By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.
This article inaugurates a year-long monthly series appearing on www.ppmag.com in our Web Exclusives section about the special needs and concerns of boutique photography studios. Frances shares insights on the art and business of the boutique, including converting to digital, remodeling her studio, and retooling products and pricing.
A franchise of one says it all—the successful boutique photographer does not simply hang out a shingle. Planning for success requires understanding and implementing many of the same business principles as a nationwide franchise. A far cry from the skills and love of art that brought most of us to the photographic profession.
The dreaded term “business plan” was something I avoided until I was led to a eureka moment that made perfect sense. A business plan for a boutique photographer is just a bunch of definitions and verifications made in a step-by-step sequence. Now that’s a concept I can get my mind around.
Yes, you have to gather concrete information about yourself, your skills and products, your market area and your clients. You have to analyze those facts to create definitions of who you are, what you offer and who are your customers. Yes, it’s an ongoing process; that’s the verification part. Your definitions probably will change a lot over time as you recognize errors, refine your business scope and re-vamp to accommodate changes in your own situation or that of your desired clients.
Distilled to the very basic foundation, it’s all about you. Your photographic boutique is defined first and foremost by who and what you are. Each subsequent definition of absolutely all other aspects of your business builds the architecture of the profitable franchise of one.
What the boutique photographer has to sell is herself. She has to forge a relationship and become a “trusted advisor” who solves client problems. We are in an appearance business, and everything about us is critical as a sales tool, including the prominence of my name, not just a generic business moniker as is popular in the portrait and event industry. Voice and accessibility on the phone and our personal message and photos of us on our Web site are part of that presence. We display photos of ourselves in various situations, doing all kinds of jobs. It’s not an ego stroke. People we want as clients want to know the spirit of who they’re dealing with.
Hire the right professional coaches and advisors. Every artist is overwhelmed at the idea of making a business plan. But the right professional coach can help you formulate a step-by-step playbook that defines your desired client, helps you find her, leads you through the contract and sales questions in the right words, in the right order and helps you close seven or eight of every 10 prospects? One-on-one coaching is worth far more than the investment.
After more than three decades of seeing it all, you couldn't tell me I needed a professional business consultant, even when radical marketplace and buying habit changes made it obvious I was not reaching enough of the right sort of boutique clients. Why on earth would I trust my presentation, pricing, finances and artistic feelings to a salesman? Then I met Rick Skurla. He was the right person with the talent to analyze the way I do business from the outside, to develop a consistent, measured sales presentation, to devise a custom playbook for me that scripts, word for word, my process to qualify and close clients.
It wasn't easy. I hated the first few meetings, but then I began to get it. Within a structured guideline for building a client relationship there is plenty of room to be creative and still close high-dollar sales. It is all about trust! Recently four different clients voiced that exact word; they trusted me to design the right photographs and albums for them while each spending more than $15K. With that I knew my investment in a professional coach had paid off.
There's a subtle difference between a business consultant, who helps to define a market, suggest operation and sales strategies, and a business coach, who focuses on the principals of the company and their personal goals and strategies. I'm using the term "coach" to either one, but ask the professional you're interviewing which one he considers himself to be.
Profiling you and your market
This is the first and foremost task: verbalize honestly who you are, what service and products have you been offering, how you want to limit jobs and services in the future, your own goals that revolve intimately around your age and experience, your family and whether you are a longtime pro like me, or an eager newcomer. A startup boutique may have an easier time of self-profiling because you can begin fresh with the best advisor. Your area’s demographics and geography will also have a lot to do with feasibility in your chosen location. It’s the job of your coach to make sure you get on the right playing field.
Profiling your client
The goal of profiling is to match you to the right client, just like big business does. Your “Franchise of One” needs to know the buying habits of your desired client, along with her area of residence, social pursuits, family involvement. Analyze your best clients and record anything you notice that they have in common. When you know what led them to find and select you, then you have the treasure map to discover more lucrative clients. The better you understand what brought them to you, the clearer the details on the map.
Sara Frances and her business partner and husband, cinematographer Karl Arndt, own Photo Mirage in Denver, Colo. For more info on Rick Skurla, professional business and sales coach of Skurla and Associates, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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