Eye on Image-Making: Sales Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Many people want to erect a firewall between art and commerce, between creative acts and financial transactions. The implication is that people who create art are somehow debased by being forced to sell their art in order to survive (and make more art). If you are a creative professional, I’m willing to bet that selling is the least favorite part of your business.

In fact, many creative professionals — when they reach an elevated stage in their career — hire an artist’s representative, or rep, to handle the sales aspect of their business. On the client side, advertising agencies employ art buyers to negotiate with reps, removing sales entirely from the interaction between, say, the art director and the photographer who has been selected for the assignment.

Sales Can Be Learned

Until you reach the stage in your career when an established rep is willing to take you on, you are probably going to handle most of the sales for your business yourself. And while some people certainly seem more well suited to sales than others, the process of selling can be learned — you don’t have to be a born salesperson.

The resource I found most useful for learning about sales is The Photographer’s Guide to Marketing & Self-Promotion, by Maria Piscopo (Allworth Press). This book has chapters on advertising, direct-mail marketing, public relations, creating effective promotion pieces, using the Internet, and, of course, selling.

Sales is what happens after you’ve done all your market research. You’ve identified your target clients, qualified them as buyers, and now you’re ready to make that essential person-to-person contact that is at the heart of sales.

Sales Is a Process

Sales is a process, and like any process, it can be broken down into its component steps. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should have a well-defined goal for each step of the process. Although there are many sales methods, here’s the one I learned, which has five steps: approach, presentation, overcoming objections, close, and follow-up.


The approach is how you make the initial contact with your target client. Cold calling and send-aheads are two common methods often used by creative professionals. These two methods both have the same goal: getting your portfolio seen by your target client. This can take the form of a personal appointment or a drop-off portfolio review.

Cold calling involves making an initial, or cold, contact with a qualified buyer — someone who uses the type of work you do and has the power to give you an assignment. Traditionally this has been done by telephone, although e-mail might also be an option if you are willing to overlook some obvious drawbacks — your e-mail message might be classified as “junk,” both literally and figuratively, and you have no immediate way of knowing if your message has gotten through.

A send-ahead is a printed piece showcasing your work, such as an oversized postcard. An effective way to use send-aheads is to mail a limited number of them and include a handwritten note saying you intend to call in a few days to arrange a portfolio showing. Obviously, you need to keep track of your send-aheads and actually make the calls! You could also use the send-ahead to direct someone to your Web site, through which your target client could get in touch with you.


The presentation is the heart-and-soul of sales, a chance for you to impress your target client with your work, your ideas, and your winning personality. If possible, you should try to control all aspects of the presentation from start to finish.

Tell the person you will be meeting with exactly how long you expect the presentation to take — this shows you are aware of time constraints and will help your target client feel comfortable giving up part of their busy day to meet with you.

Try to arrange the portfolio showing in a neutral setting, such as a conference room. This will help minimize distractions and keep your target client focused on you and your work; it will also put the two of you on a somewhat equal footing.

Know what you are going to say, when to say it, and when to be quiet and let your work speak for itself. Have questions prepared to ask your target client, to show that you are interested in what they do and are enthusiastic about working with them.

Above all, stress the benefits of working with you — how you will solve particular problems for your target client and their company. Make it a win-win proposition. And remember, your goal is a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.

Overcoming Objections

Objections are hurdles you must jump over in order to make a sale. If your target customer raises no objections about working with you, it may be because they have no real interest in your work and no intention of giving you an assignment. This is not good! It means all you’ve done is entertain them for a few minutes — surely not your goal for a successful sales presentation.

On the other hand, if the person you are presenting to raises objections, this may mean they are seriously considering you for an assignment — provided you can jump over the hurdles they’ve set up. Often, objections are about need and competency. Here’s a chance for you to ask open-ended questions — who, what, when, how, why — in order to get more information and overcome the objections.

Your target client may not have a current need for your service. Fine. Try questions like “When do most of your needs arise over the course of the year?” and “How do you meet your needs when things get busy?” They probably already have other creative professionals who handle the bulk of their assignments. “Great, but what do you do if they’re already booked, on vacation, or sick?” This may remind them of a previous situation where they needed a freelancer on short notice and had problems finding a competent person.

They may be happy with their established pool of freelancers and may not be looking for anyone new. This is one I heard over and over again, and the perfect response comes from a friend who spent many years selling high-tech equipment in Silicon Valley — “That’s fine, but if there is one thing you could change about your current freelancers, what would it be?” This could open the door to a discussion which might reveal that they are not as happy as they thought.

Objections may involve questioning your competency to handle certain types of assignments. “What type of work are you not seeing in my portfolio that you would need to see in order to work with me?” Once you get the answer to that question, you can offer to create additional portfolio pieces and get them to your target client ASAP. Are they doubting your experience, your creativity, your ability to handle complex productions? You should have answers ready for all of those potential objections.

In fact, some sales experts advise raising objections yourself, if you don’t hear any coming from your target client — this is a way to keep the conversation going. “I understand you may already have people you work with, but what if…?” “You may be wondering about my ability to handle a complex production, but just last month I….”

Get in the habit of listening closely to your target client and watching their body language — there may be hidden, or unvoiced, objections that need to be overcome before you can progress to the next step, which is the close.


In traditional sales, there is something called the hard close, which is designed to force the prospective buyer to, in effect, cook or get off the stove. “Which color would you like, red or blue?” is an example of a hard close; “How will you be paying today?” is another. In our industry, the hard close is not usually effective, for two reasons.

First, instead of selling tangible products, we instead usually license the rights to intellectual property for specific usages — so the traditional hard close often does not apply. Second, there may not be a specific assignment in the offing, especially if you are the one who instigated the meeting.

So, you most likely will need to resort to a soft close, which basically means agreeing on the next step in the relationship. However, just because you are using a soft close, don’t forget to ask for the sale — otherwise, your target client may think you don’t want to work with them.

You could say, “I’d really like to work with you in the future when an appropriate project comes up, so how should we stay in touch? I can put you on my mailing list, send out an e-mail reminder every six weeks, or come back in a few months from now to show new work — which works best for you?” If you use this type of close, you’ll probably leave the sales presentation with a concrete action plan.


Whatever you’ve agreed to do to further the relationship, make sure you do it! In other words, don’t promise what you can’t deliver. It would be a shame to come all this way, only to lose a potential client because you forgot to send out a mailer or create some new pieces for your portfolio.

Sales is a process — you need to take the long view and have patience. It seems like hard work, and it is. But making the sale, i.e., getting the assignment, is strong positive reinforcement.

Anybody out there with sales experiences — the good, the bad, and the ugly? I’d love to hear from you!

One Response to “Eye on Image-Making: Sales Is Not a Four-Letter Word”

  1. Great tips and advice.

    In today's market, what is the percentage of responses vs. mailings?

    Are photo editors inundated with portfolios?

    Is it even possible to get your foot in the door?

Leave a Reply