The Courage to Connect

Ask any experienced pro, and they’ll tell you that the key to building a successful photography business is working with the right clients—people who appreciate you, value your work and time, and are willing to compensate you fairly. Of course, landing these ideal clients isn’t easy.

Amber Vilhauer, author, speaker, and owner of the business-development agency NGNG Enterprises, helps creators attract qualified prospects and convert them into paying customers through a process of self-discovery and interpersonal connection. She’ll present her insights at Imaging USA in Nashville, Tennessee, this month. Here, she shares the outline of her process for building a thriving business on human connection.

Determine the kind of business you want. This may seem like an obvious first step, but it’s one that many photographers skip during the often-disorganized process of building a new business. It’s important to have a north star by which to navigate. What kind of business do you want? Who do you want to work with? What are your goals? Establish these guides and then start building a business that will attract your ideal clients.

Look at your why. Examine why you want to be a professional photographer. If you focus on your why, you can dissect it and apply it to everything else. “People sometimes skip this step because they just want to learn about how to get the clients,” says Vilhauer. “But this is it. That story, those values become your natural positioning.”

You don’t just want clients, you want the right clients. By understanding your why, expressing it in all your marketing communications, and using it as the driving force behind your business development, you’ll attract more of the people who appreciate your approach while discouraging those who don’t.  

Create your buyer persona. Describe your ideal client. Think about who you want to serve. What are their characteristics? What do they like and dislike? What do they appreciate about you? Building an avatar helps you craft your marketing messaging with a specific type of person in mind. The people who fit your archetype will perceive your messaging as comfortable because it feels as if you’re speaking specifically to them. 

Imagine the customer journey. How exactly do you want clients to navigate their experience with you? The entry point for most new clients is your website, so make it a great representation of you and your work. It’s worth investing in a website that makes you shine. It doesn’t have to be expensive; it just has to express your personality. “That personality has to come out first,” says Vilhauer. “Since 2020, coming out of the pandemic, the online world has changed. People are making more intuitive decisions than ever before because they don’t know what to trust.”

One way to establish your personality and build trust on your website is what Vilhauer calls a “door-greeter video.” This is a short video on your home page in which you speak honestly about what you do, who you do it for, and how you do it. This is where you talk about your why and inspire your ideal clients by speaking their language.

Vilhauer also believes in addressing a lot of FAQs on your website. Answering common queries saves you time on a sales call and puts clients at ease. When clients have that information up front, they feel comfortable with you and your business.

Qualify your clients. Much of the client qualification process occurs through the language you use on your website and mareting materials, in your social media, and when you talk about yourself. “Go back to your core language,” suggests Vilhauer. “That language is an exchange of shared values with your ideal client.”

The visual expression on your website also helps qualify clients. Just as the style of your site gives people a preview of the experience they’ll have working with you, it also qualifies prospective clients based on their perception of that experience. If your website reflects your style, and your prospective clients relate to that style, great. If they don’t, then that’s a signal to them that you may not be a good fit.

Pricing is another qualifier. On her website, Vilhauer invites prospects to opt in for her pricing menu. “Doing this prequalifies them without them feeling like they’re being pre-qualified,” she explains. “They feel like they are in control.” If you’re trying to qualify the right kinds of clients, it’s better to share pricing up front before launching into a time-consuming client discovery process only to find out your prospective clients don’t have the budget to afford your services.

If clients make it to this point, you could further qualify them through a questionnaire. In her business, Vilhauer uses a 20-question document that she asks people to fill out before she books time to speak with them. Filling out the questionnaire is a time commitment that proves they are serious. If they aren’t serious enough to fill it out, they may not be serious about working with you.

Finally, schedule a call during which you can ask more qualifying questions. Think about these questions in advance and ask things that will give you some insight into prospective clients’ thought processes. For example, what type of professional are you looking for? Where are you feeling insecure in this process? Tell me about some other experiences you’ve had with photographers. What did you like and not like about those experiences?

Keep a balance, of course. You don’t want to make it too difficult for people to work with you, but you also don’t want to dedicate your valuable time to someone who may just be price shopping or who isn’t serious about booking a session. Find the right mix that works for you and your ideal client.

Connect. After qualifying, it’s time to connect with the audience you’ve worked so hard to attract. What matters is that you’re consistently trying to connect with people who are inspired by you. If someone does book with you, don’t let them drop off your radar. The lifeblood of a successful photography business is repeat customers and the referrals they provide.

Think about ways to reach out to your best clients in a consistent manner. For example, if you’re a newborn photographer, your ideal client is probably a mom who loves to capture milestone moments in her child’s life. What about offering an annual birthday package? You could send a happy birthday postcard with the newborn photo, which reminds the client of the connection you had. Similar processes work for corporate photographers (seasonal photos), wedding photographers (anniversary sessions), family portraitists (annual sessions). “Clients don’t think about these things because they’re busy,” says Vilhauer. “That’s why it’s your job to reach out and remind them.”

Keep following up. Follow up with prospects. Follow up with referrals. Follow up on past leads who didn’t book for some reason. You never know why they fell off; they might have gotten busy and let it slip. Understand the world we live in and that it’s your responsibility to remind people.

“The thing that ties it all together is courage,” says Vilhauer. “Following through is not easy, but realize that there are people out there who really need your help. If they don’t find you, they could have a bad experience with someone else. So put yourself out there and consider it part of the good service you provide. If you have the courage to do the things that are hard, you can do hard things.” 

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.