Do You Know Your Customers’ Unspoken Needs?

Photographers making the transition from newspaper staff positions to full-time freelance work face a number of challenges. Perhaps the biggest of these is learning what sells — and who it sells to. As a freelancer, you must get to know many different prospective customers, and what motivates each of them.

Editors, Publicists, Wedding Couples and More

Here are some examples of different customers and their (often unspoken) needs:

  • A newspaper photo editor is looking for photographs that adequately support a story and will, ultimately, help sell more newspapers which, in turn, will boost advertising revenue.
  • A bride and groom are looking for a photographer who can capture the essence of their wedding day in a way that is flattering to all those concerned. The photographer is expected to work quickly, discreetly, and to recognize that there is only one chance to get this right. The wedding couple wants photographs that would not look out of place in a society magazine. They also want someone who can get the 95-year-old, grouchy grandmother to actually look like she is enjoying herself.
  • A publicist is looking for a photographer who can make the client look good — but without it being too obvious. They want someone who understands what would add value to the perception of their client, someone who does not have to be told to include logos and brand names in as many shots as possible. They want a photographer who will automatically edit out the frowning shots in favor of the happy, smiling pictures.
  • A magazine editor is looking for a photographer who has a firm understanding of the magazine’s style, someone who knows what is currently the topic du jour for the area that the magazine covers (travel, food, interior design, whatever), and can suggest and produce compelling stories on time and within budget.
  • A corporate communications manager is looking for a photographer who can interact professionally with a company’s executives, for portrait, annual report, or event-related photography. The manager wants someone who doesn’t need a lot of direction to plan and execute a successful shoot — but who can also stay in the background and allow the manager to take all the credit. If you can get the project completed under budget, so much the better.

Different Customers, Different Portfolios

Once you understand your range of potential customers, it’s a good idea to put together a different portfolio for different prospects. Yes, I know this should be a no-brainer, but you might be surprised by how many photographers fail to appreciate this. Even I forget sometimes.

A few years ago, I was contacted by a PR firm on the East Coast to discuss the shooting of a big event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Negotiations were moving along well, until the PDF portfolio that they downloaded from my Web site was circulated for approval.

I received a concerned call. The CEO of the PR firm was Jewish. The portfolio that they had downloaded included pictures of KKK and Nazi-related events. I was asked if I had any leanings in that direction. It took a carefully worded teleconference to assure them that this work was part of my photojournalism career only, and in no way reflected personal prejudices on my part.

I’ve found that a nice “in” on corporate assignments is a portfolio of celebrities or VIPs that you may have shot in the past. It seems silly, but it really does make a difference to some clients when they can say that the photographer who shot portraits for their company’s annual report is the same photographer who shot Donald Trump or Steve Jobs.

Knowing Your Customer Differentiates You

Over the years I have been contacted by people wanting me to shoot weddings, seminars, marketing events, portraits, magazine features, images for books and many other assignments. In each case, I took the time to understand what was truly important to the prospective customer.

The desire for high-quality photography is a given; otherwise, they would not have called or e-mailed me. But what differentiates me from my competition is the time I spend exploring what else the prospect needs.

Maybe they have too many things to do and not enough time. Perhaps they are short on budget and need someone who can do a great job with less. Or maybe they have taken over from a predecessor in a corporate role who really messed things up, and now the pressure is on them to do a better job.

As the freelance market becomes saturated with former staff photographers, differentiation is a must. Understanding your customers’ unspoken needs can set you apart from the pack.

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