot those warnings. Two red flags that are fairly universal:

  1. Preoccupation with price. It’s often a problem when a potential client talks about price first and value second. If they’re concerned only about price, especially if you’re aiming to provide a high-quality product and exceptional service, then they may not be the client for you.
  2. Wanting something you don’t provide. If a client wants a style that isn’t in your wheelhouse or attempts to push you to work in a way that isn’t your focus, then you may want to pass on that contract.

A key point to remember: Just because you routinely have a certain type of client doesn’t make them your ideal client.

©Chip Dizárd

Dizárd recommends a two-step process to building your ideal client profile:

  1. Eliminate bad client experiences. Think about your worst client experiences and eliminate them. How did those people get to you? How did they make you feel? What were the red flags? And how can you discourage those types of clients from approaching you in the future?
  2. Expand good client experiences. Think of your best client experiences and expand on them. Who were they? How did they find you? What can you do to attract more people like them?
©Chip Dizárd

Your referral base may not be sending you the right referrals because they haven’t been trained on how to refer you. This training can be as simple as a short statement: “If you had a good experience working with me, I’d really appreciate your referrals. The types of clients I’m looking to work with are ….”

It’s also helpful if your referrers know your starting rate. Even if you don’t want to publish all your prices, make sure the people referring you know your base pricing so they aren’t referring people who can’t afford your services.

Additionally, you can shape your referrals through the way you portray yourself on social media. Use your social channels to talk about what you like to do and who you like to work with. Provide that profile of your ideal client in the work you share and the stories you tell about your projects.

©Chip Dizárd

If you feel you’ve gotten pigeonholed in a specialty you don’t enjoy or that has clients who aren’t great for your business, then it may be time to pivot. If you go this route, you’ll need to make some wholesale changes. Change your portfolio. Change your messaging. Change your social media. Ultimately, change what you show, and show what you want to do.

Also, think about your messaging. In your social media and your marketing materials (including your website), talk about your passions. Talk about what you love to photograph and why. Make videos, reels, and other content that shows you working on your passion projects. Share behind-the-scenes interactions with your ideal clients on your ideal projects.

And ask for help. “People love to help people,” says Dizárd. “When you’re pivoting, ask for help from your community. The people who are close to you want to help you succeed. Tell them you’re making a pivot, and ask for help. You may be surprised at what comes your way. Sometimes we photographers don’t get business simply because we don’t ask.”

©Chip Dizárd

It’s hard to say no to paying clients, but sometimes it’s necessary. To screen out bad fits for your business or repair relationships that aren’t working well, try these suggestions:

  • Diagnose the disconnect. Have a talk with your difficult clients to see where the disconnect is. Ask how you can work together better. Apply this feedback not only to those clients but to your future client interactions.  
  • Set boundaries. Boundaries communicate how you want people to do business with you. For example, tell your clients when you’ll take calls, how much you’ll communicate, what they can and can’t expect. People usually respect boundaries when you lay them out clearly. If they don’t, then you can pass them along to another photographer who may be a better fit.
  • Systemize. The most successful photographers have systems in place to make common tasks and interactions more efficient. Instead of frequently asked questions, Dizárd recommends listing on your website all the questions that clients should be asking. Refer potential clients to this list before they book you, which not only gives them information but also helps prequalify them. When they do hire you, they’ll come to you with knowledge about how you work, which mitigates unrealistic expectations and related problems.
  • Communicate (more and better). If you don’t have clarity of message, you won’t find the right client. Lay everything out as clearly as possible. Communicate your anticipated timing, go through what clients can expect from you, and be transparent about what you expect from them. Once you’ve communicated these things, stick to them. Be consistent, keep your clients updated, and above all else, do what you said you’d  do.
©Chip Dizárd

Ultimately, says Dizárd, you should look for projects that fit three criteria:

  1. They make you money.
  2. They make you fulfilled.
  3. They’re the type of work you’re good at.

Finding those projects and shifting your business to help you land them is a process. Keep working at it, and keep working on what you provide. “The key to getting out of the rut is to continue doing a volume of your preferred work,” says Dizárd. “That’s how you get better, not bitter. That’s also how you find people who become clients for life and who will help you build a sustainable business.” 

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.