Communicating with Customers: 6 best practices for online interactions and a smooth shoot

Many photographers are under the impression that their most valuable asset is their product. We photographers want to believe that if only we perfect the art of taking a riveting photo, we’d be successful overall in our line of work. It is true that you want to have a stellar portfolio and a high quality product to give to your client, but what the client will remember most are the interactions that you had with one another.

Business has unfortunately never been my forte and I’ve only been freelancing full time for a few months, but I’m learning the annoyingly substantial value of selling yourself. A wise businessman once told me that the customer is not buying the product: they’re buying you. Pretty scary, huh? This means you need to know how to communicate with people that are not as familiar with your technical craft, which is most everyone.

When it comes to online communication, you’ll want to be aware of a few things. With today’s ubiquitous use of online apps and cyber messaging, there’s more room for interpretation and misinterpretation, meaning it’s even more important to communicate well the first time. Terrifying? Don’t sweat, less is more in electronic exchange.

1. Be timely and answer all of their questions

I try and answer all messages within 24 hours, and if I receive the message before too late in the afternoon, I try to reply before 5 pm. Yes, this seems quick, but with the prevalence of online socializing, I’ve learned that this is pretty much expected now. Most people have online social media and messaging connected to their smartphones now, and as a result, customers prefer a timely response. In many cases, customers are shopping around for different creative providers and the one who responds quicker tends to get the job. But don’t rush it! It’s better to craft a great response that you’ve had a chance to re-read than a hasty one.

If a potential customer messages you through asking about your services, whether or not you charge extra to drive to Dayton or whether you can shoot their 1-year-old’s first birthday party, make sure you go over the message and answer every question in the order listed. It’s important to address their questions before going into other options you may provide them. It demonstrates professionalism and that you care about their inquiry.

After doing this first, then you may ask them for more details. “How long would you like me to be there for?” “What are some places you have in mind to shoot at?” or if you’ve been requested through, “What kinds of photos will you be expecting?” Don’t ask too many questions in the first message, but just enough to find out if you are even able to do the job they are requesting. Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver, be honest and forthright.

I’ve worked many different types of shoots, from weddings to portraits to corporate advertising shoots, and everyone expects something different. Make sure you use language that will bring you and your potential customer on the same page of expectation. Miscommunication of expectations can result in a poorly handled shoot and a disappointed customer.

2. Keep it short, sweet, and to the point

Shy away from divulging a novel in your first message to a potential client. Lengthy exchanges tend to overwhelm customers and most potential clients don’t have the time to read something that’s more than 3 short paragraphs long. Think about it as a conversation over coffee. If they’re asking a question about your services and rates, answer plainly and succinctly. This means you’ll need to make a decision about how much you’re worth and stick with it.

Never change your rates or services you offer once you’ve laid it on the table. If you are ever unsure about what you should charge for a specific request or whether you’re able to complete a service, give yourself time to do research on your area and assess your own tool set. Did you invest a good amount in your camera? How much experience do you have shooting infants? Using, these kinds of questions that will help dictate your hourly rate. When you gain more experience, credibility, and more expensive tools, you can always adjust your rate.

Try to keep the body of the message to about 5-8 sentences and allow room for response. You want to engage them but also give them something to think about and look forward to. If the shoot is going to be more than a couple of hours or you’re shooting something intimate like senior portraits, offer to meet with them in person so they can get comfortable around you and feel more at ease working with you. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to discuss ideas more in depth that an online conversation would never quite be able to communicate.

3. Keep it friendly and open

It’s tough trying to express friendliness in online communication. Language is tricky to maneuver when you’re unable to inflect tone, but tone can still be revealed through the right use of words. Frame your sentences in a way to invite what they would prefer, using phrases such as “if you’d like.” It also projects more confidence and positivity to use words like “definitely” or “absolutely” as opposed to using “probably” or “maybe”.

Avoid using emoticons, abbreviations, and informal language unless you’ve already exchanged several messages with them. After you establish this rapport, sometimes the right use of a smiley face makes you more approachable and human. Of course don’t overdo it, typing cannot possibly express true human emotion, but I say this because the omnipresence of text speech across generations is creating new forms of understanding within textual exchange.

What may seem informal or “incorrect” may in fact communicate something about your personality and tone that enables the customer to see past the fact that they’re conversing through a machine.

Use words that express openness rather than rigidness, such as “I’m flexible on location, but I have some ideas for spots that have worked for me in the past if you aren’t sure where to go” as opposed to “we should shoot at Ault Park because I know it works for great photos.” Let the client direct the artistic vision unless you know that it won’t work.

Being open and friendly is important, but being clear in your communication is much more important. I once made the mistake of contradicting myself to a potential customer and I lost that job. I told him that his choice of location was not ideal, that the lighting was terrible, but that we could “possibly make it work.” This language will confuse your client and you will lose their trust. Tell them why something won’t work and offer a clear alternative that will be convenient for them. You can ask them where they are located, for example, and offer to shoot nearby. Making them feel comfortable and catered to is essential to establishing good rapport and trust.

Before signing off on the shoot, make sure you swap phone numbers with someone so that you can call him or her just in case you’re unable to track them down at the event. Unfortunately this is something I often forget, but this will help you immensely when meeting your customer in a public space. If they have already supplied a work/home number, ask if they have a cell number that would be easier to get a hold of them through.

4. Communicate and confirm with all parties involved in the shoot

Once you’ve hopefully sealed the deal for shooting an event or a photo session, it’s your job as a photographer to communicate with any and all organizations involved in the shoot. This means even if your customer says they have permission to shoot at a location, if it’s not on their property make sure you have communicated with that establishment beforehand and confirm that it will be alright.

Call them a day or two before the scheduled shoot, or at the very least arrive 20 minutes early and talk with the employees to lay out exactly what your shooting, how long you expect to be there, and ask where you are able to put your things and what you’ll be allowed to shoot. Some establishments do not allow their company to be photographed at all, others want to make sure the logo is out, and others just don’t want to disrupt their normal business. If you happen to wander into a place unplanned for the photo shoot (which happens often), practice this same courtesy with the business owner or an employee before shooting. You will look more professional and be more approachable, not to mention the potential of networking here.

This seems self-explanatory, but when you start running into hiccups during the shoot, such as a needing to move busy background items out of the frame, you’ll be glad you made a bond with the employees beforehand. I made the mistake of not doing this during my last shoot and the owners, being small business owners, did not appreciate that I was invading their very small space. You want to make friends, not enemies, so be considerate and remember that it’s not all about you!

5. Keep a calm yet assertive presence during the shoot

Now if you’ve been booked for a gig at an establishment that is clearly giving you permission to photograph their event, then you won’t have to worry as much about tip 4, although you always want to check in. Once you’ve arrived, introduce yourself as the photographer and find either the person who booked you so or the one in charge of the event so that you can establish your presence and ask where is a safe place to put your things. (*Note: remember to put your things out of the way of your own shots) Again, this seems obvious, but small steps work towards an easier shoot.

Once you set up and get going, safely assume that most of the people are not going to be aware that someone hired a photographer to shoot photos of them. If you get people who start staring at your camera or acting uncomfortable in the shoot, don’t ignore them! Acknowledge them; soothe them with something like “Sorry, pretend like I’m not here. I’m just getting some photos of people having a good time!” or even a “Would you like me to take a photo of you guys?” Sometimes people are more comfortable with you shooting them on the sidelines after you’ve photographed them posing and smiling in a way they know makes them look good, so indulge them if you want. In my experience though, candids make for better, more genuine photos, so keep shooting them impromptu.

If you’re shooting a portrait session, don’t be afraid to give bodily direction. Most customers are unaware of how their bodily posture or facial expressions are affecting the portrait. People tend to look up and tilt their head naturally, for example, but this can make their neck and chin disappear into each other. “Chin down” is an excellent policy because of this. Remember to show them the photos after about 5-10 or so, make sure you get their input before moving on. I’ve had plenty of customers point out something in the photo that they didn’t like and we fixed it for the next set of photos.

Overall, have fun with it! Don’t hesitate to talk to your customers in between shots, they will appreciate you trying to get to know them and it will put them at ease. Use your judgment as far as how much time you spend talking, but better photos only happen when you get people to forget for a moment that they’re being photographed; this is a vexing hurdle for all photographers, so if you have a sense of humor, use it! That smile right after a laugh is priceless.

6. Communicate what the customer should expect afterwards

In the tizzy of shooting photos left and right, remember that you should always check out with the same people you checked in with. Let them know when they should expect the finished photos and how they will receive them. You definitely want to give yourself plenty of time, about twice what you’d expect it to actually take, giving yourself leeway in case something comes up. I typically tell clients it takes up to 2 weeks, but I usually deliver within a week. Weddings and other 4+ hour events take much longer, so give yourself 3-5 weeks. Ah, the illusion of timeliness! Being on time is fine, being early is great, but being late is a no-no. Give yourself a buffer, especially if you’re just starting out. We’re living in a generation that expects immediacy, so be honest with your customer that these things take a little time.

Ask if they have a preferred method of delivery, or tell them how they will be able to access the gallery, etc. If nothing else, just give them a time frame and exchange contact information if you haven’t already. Give a smile, handshake, and thank them for bringing you in. Remember, they paid you to do what you love and that is as satisfying as it gets.

Also send them a follow-up message thanking them for reaching out to you and letting them know how enjoyable it was for you. Reiterate the time frame for the photos, stressing that you are working diligently on editing and will have them as soon as you can. Once delivered, offer to lightly retouch, crop, or further edit any photos if they desire. Some photographers watermark their images, but I find this horribly distracting. It’s all in the preference. Remember that you are allowed to ask them to credit your photos. Most customers won’t mind at all, especially if they had a positive experience with you.

If you feel good about the shoot and they are happy with the product, invite them to provide you feedback for your services by writing a review on your profile. If you don’t feel great about it, don’t fret. Everyone has to learn sometime and there will always be more opportunities to practice and improve. Either way, feedback is a great way to show that you are actually out there being social, not just artistic. This will set you apart as a photographer in the long run.

Being a comfortable and confident communicator will give you a better name than your photos, so use your personality to your advantage! You’re a human being, despite the fact that you probably wish you were invisible behind that camera, so embrace it and take a chance on showing others your individuality. The more candid you are, the more candid your subjects will be, and that is your most valuable asset.

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