On photographers and architects


I started writing this article the other day, and saved it as a draft… sketching out the ideas I wanted to touch on etc… Then today I see THIS ARTICLE by Chase Jarvis, and I am glad I waited to publish my own, as his touches on some similar/complimentary themes that I would talk about as well!

I’ve been reading a book called Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing by harry Beckwith (great book btw), and the main point it makes is how marketing/selling a *service* is very different than marketing/selling a *product*.

And that’s what we are doing.  As photographers, we are selling a service, not a product. The “photograph” itself is not what we offer – anyone can make a photograph.  We are selling our *creativity*, our *skill* and our *vision* in creating that photograph.  I think it’s an important distinction to make, as it seems that the market becomes more and more “commoditized”

Look at it this way – when you hire an architect to design your office or house, you are not “buying a house” – you are paying for the creative vision of the architect.  You are paying for the service that his experience, creativity and expertise brings to the table, and how it facilitates your own end product (the house).  And that *service* is what makes all the difference in the final product (Think “generic housing subdevelopment” vs Falling Water or The NYC Apple store – they are distinct because of the vision and services of the Creatives involved.)

So what does this have to do with Chase’s article?

chase makes the point:

For the first three quarters of my somewhat short career in the business of professional pictures, I was the worst offender. Client said “that looks great!” I called it a wrap, tossed my camera to my assistant with a point of flair just like you’d find on a button on the suspenders of a waiter at TGI Fridays. Ugh. For years, I thought my job was done when the client was happy. But now…
…now it’s when the client says she’s happy that I really start to work hard. That’s the starting point.

Bingo! I agree 100%

In essence that shot (the one the client is happy with) is the “product”.   Don’t be satisfied with that – you aren’t selling a product.  You are selling a service, you are selling your vision, your expertise, your creativity.  As Chase says, go beyond – give them what they didn’t even *know* they wanted.   The more our industry becomes about selling a product (photograph), the more mundane it becomes and the less we are worth as photographers.

Don’t sell your products.  Sell your services.

5 thoughts on “On photographers and architects”

  1. I came into photography on a very circuitous route. I started as a computer programmer and software test engineer. From there I found that I was better at selling the stuff than making it, so I went back to school for a second BS (Yes I know, why not a MBA? People don’t take a guy seriously when you say you have a BS in Computer Science). Anyway, i got my degree in marketing communication, specializing in the development of visual media. After a series of disastrous closures I decided to switch to my long time passion of photography.

    Being a marketing guy, I made a business plan with an extensive marketing plan. I spent hours trying to figure out how to differentiate myself. Was is my ability take amazing pictures. Well, my pictures were good and sometimes amazing, but there were enough photographers out there that could take pictures at my level and many who could do it better. I decided my style was the real advantage I had. I had a different style than anyone else, or so I thought. Once I got out into the real world, I realized most clients don’t care about your style, they want their style. This was very true in commercial photography.

    At that time I was noticing a sharp downturn in the budgets of marketing departments. I realized I could no longer make the kind of money I had, so I made the switch over to wedding photography. My theory being, people are still getting married. I found they are not willing to pay as much, but there is still plenty of work to be had.

    I was shooting a wedding with a less than attractive bride. She was stiff and you could tell she was uncomfortable with her own skin. I did the normal group shots we do here in this market, and had tried some of the canned stuff every bride wants (I’m from Utah, just in case any Utah photogs can sympathize). Nothing was looking right. I was chimping all my photos because I just wanted her to look her best, which wasn’t happening. I took her aside with her bride and told her she need to relax a little. She did, but it was still not there.

    The mother of the bride came up to me an said this: “I know my daughter doesn’t photograph well, and I know you are doing the best you can. If you don’t need to take anymore photos. I’m happy with what you have done.”

    I almost was ready to give up. I though ‘good enough is good enough,’ then ‘snap out of it you idiot.’ I told the mother to take the group to the luncheon and the bride, groom, bride’s maids, and groom’s men would be around later. I realized that she was only comfortable with her friends. The rest of the day went amazing.

    So what did this tell me. Well not much at first, I went back to my home/studio thinking I was pretty hot stuff. I had just saved a wedding. Things went well. I didn’t occur to me that I did anything special. A few weeks later a young girl came by to request my services. I thought she looked familiar but passed it off. After a bit of talking she said she wanted to hire me. It was a faster sale than I was used to. She then told me why she chose me. She was one of the bride’s maids. She thought it was amazing how much time I put into working with her after my initial photographs. She wanted that kind of service.

    I realized from that point on, the best thing I can offer my clients is perfect service. I worked for the Ritz Carleton while in college. They had a philosophy of service to the point of shock. I remember picking the banana flavored runts out of a bag of candy because the maid found them picked out when the guest stayed at another Ritz Carleton. The view of this kind of service is that the increased cost always pays back with increased price and business.

    We need to stop thinking like prissy artists. Yes, we all think we are artists, but we really just deliver a product. Yes, we use our artistic vision to do it, but if the client is not absolutely enthralled, they move on to the next person when price is better. From that one wedding, I have had something like 20 weddings. I keep track of these kind of things. Thank you marketing background. I will tell you, for every happy bride satisfied bride, I get about .5 brides maids coming back for their wedding. For every ecstatic bride I have 2.5 bride’s maids coming back for their weddings. Yes, it really is that high. It’s amazing how going the extra mile can pad your pocket book so well.

    Well there you have it.

  2. It’s a very interesting distinction. The suggestion seems to be that, when I buy a violin, I’m buying the service of the manufacturer. I think this applies to all products: what creates economic value is that addition of craft. This is why a decent violin is expensive, as is a decent photographer. To make photography a special “service” case when the end result is a product seems naive, as all products are a subset of that “craft service” case.

    I’m not an economist, so I’m going to stop there.

  3. @Toby

    I see it as two different things. Yes we offer our skills and talents to create a product. But what distinguishes us from each other. I actually play the cello, so I’ve shopped for a fine cello before. I have two equal good violin makes here where I am located. Bother are word renowned for their sill. For a cellist I am exceptionally tall. I asked both if they could model a Stradivari cello called The Sedan. It has about two inches of extra length over a full sized cello. Neither had done it before. One refused, said it would be two hard and too much work, other agreed. Neither had skill any better than the other. I’ve played both makers cellos and they are essentially the same in quality. One was willing to take extra steps to make me happy.

    In the end, I payed extra for a cello I really wanted, rather than paying for a cello that I would be happy with. We offer a service. All services create a product of some sort, but we really just offer a service. In the end, someone can imitate your art, what’s the difference between you and them.

  4. @Stephen – I think I agree with you on a whole, but I’d take it a step further. What I get from your story is that “superb customer service > all”. And I’m with you 100%. Up to a point. Of course you gotta have great customer service and be willing to go the extra mile and all that. But what happens when you get to the level where everyone has great customer service – then where do you go? And that’s where the “vision” thing comes in. You say “most clients don’t care about your style, they want their style.” And I agree – but like Chase said – what elevates you at that point is: you give them that. you give them their style, you give them what they want. *and then the real work begins* Then you give them what they didn’t even know they wanted – the backflip-spinkick-chocolate cake, as it were 😉 and I think *that* is what separates the “good photographers with great customer service” from the Chase Jarvis-es (not that I claim to be in the same league or even in the same sport as the likes of Chase 🙂

    But it sounds to me like you are already going above and beyond not only in customer service but in vision – in the wedding story you not only were willing to stay after the customer was satisfied, but you had the vision to realize what was needed to make the image *even after they had the image they were happy with* (getting rid of the family etc…) and bam – that was your backflip-spinkick-chocolate cake.

    @Toby – maybe I should have been more clear on the “service/product” distinction.

    Consider: when you hire an accountant to prepare your taxes, the “end product” is a tax return. but you are not paying for the physical tax return – anyone can give you a tax return, heck I can prepare a tax return (but don’t blame me if you get audited!). You are paying for the accountants skill and expertise in preparing your specific tax return. You are paying for a service, in essence you are paying for something that doesn’t exist – you are paying because you trust the *person* to provide you with something that you could not do on your own.

    Similarly when I hire a photographer for an assignment, I am not buying something tangible in the sense of walking into a store and exchanging money for a tangible object. I am paying because I trust the photographer’s skill to realize my creative vision. When I plunked down all those thousands of dollars for my wedding photographer, I didn’t walk out of the studio with anything in my hands – how could I, my wedding hadn’t even happened yet 🙂 I was paying because I trusted the photographer to record my wedding with skill, vision and art. Sure in the end I got a physical wedding album – but that is just paper and leather, what I was really paying for was the artistry of the photos.

    And of course there are gray areas – Consider stock photography. I’d call stock photography a product rather than a service. I don’t care who shot my stock photo – all I care about is the end product. When I buy a stock photo, I am buying something that is already created, I *am* buying a product. Sure there was skill and artistry that went into it, but that’s ultimately not what I am paying for. But I think that’s a totally separate thing from assignment photography.

    In the end, regardless of semantics, I think we *should* be thinking of photography as a service, because in essence that is what raises the bar for the industry as a whole. Like Chase said, we should be thinking of giving the customer what they want (the “product”) *and then some*. And that way in the end everyone wins – the customer who got service beyond his expectations, and the industry because photography becomes more valuable to everyone overall.

    just my .02

  5. Well, I don’t know about backflip-spinkick-chocolate cake, but I would say know how best to serve a customer is the most important thing you can do. The one thing I’m going to say is that not everyone will have that superb level of customer service. As photography gets easier and easier to break into you will get more bargain basement photographers. They are not getting paid enough to go an extra foot for a customer, let alone and extra mile. There is a basic proposition in marketing, its called the price/quality graph. It is a graph that simply measures price verses quality. The goal of any good business should be to find a location on that graph that is occupied by the fewest other businesses. Now of course there are areas you want to avoid. But there should be lots of room.

    The issue does come down to skill, but skill may only get you half way up the quality side of the graph. It is the same with service. Service and skill together may get you all the way to one end. People won’t gather there because it won’t make financial sense. As I mentioned earlier with the Ritz Carleton, they have service that hardly has a competitor. However, you have the Fairfield Inn. It does the job at a cheap price. In that case the price is right for the consumer. So no, not everyone is going to have perfect service. The eventual cost to pay will drive people into other areas of the cost/quality chart.

    As for ‘vision,’ is it really what gets you all the way to the top, no. But neither will service. It is a combination of the two. You need to have both. A Fairfield Inn may have incredible service, but at the end of the day it doesn’t have the custom bedding, or fine bath amenities, the marble bathroom, or the concierge. The reverse is true as well. So have both and set yourself light years ahead of the competition.

    The one other thing that I’m going to say about this is possible a third proposition. One of understanding. This isn’t just service, it’s understanding you client. It’s giving what they want, what they really want. It’s finding out what their unspoken desires are. That to me is the backslip-kickspin-chocolate cake.

    I would love to discuss specifics, one of my failed businesses was doing service consulting. It was evidence to me that people don’t care about service.

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