THOUGHT I’D seen it all, after the last two years we’ve all faced, but in the run up to Christmas, during my busiest time of year with plenty of client bookings in my diary, I faced my worst business nightmare. I checked into hospital with pneumonia and, just hours after being sent home, I was back in an ambulance, after further complications. Fortunately, I survived the experience and was eventually able to go home, but with strict doctors’ orders to rest, rest, rest. At this point I knew I wouldn’t be able to throw myself back into my business for at least three to six months.
This left me with the soul-destroying task of cancelling some new clients I’d worked so hard to get, although many were understanding and willing to postpone their shoots for a while. Yet there was the more immediate question of how to finish off my pre-Christmas todo list and make sure those families who came to me for a festive photo shoot got their images and prints in time. Above all, how could I make sure my clients would remain looked after and happy?
All Systems Go
As some luck would have it, during lockdown I’d spent many a mundane hour putting in place various systems and processes for my business to live by. I set about making ‘rules’ for everything, from marketing and social media through to the photo shoot itself, editing and in-person sales. Above all, I figured, these systems would be on hand to help me provide the best possible customer care.
Prior to Covid, I was, to be frank, getting a little fed up with my own lack of consistency. Sometimes I’d pull out all the stops and offer clients a clean, slick way of doing business. Boom! At other times, however, I’d forget whether I’d even confirmed the date for their photo shoot, or I’d be in the sales room and not know the precise cost of my own goods. On the odd occasion I’d come away having barely made a profit on my job. I knew that if I could get out of my own way, I could have a more predictable income.
That’s when I came across the excellent training of Julia Kelleher, an American portrait photographer specialising in babies and families, who is at the moment absolutely killing it with her business. She spoke a lot about client ‘on-boarding’ and as I read this it made total sense.
This process basically means guaranteeing that each mum who enquires with me – long before they commit to booking – becomes increasingly familiar with my services, my style and what I stand for. They’re introduced to my values and beliefs at various ‘touch points’ along the way, such as my website, or a promotional booklet, long before any talk of ‘how much is it’ and often several months before serious money is due to change hands.
Julia’s big thing is ‘systems,’ namely implementing and maintaining the right processes from accounting to editing, so that you consistently attract the right kind of client. The kind who hires you for your vision and style, not because they want a bargain. In other words, the dream client. “You set up the systems, the systems run the business”, is Julia’s mantra. How true this proved to be when crisis struck.
The fact is that the kind of out-ofthe-blue disaster that befell me could affect anyone with a small business, so let me tell you some of the best things I’ve implemented so far to help keep me and my business on-track, and how I applied these while I was convalescing.
This is by far my most helpful system yet. You basically want to write down, from start to finish, the various steps you want your ideal client to go through when working with you. From the very first enquiry phone call when they know little about you, through to the in-person sales meeting: what needs to happen to ensure they have the best possible experience?
From my sick-bed I was able to check where all my clients were on my workflow whiteboard, which is huge and features over 40 stages! My workflow always starts with me posting out an introductory leaflet about my services to new enquiries,
so that they can get a real sense of my brand and touch and feel the quality of what I’m offering. Way down towards the end of the workflow checklist I’m ticking boxes on whether I’ve packed their albums and wall frames using my branded tissue paper and if I’ve included the ‘after care’ postcards I made especially.
If it sounds geeky, it’s because it is! And proudly so. No stone is left unturned, and everyone gets the same treatment. Even when my brain was struggling to remember things, one glance at my whiteboard and I knew what I needed to do with each client and if I had any leeway.
Old Fashioned Marketing
I spent a lot of lockdown time designing branded promotional materials, from booklets about my studio through to helping families prepare for a newborn photo shoot, advice on what to wear and what even is an ‘in-person sales appointment?’ Most clients don’t realise this will take one hour and a half, and the idea is to prep clients for their journey with you so there are no unwanted surprises along the way and they feel part of the brand, part of the group.
Having this info prepped and ready to go meant that I could send out the various leaflets as necessary from home, and didn’t have to spend too much time on the phone explaining things.
Social media is undeniably a beast. I automate a month’s Instagram Grid posts ahead of time, leaving time free to engage with people and have a bit of fun. While I was out of action the Grid posts kept dropping, making it look very much ‘business as usual.’ I was replying to new enquiries and scheduling client calls for the new year in just a few clicks, while my Grid posts kept my shop front ‘open’.
All the time I was out of action I didn’t once have to worry about my social media because I knew that a lot of what I post on Insta automatically publishes to Facebook. In fact, my account even hit over 1,000 followers while I was at home recuperating. Not bad for a day’s bed rest!
Finance and Accounts
Yawn, yawn. Yeah, I know. But, if you do the work upfront, it saves a helluva lot of headache later on. I use a spreadsheet to log my incomings and outgoings and I have a golden rule to do this as soon as I receive them. It’s painstakingly boring, but it saved me. I fell ill right at the time I needed to file my tax return. So, all I had to do was hit a button on my computer, print out the relevant accounts (virtually, to a Pdf file) and send this to my accountant.
In previous years I’ve been scrambling through old emails trying to remember my expenses, and receipts are thrown around my work desk and studio. Urgh! No more! It’s time to get organised.
Photo Shoot Workflow
I have an exact order of images that I aim to achieve on each of my photo shoots and I stick to it. Over the years, I’ve worked out the best sequence in which to get these shots, which is especially important if you’re trying to keep a newborn settled and asleep. Using a workflow in this way, I’ve cut my photo shoot time down from 4-5 hours for a newborn session to just under two, and with better, and more consistent images to show for it.
Although I’m still trying to ‘take it easy’ – I won’t be fully better until May – my doctors advise I can still do my photo shoots if I spend the rest of the day in bed. Because I’m confident the sessions won’t run over and I know the clients are prepped well on what to expect, I’ll be done and dusted with the very best images, within two hours. Result.
Likewise, I no longer dread editing my images. I have an exact process in which I’ll edit, starting with correcting white balance and working my way down the Lightroom tools,
from adjusting highlights to sharpness, batch editing all the way. I’m strict about the way I approach images so I don’t get distracted and waste time. For specific brushes and effects, I always apply them in the same order – so, for example, adding a little light and saturation first, then nuking red skin and softening baby’s skin just a little.
During my illness, where I could only manage a few hours’ work a day, I could start and finish one client’s edit in the same afternoon, knowing I could have it sent out to them in good time for Christmas. It was a relief having such a reliable system set up to work with, where I knew I was sending out the very best images, without compromising.
File Storage and Processing
OK, another boring one, but my system for filing client images based on date and type of photo shoot meant that when I successfully postponed some of my client viewings or image editing until the new year, I could quickly and easily find what I needed within my system, and could be confident that I hadn’t lost the images.
Following my checklist for presenting images to the client, I quickly make sure I’ve made the slideshow, prepped the music and have loaded images up into my sales software: I use ProSelect, which I’ve found to be incredible to work with.
I used to have a haphazard system, leaving the back-up and finding of client images down to chance. Not what you need when you’re feeling ill and only have a few hours a day to work…
Well Oiled Sales Machine
Having systems in my business kept it going when I couldn’t do so myself. From accounting and marketing through to social media and keeping client workflows, I have a ‘manual’ on practically everything I do. It means I’ve turned my passion into a slick, well-oiled sales machine and one that I can be proud of.
Amazingly, my clients (new and old) have been so understanding and many have waited for me to be fully better before booking me. Without systems in place I question whether I’d have had the confidence to offer any sessions, because I
didn’t know if I was coming or going. Now I’m happily booked up six weeks ahead and it’s like my illness never happened. The systems literally saved my business from spiralling into the abyss, and I’m so glad I had them.
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