Writing emails, meeting with clients, talking about contracts and expectations: these are not the reasons most of us come to the business of photography. For the hobbyist-turned-small-business, client communication might not be a strength or a desire. However, without proper attention to client communication, you might be missing out on several ways to enhance your website, your blog, and your success.
I’ve briefly written about client communication in this article and this article. I’m going to expand some of the ideas in those two articles as well as describe some additional lessons I’ve learned over time.
The bulk of this article will focus on email communication with prospective families, wedding parties, and local businesses. I rarely receive a phone inquiry for photography, but the advice still applies whether the communication is written or spoken.
1. Formality is Your Friend
While the content of an email is what your client really cares about, the format and formality of your email could be the small details that seal the deal. I think about formatting and writing style the way I think about my wardrobe for a job interview: I wouldn’t show up in pajamas or with stains on my shirt. A properly-formatted and formally written email is your perfectly pressed and coordinated interview outfit. In an interview, your wardrobe is the first impression–in an email, that first impression is your format and style.
Whenever I respond to a client, whether it’s our first email exchange or our tenth, I always think back to high school and the lessons on formal letter writing:
- Begin with a greeting
- Separate the body into manageable chunks
- End with a closing phrase and your name
Email affords us the easy temptation to be breezy and informal. Resist the temptation. While you don’t need to begin with “Dear Amanda,” you should begin with “Hi Amanda,” or “Good morning/evening Amanda.” Don’t skip the greeting and go right to business, not in the first email or two anyway. If the email chain has gone beyond four or five quick back-and-forths, then a greeting probably isn’t needed anymore. When in doubt, maintain formality in your greeting.
As a former high school English teacher, a top-five student-writing offense was not splitting a writing into manageable chunks. Your reader is always fighting a losing battle with language and attention. Help your reader and split things into small chunks. In fact, a paragraph longer than three or four sentences can look daunting on a portrait-oriented smartphone. Be hyper-aware of any shifts in topic in your email. When you shift, even slightly, make a new paragraph. Your client will thank you for the organizational clarity.
As you finish an email, close with a phrase such as “Sincerely,” or “Thanks.” “Talk to you soon” works, as does “Cheers” or “Thank you.” My go-to is “Sincerely.” It strikes the right balance of formality and good vibes. “Thanks” might not be appropriate if you’re not actually thanking them for anything. “Talk to you soon” might be too long for a closing. Pick one that’s right for your tone and the conversation. And just like with the greeting, you can forgo the closing during a quick succession of back-and-forth emails.
One final thing about the writing itself: short sentences are better than long sentences. If you find yourself writing a lot of sentences that have a conjunction (i.e. and, but, so, or), then split those sentences at the conjunction. Make two sentences instead of one. Short sentences are easier to follow and won’t tire your reader.
2. Be a Person and Connect
Don’t mistake my formality advice as a suggestion to be robotic and distant. After all, photography is about people, and chances are YOU are a major reason someone is getting in touch, not just your photos.
If you can relate in any way to the milestone for which the prospective client is emailing you, detail the relation. I have two young kids, ages three and one, so I always have a quick sentence or two about my kids ready for an email with a client who also has young kids. For a prospective bride and groom, I think back to both the excitement and overwhelming nature of what they are planning. Therefore, I congratulate while also giving a piece of advice or two to help them along the way.
I have more advice about connecting in #6 of this article, so take a look.
3. Lesson Learned #1
I did not follow my advice about being personal, thankful, and congratulatory with a recent prospective bride and groom. I unexpectedly ran into a couple I had met a week or so prior. While I knew they had just gotten engaged, I hadn’t actually spoken to them about their engagement. The subject came up when I saw them out for lunch, and I immediately said, “Do you have a photographer yet? I photograph weddings.” I didn’t congratulate them. I wasn't excited for them, just the possible paycheck.
We haven’t spoken about photography since that day despite a half-dozen subsequent meetings. I was off my game that day and didn’t follow my advice. I should have been a person, not a business. Lesson learned.
4. Emails and Questionnaires for Blogs and Website
When I first started writing blog posts about my family sessions, I had a hard time moving beyond what happened at the session. Inevitably, I would write, “We had such a beautiful day at the park! The Cohens were so cute–can you believe the smile on baby Naomi?” And so on. I didn’t write anything of real substance. I knew I needed to write 200 or so words so that my blog post would mean something to Google. I just didn’t have anything meaningful to say. (Here’s an example of an early blog post. It’s not terrible, but it could be better–and at least the photos are good!)
That’s when I started to use my email communication to gather blog material. Now I include questions such as:
- What is a favorite memory you and your husband have with your kids?
- What has surprised you about being parents?
- What are the first three words you would use to describe Courtney?
- What is Kyla passionate about? Where do you think that passion comes from?
- If you and Abbey had an afternoon together to yourselves, what would you do?
Not only do these questions show that I am curious about the client, but they also give me plenty to write about in addition to the experience of the session. For an example of a blog post where I used some of the client email answers, take a look here.
I also use questionnaires and emails to get praise and testimonials for my website. I describe the questionnaire further in this article. In general, try to make your communication work for you as much as possible. You never know where an email or Facebook chat might be useful!
5. Expectations and Budget
One question I make sure to ask as early as possible is, “What are your expectations for the session?” That way, the client and I are on the same page as far as time, budget, and final product are concerned.
Now I hear a few of you asking, “Aren’t family sessions pretty straight-forward? It’s not a wedding or anything.” For the most part, yes, family sessions are usually just a mix of smile-at-the-camera and candids. But you never know if a parent has something specific in mind, a certain pose, a certain combination of people, a special prop or location or sentiment. Getting expectations out in the open will allow you to prepare ahead of time and help alleviate any stress or possible disappointment when images are delivered.
More obviously, make sure to specify budget expectations for a bride and groom or a small business. While talking about money can be uncomfortable, get the budget question out there before too many words and feelings have been exchanged. For weddings and small businesses, budget is often the deciding factor. Get that number out in the open early and make sure that expectations and budget are a good match.
When it comes to expectations, for weddings I make sure to ask about special moments during the ceremony and special combinations of people for formals. For small businesses, the initial conversation often starts with simple headshots even though they may envision more. Differentiate between a pure headshot session and a session mixed with headshots, candids, work spaces, etc.
The more you can specify for the session prior to photographing, the better.
6. Anticipating Questions
Once expectations and budget are out of the way, I do my best to answer questions before they are asked. Think about the questions you always have to answer and have that information ready ahead of time. For example, clients always want to know about how long it will take to get their photos, how their photos will be delivered, and what to wear to a session.
Here is some of what I usually put in an early email once we have confirmed the session:
I also have a detailed post-script about image delivery and social media sharing, which reads as follows:
“P.S. I will deliver your portraits to you with a program called PASS. You will be able to download each full-resolution file directly from PASS. For any prints included in your package, I will send a separate survey for you to complete in order to choose each photo for each print.
As you’ll see in the contract, I’d like to be able to use a handful of your photographs on my Facebook page and website. However, if you’d prefer that I do not use your images, I will respect your wishes and amend the contract accordingly. If you prefer not to be tagged or identifiable, I can say something like, “I had a blast this morning with a great family. Check out some of their amazing photos!” I also use some sessions as blog posts on my website; I’ll write a quick story about the session and share 10-15 photographs. In the end, I’ll defer to your wishes when it comes to using your photographs on the Internet.
Also, if these photos are for a holiday card or other special occasion that you’d like to keep as a surprise, please tell me–that way, I won’t post anything online to ruin your surprise!”
When I deliver a client’s images, I write the following:
“I am sharing these with you with a service called PASS. By creating a login, you can download all of the full-resolution files as well as order prints. You can also download the PASS app to your phone and use the app to send solo images, order prints, and share to social media. When you click on the link, you can view larger versions of the portraits by clicking one and then moving left or right.
You can forward the link to your gallery to anyone you'd like to–there's nothing complicated about sharing with PASS.
The print company connected to PASS is WHCC, an excellent national photo printer. The overall quality will be much higher and the photos will last much longer than anything from CVS or Shutterfly or any other casual consumer printer. I order my personal prints with PASS, too.”
Make sure to save the text from emails that you tend to send over and over. You’ll save yourself time and hassle by anticipating and answering frequently asked client questions.
7. Lesson Learned #2
For small business clients, I can’t reiterate enough the need to get expectations and budget clear from the start, especially if your usual photography business is families and weddings. Small businesses will undoubtedly have specific goals in mind, even if the initial communication is a request for new headshots. Make sure that the business truly only wants headshots.
I have had several jobs where I showed up prepared to do headshots only to then be asked to do business candids and work-space photos. Headshots are a different beast than the other types of photography.
A recent small business job of mine should have been a 30-minute session with one headshot setup. The job became an hour-long session with multiple setups including illuminating a scene through glass walls. Talk about an uncomfortable position to be in on location. For fear of being rude and not accommodating, I couldn’t just say, “Sure, I’ll do these other photos. But it’ll be another $300. Is that okay?” Instead, I completed the job and did what I had to do to keep everyone happy and impressed.
During the initial exchange with a small business client, make sure to have them specify their budget and their shot list. Use the phrase “shot list” to make sure both you and the client are clear about expectations. What small businesses don’t often understand is that families can book a chunk of time and get the photos they want, but small businesses can’t just book time. Instead, you should quote them for the whole job regardless of time–just make sure that the money is worth the effort you anticipate. With small businesses, do yourself a favor and specify as much as possible ahead of time. And don’t feel like you have to say yes to every job if you’re just starting out! Sometimes, the job just isn’t right. Another will come along.
8. Preview Image Emails
Ever since my first session with my first client, I have always given a photo preview the same day. I don’t mention the day-of preview ahead of time, so it’s a nice surprise for them when they quickly get photos to share on social media. I send preview images the same day for two reasons.
First, I can rest easy knowing that I didn’t mess up the session. I still get nervous that I’ll end up coming home with nothing. Sending preview images that day assuages my nervousness.
Second, I now have a few images to post immediately to social media for advertising and word-of-mouth excitement. Families and couples are always excited to see their photos. Following up a joyful session with photos a few hours later only increases their excitement to share and spread the word about your photography.
Be careful, though! Make sure you don’t share photos that the client wants to keep as a secret or surprise. As I wrote above in #6, I always defer to my client’s social media and sharing preferences.
I also use the photo preview email to remind clients about how to tag me on social media with the following:
“When you share on social media, if you don’t mind tagging me, I’d really appreciate it! On Facebook, you can tag my personal page (@taylorfaaron) or my business page (@aarontaylorphoto) or both! On Instagram, you can tag me @aaronftaylor.”
You’ll notice that I used the phrase “if you don’t mind tagging me.” I know many photographers are strict about social media tagging. We’ve all read angry photography threads on Facebook about a client’s forgetfulness (or unwillingness) to tag. I figure, you win some, you lose some. Social media tagging is not a battle I care to fight. My time can be better spent elsewhere.
As you take these winter months to regroup and plan for the next photography season, find the ways that your client communication can do more work for you. You’ll thank yourself later when blog posts practically write themselves and when you don’t answer the same question for every client. Take as much pride in communication as you do in your photographs.