Turning It Around

3 stories of newfound efficiency and expansion

First published in April 2005

How three studios made straightforward improvements in their sales, marketing and management—and set their businesses on new, more profitable paths.

Part 1: Projecting big numbers:

How Robert Charles Photography revamped its profitability

By Jeff Kent

What if, upon viewing your images, your portrait and wedding clients said things like, “Oh! I’m going to spend a lot of money here,” or simply, “Wow”? How’d that work for you?

That’s what happens at Robert Charles Photography in East Longmeadow, Mass., one of the most profitable photography businesses in New England.

But not long ago, the studio’s profits were merely ho-hum. Something had to be done to increase the studio’s sales average, to generate a higher profit margin. The solution was to revamp the entire sales process, and to make a comprehensive move to digital.

A key factor in the overhaul was to replace paper proofs with an image projection system, says Edward Zemba, a primary partner in the business, along with his brother Robert Francis, and his father Robert Charles, the studio’s founder. “For many years, we just gave out proofs to our clients. Within a month of implementing the projection system, sales shot up by roughly 500 percent.”

The idea was to create an environment in which clients felt they were getting special care and attention. The Zembas invested in two presentation areas, one with a plasma screen dissolve unit and Bose surround sound system, the other with a projection screen in a mini theater configuration. For the sales presentation, the Zembas put on a show for the client, displaying their images with music and effects. They make it fun. They make it memorable. They make an impact.

“The image presentations send an incredible message without my having to say anything,” says Edward Zemba. “It resets the meter for the client, telling them that this is going to be an investment, not a simple five-minute transaction.”

There’s no pressure on clients to make a purchase on the spot. The Zembas make the presentation, go over the finances, and ask clients to go home and think it over before returning with their decisions. When they return, the Zembas present options (panels, wall groupings, DVD productions, etc.) designed specifically for them based on preferences the client expressed during the session and first presentation. “We ask a lot of questions during the presentation appointment: How do you feel about wall groupings, panels, large prints? We ask about their favorite images. Based on that information, we make a final presentation. Then we take their order,” says Zemba. “The whole process is designed to make it easy for the client to make an investment in portraiture.” Robert Charles Photography’s average portrait sale jumped from $350 preprojection to about $2,000 after the installation. Averages in 2004 bumped up even higher, to about $4,000 per client, with spikes well over $10,000. In the last three years, gross sales have increased 20 percent per year, to over $800,000. Portrait sales increased 60 percent over three years, and wedding sales by 55 percent. These increases were realized despite the studio’s location in a secondary market where prices are generally lower than in the metropolitan centers of Boston and New York.

Switching to an all-digital workflow three years ago was critical to the success of the new sales system. Even the accounting and studio management moved to the computer. It was a huge switch, but in addition to streamlining the operation, the transition provided a medium more in line with the Zembas’ artistic vision, and more marketable. The Zembas have managed not only to invest in their business, boost sales and profits, but to award themselves pay raises as well. “Wow” indeed.

Part 2: Making it happen:

After consulting with PPA’s studio management services, Mary Buck got to work

By Stephanie Boozer

A couple of years ago, business was good for Mary Buck, CPP, of Lightscapes Photographic Artwork in Duluth, Ga. But she was spending more time selling than working behind the camera. On a rainy day in April 2003, Buck was leafing through an issue of Professional Photographer, and came to an article about PPA’s Studio Management Services (SMS) that piqued her interest.

After reading it, Buck dialed up Scott Kurkian, PPA CFO and the head of SMS, who drove up from Atlanta to visit her studio. Kurkian told her that Ann Monteith, M.Photog.Cr.Hon.M.Photog., A-ASP, CPP, a PPA certified business instructor, would be a perfect mentor for her. Buck thought it over for the next six weeks before calling to make a commitment. She’s glad she did.

“I feel very fortunate to have Ann as my mentor,” says Buck, whose specialty is infant portraiture. “Ann is knowledgeable about business practices and pricing, as well as a fine photographer. Our first meeting was such an eye opener.” Monteith came up with a number of suggestions, more than Buck could implement immediately. But her spirits were lifted by having a starting place, and she

was eager to begin.

Says Monteith, “The most impressive thing about Mary is her ability to retain complete focus on her business. She doesn’t get distracted by the passion side of the business, which photographers typically do.”

One of Monteith’s first suggestions was to change the presentation of the products on Buck’s price list. It began with the lowest-priced package, which provided no arena for up-selling. Buck rearranged the price list, placing the most expensive item in the premier top position, a la carte style. To further establish value, Buck had to stop giving away so much. Instead, she’s offering select buyer incentives, to make clients feel rewarded for choosing higher priced products.

“My first sale after the meeting was three times more than my previous sales average,” says Buck. “If you start out high, the next lower price doesn’t seem so expensive. It changed my thinking on pricing and gave me so much more confidence.” Buck also added new products to her repertoire, including a package of nine framed baby portraits, which Buck calls the “Itsy Bitsy Baby” series. She’s also introduced a coffee-table book of baby portraits she calls “Baby’s Own Storybook.”

Buck continues to meet with Monteith quarterly, to go over her finances and make sure she’s on track. She also picks up new ideas for products and marketing. At each of these meetings, I see that Mary has made measurable progress,” says Monteith. “It is an absolute pleasure to work with her.” The feeling is mutual, says Buck. “This has been amazing. Every year I see increasing revenues, and I cannot can’t praise SMS enough.”

In the two-year period since that initial consultation, Buck’s sales average increased by about 33 percent, the gross revenue by 58 percent. For next year, she’s projecting an additional increase in revenue of 20 percent. “This is still a young business with a high growth rate,” says Buck. She doesn’t want to grow too fast. After enjoying “an aggressive growth rate” this year, Buck plans to limit the annual growth rate to 10 to 15 percent. She wants to see modest growth in her customer base, but an aggressive increase in her sales average. Her plan includes doing more senior portraits, but no more than 75 to 100 per year.

“I want to keep it nice and comfortable, because I do have a life,” Buck says. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” says Buck. “I feel so fortunate to do what I was born to do.”

Part 3: The eye of the beholder:

Good business guidance can come from many sources—from faith to peers to your professional association

By Stephanie Boozer

Jerry Borwick and his wife Laney have been running Your Eyes Photography in Arlington, Tenn., for about six years. Both Borwicks were holding down other jobs in 1992, when they began doing wedding photography. Their client list grew, and they took on photography fulltime.

“Laney has the talent for computers and numbers, and I’ve got the people skills, and handle the sales and photography,” says Borwick. “We’re a great match.”

The Borwicks were running the business from their small house in 2002. With three young boys and a fourth on the way, they were definitely working in cramped quarters. The business had been steadily growing, and the Borwicks realized they’d reached a critical juncture.

An active member of the Memphis and Tennessee PPA affiliate associations, Jerry gleaned information from the seminars and conventions he attended. He heard about the then brand-new PPA Studio Management Services (SMS) program at the 2002 Biloxi convention, and Borwick decided to take a closer look.

“One of the areas we really needed help with was managing numbers and projections, and getting advice on what to do next,” says Borwick. “The biggest draw was that somebody who had experience was not only going to help us with the numbers, but also help us stay on top of our business.”

The most immediate advice the Borwicks heard was to move into bigger digs. From their 1,400 square-f oot home with its 10x10-foot office, they relocated to a 3,000 square-foot home with a private, multiple-room client area, which qualified as a business tax write-off.

“The new place is so much bigger,” says Borwick. “We have a nice meeting room, where I can project clients’ images for proofing. The minute we started projecting images, sales skyrocketed.”

The next suggestion the Borwicks implemented was to convert their company into an S-corporation. The financial tax savings were instant, shaving off about $3,500 on the first corporate return. “That alone has been a tremendous help,” says Borwick. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s been a great suggestion for us.” SMS assigned Steve Larson, PPA Certified, M.Photog.Cr., to help the Borwicks with pricing and packaging. His advice—stop giving away so much, and don’t publish your prices on the Web.

The Borwicks’ package prices now range from about $3,500 to about $1,900. Before signing up with SMS, Your Eyes Photography pulled in a gross income of about $146,000 annually, with expenses running close to $47,000. After the first year in the program, the Borwicks grossed about $160,000, and their expenses fell to about $39,000. The next year’s expenses dropped to about $31,000, and the wedding sales average rose from $2,500 to about $4,300.

For the next part of the SMS program, Stacey Friedlein, Cr.Photog., was assigned to help the Borwicks rejuvenate their marketing tactics. “We discussed narrowing the scope of their marketing approach,” says Friedlein. “They have seen considerable growth and change in the last couple of years, and have managed it well by focusing on the revenue streams that fit their overall business plan.”

The Borwicks’ plan includes shifting the emphasis of the business from 75 percent weddings to 75 percent family and children portraits. Without a formal studio, the Borwicks do all shoots on location, which they feel is a selling point that sets them apart from other studios in the area.

“I love shooting in people’s own environments,”says Jerry. “When they look at the images, they realize that their own environment is what’s important, not other people’s backgrounds and props.”

“After our initial meeting with SMS, I really had to contain myself because of all the ideas we wanted to try,” says Borwick. “I think working on a marketing plan will be as exciting as the first transition.”

One of the facets of SMS that Borwick loves is the personal attention. While Laney was giving birth to the couple’s fourth son, they received a letter from the IRS that said there was a problem with their state excise tax. Borwick called Scott Kurkian, PPA CFO and head of SMS. “Scott wrote a letter to the state, explained it all, and was able to release us from the obligation,” says Borwick.

“Outcome aside, just the fact that someone is helping us take care of these scary things gives us a sense of peace. I love that.”

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