Building a reputation and consistency

10 11 2009

All too many business owners rush into trying to make their company as profitable as possible in as short a period as possible – but many of these forget the importance of a solid framework and vision upon which their business model can grow successfully.

Photographers starting out their businesses are prone to falling into the trap of sending their business into a specific direction based on initial demand and failing to look at the bigger picture and the long term sustainability and growth potential of that sector of the industry.

I personally know several photographers with a passion for studio photography who are now forced to spend most evenings shooting events against their will in order to sustain a basic income which just pays the bills. Because they didn’t plan the groundwork to establish them as reliable and professional photographers in their field of expertise they still operate on a freelance basis, desperately accepting any work that comes their way, meanwhile their business stagnates and others eat into their market-share.

By determining a definite plan and rules for the business one can focus efforts toward a recognised goal and construct a stable platform for growth.

Developing an initial plan should be based on personal expectations, appeals, locality and relevance and not solely upon prospective earning capabilities. One soon finds that unless individual needs are met, including your own, your ability to motivate yourself to maintain a mundane work routine will be seriously impeded and your creative abilities and progression thwarted.

In an earlier article I discussed establishing a brand and a marketing plan, this forms an integral part of positioning yourself within your desired market as a photographer or related industry professional. Similarly I discussed “living the brand”; doing so may however require a lifestyle adjustment.

Advertising is a good way to get your brand out there, but branding is only a small part of establishing yourself within the market – a brand is only as good as the experience attached to it, by experience I mean client satisfaction (or dissatisfaction), word of mouth (or written) testimonials from people that clients can relate to and the overall image presented by the business.

It’s unlikely, for instance, that a company profile displaying primarily nudes will get much support from parents sending their kids for model portfolios. Similarly someone with only pictures of wildlife may struggle to convince a client to allow them to shoot their studio pack-shots.

It’s important that the overall “image” presented is representative of the type of work you would like your photographic business to be focussed on.

There’s a saying that “the best client is the one you already have”, this is very true in our industry – as a service based industry it’s important that your clients leave satisfied as a large percentage of your future work will likely come from referrals generated by them. These people are also your key to getting your name out to relevant potential clients, whether they advertise you or slander you will depend on how satisfied they were with the service they received.

Many believe that advertising, branding, marketing, and sales are all the same thing – well building a solid reputation successfully will likely require that you fulfil all the above functions correctly and maintain good after sales relationships. Only by doing that can you ensure that you grow a recognised and respected brand that is synonymous with quality and value.

An important point to remember is that your “name” is only as good as the persons representing it – just this morning I decided not to make use of the services offered by a company based on the personal experience I received from the representative. Ensure that your employees (including yourself) are well educated about the industry within which you operate and the equipment you use, also that all understand your business strategy and those of your competitors and respect them.

Slandering competitors will not get you business, nor will aggressively marketing to their client bases – those strategies can do a business extensive damage in the long run.

By generating non-threatening quality relationships with fellow members of our community (otherwise known as competitors) our business has managed to generate numerous outgoing and incoming referrals based on our relevant expertise within the industry, and we’re working together with other photographers on several projects.

Networking within your industry and attending regular training workshops is a good way to keep in touch with the trends and advancements in your field and you will gain the benefit of collectively learning from others mistakes and realising the successful initiatives as they happen. The photographic community similarly needs the support in numbers to empower it to fight issues like copyright infringements and decreasing fees and usage rates – by standing together on these issues we all profit.

Database building is a great tool for establishing long term relationships with your clients, be careful not to be too exclusive with your database either – often the person you least expected will refer you a solid client. Keep your database up to date and try to maintain regular contact with them.

Be careful however that all contact is meaningful and interesting, it’s often best to separate these “contact messages” from your advertising initiatives to keep the messages personal.

Try not to overwhelm your customers with too many messages either as they may view this as spam.

By keeping in touch with them and reminding them about the positive experience they enjoyed and displaying your accomplishments you’re likely to generate additional work.

This consistency is difficult to maintain without professional systems in place and staff to assist with the admin involved, this is where social networking sites have made this sort of contact much more personal and unobtrusive. Social networking has been rated as one of the most powerful advertising mediums by simply creating a portal for “friends & relatives” to keep in touch, by maintaining a professional relationship with your customers via these networks it becomes easy to remind them about your services.

Of course it’s equally important to maintain consistency within your business too, as businesses get busier they often slack a little on their overall service offering – whether it be the quality of the photography itself, the standard of equipment used, the general upkeep of office facilities or just the personal touch – customers will grow to expect a certain standard which will need to be preserved or improved upon.

Similarly it’s inevitable that customers will of course hear about other businesses offering similar services, and keeping “ahead of the pack” may require some initiative and creativity on your part – remembering once again that reducing pricing to become competitive should be an absolute last resort. It has been proven again and again that customers will rather pay more for quality.

Following the above guidelines may not always be easy as businesses have a tendency to have inconsistent surges of business as well as quiet spells, particularly in their first few years of operation, and it could take what seems like an eternity before it settles – by remaining consistent in your processes though a consistent overall growth is likely. Remember not to get desperate and jeopardise your business integrity by offering ridiculous specials in the quiet times, but equally important is not to get over-confident and slack on marketing initiatives and relationships during the peaks.

A few more tips to remember:

Try not to rely solely on individual clients, key clients are important as they generate a substantial portion of your monthly income – but it’s important not to “put all your eggs into one basket” either.

Keep overheads manageable and don’t overspend when the business picks up.

Ensure you don’t lose focus, keep reminding yourself of your initial overall goals and ensure you haven’t strayed from the business plan. But also re-evaluate your plan from time to time to ensure it is still relevant and improve upon it if necessary.

If you get stuck along the way then don’t be afraid to ask for advice or assistance, there are several photographic organisations willing to help as well as forums such as www.saphotography.ning.com – or ask a business owner that you know has been successful for tips, most successful business owners are quite happy to share their experiences.

In closing remember that building a solid business foundation can take time and patience, but in the long run your business will be more resilient and valuable with proven stability.

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