It was good. Too good, in fact.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. How had he done this? The year was 1999. It was a time before there was Facebook and Twitter. Before there were apps and smartphones. The Internet was new, and I was a web designer. I had been fighting the fight, pushing with no relent, no give, year on year, day on day, and I was sure as sure that I had arrived. Big things were coming. Then came this. This thing. This site – years ahead of its time. In that instant I knew everything would change forever. And I would be on the sidelines.
I could feel the well of inferiority pooling in my gut. Knowing I was less. Feeling I couldn’t be more. I hated the hurt. That feeling when you see something not just better than you, but beyond you. Beyond your knowledge and beyond your talent. Beyond your vision. As if someone operated on another level. As if they lived in a world that moved at one quarter the speed, absorbing everything in Matrix time, so much fuller, so much richer, so much deeper.
For so long, so often, that feeling has defined my life. I’ve worn it, sometimes in shame, sometimes in defiance. Always gnawing at my gut, as I trudged step by step, hoping I was more.
And I’m here to say, it doesn’t matter.
Ignore better and worse. Superior and inferior. Don’t play that game.
Because that type of better misframes the challenge and misses the point. It leads you down a path of rights and wrongs. Full of this is good and that is bad, and this is how it’s done. What you want is exploration and freedom. What you get are rules.
It’s a prison with four walls that kills creativity and limits vision. The whole point of life is to figure it out for yourself. To love the challenge and live in the process. It can’t flourish in the light of others. Comparison is the surest path to bitterness and grief. Explore. See your power. See what you can do. Success is not being better than everyone else. It’s finding you.
When you frame your value in the context of others, you place yourself on their roads in their journeys. But the problem is you’ll never see the whole puzzle. You’ll never hear about their failures and hardships – the challenges they overcame to become who they were. You will only know their successes. You will only witness their best. It will give you none of their insights, but it will leave you empty and miserable, drained of the very energy you need to live like you.
So, sure, go ahead and enjoy what others can do. Be inspired. Let them move you. But remember, learning from others is one thing. Chasing them is another, and when your gut churns, and you feel you have less, do less, or are less, let it go. Because it’s the surest sign you’ve checked out of your life to go after someone else’s.
Get over yourself.
Just let go.
You don’t know it, but that self is stopping you dead in your tracks. That self is the past. It can tell you what to do, but it can’t tell you where you need to go. In fact, when it counts the most, it’ll do the opposite, and it’s killing you.
It’s a little like this: You’re driving. You have your GPS all set and the coordinates locked in. But you have a change of heart, and you decide to take a detour. Your poor GPS doesn’t have a clue. It just keeps saying you’re off course. And the more it does, the more tense you feel. The more messages you hear, the more you worry, the more you doubt. Maybe you even start to think you are going the wrong way. And there lies the problem.
We all have our inner-GPS. And it’s great most of the time. It’s the instinct we acquire from a lifetime of experience. It keeps us safe, and it keeps us on track. But it’s built by the past, and it will never know when there’s a new you. A you who’s ready to push in different directions to find different things. In short, it doesn’t know about the detours. Yet the detours define us. When you go off the beaten path, it will just keep telling you to get back on track, and for awhile, the more you veer, the more it nags. If you listen to it, know that you’ll be navigating by a you of yesterday, and sometimes, a you from a very distant yesterday.
See, the GPS is loaded with all sorts of destinations. Notions of who we are and what we’re supposed to do. Maybe we never got over the idea that a certain career was right for us. Maybe we thought there was a best way to talk to people. And in the heat of the moment with the shot on the line, it’s sure not going to know that some new and different pose in this new and different light is the one you really want to go for.
Of course, your GPS isn’t to blame. It was designed for different times. Times when eating the wrong berry could kill you, or taking the wrong path would leave you short an appendage. It’s conservative for good reason.
But this is a bubble-wrapped world. We’re insulated from everything, and we can bounce back from a whole lot more than we think. You post the wrong post. So what? You get a mediocre review. So what? What’s really going to happen? Not to say that it won’t hurt, but at the time these things happen, it feels like you’ve just RUINED. YOUR. LIFE.
In other words, we fear pain more than we feel the potential.
Don’t listen to the fear. The fact is you change every day. You have new needs, you have new desires, and you just plain grow. But your mind and body take some time to catch up. Your GPS holds on to the old directives, and it takes the full force of all the will you’ve got to send the message that this new place you’re heading is exactly where you want to go.
We start all things free. Full of ideas. Full of purpose. To be sure, tangled and blurred and ever just so hidden, but it’s there. We lose this along the way as we find success. Once we make things work and the patterns become apparent, our bodies hard-code the recipe into a user manual for living, when, in reality, there can never be a user manual for living.
As this happens, we go from a state of freedom to a state of constriction, which is utterly backwards. After all, shouldn’t learning free us?
And it can, if you stay open and aware.
Success can be so much worse than failure. Failure hurts, but it pushes us to keep exploring. Success, on the other hand, limits us. It tells us to keep doing the same.
It’s all that damn stuff. Literal. Metaphorical. You know – baggage. Once you have something, you fear the loss, which is why nothing is more perilous than early success.
See, once you are something – once you earn something, deserve it, have it and need it, letting go is hell. We’re all a bunch of pack rats, when it comes down to it, but it’s not just about keeping this or that, which is hard enough. What we really cling to is ego, and losing that is most painful thing of all.
So we stay the course and re-tread familiar ground. We let creativity die.
You live by the fear or you live by the potential. When you know whatever you do this second is all you are, you know you can be anything. When you know today is what matters there’s no ego to feed. But more than anything, when you turn off the GPS, you get over yourself in the most glorious way possible. You live free of definition and free of restraint.
And that’s the detour you want to take.
It’s official. The rockstar is dead.
Dead, gone, and six feet under.
But if the patina has worn thin and we’ve been rubbed a little raw, now that our unvarnished lives are out there for everyone to see, what becomes all too apparent is the single burning question we have yet to answer. What next?
The rockstar was nothing but the worst in us all. Hope hemorrhaging on dreams of quick money and good times in exchange for the belief we could all be the next big thing if we just learned to wash, rinse, and repeat.
We killed the rockstar, but wash, rinse, and repeat is exactly what we have left.
There are more tips, more tricks, more advice, and more more than ever before. We’re awash in knowledge. Search brand. Search SEO. Search marketing. Search sales. It’s all there. By this point, if you’re not finding it, you’re not looking.
But no amount of information is going to do the trick.
The industry is running scared. Bodies crowded, flesh to flesh, mouths open, gasping for air. And we wait. Counting the inquiries. Waiting for revelation. We dangle on the hook ready for the next shot of adrenaline to keep us going. Just get a little more knowledge, a little more cash, and we can keep the raft afloat until we hit solid ground.
It’s not enough. The downgrade from an economy of hope to an economy of survival may be a correction, but it’s not a cure. Because all the information in the world will do nothing for us, if we have nothing to use it for.
We chased our dreams. We followed the bill of goods we were sold. Find your passion. Find the thing you love. Make that your life’s work. And we found something we loved, but we have been let down. Because what no one told us was how to keep that passion alive.
The truest problem in the age of the rockstar had nothing to do with broken promises and unfulfilled dreams. Like the day after any party, the real disappointment comes when we wake up in the cold morning light with the hangover pounding, and the emptiness is still there when we ask “What’s next?”
So often, it’s the very reason we started taking pictures. To quell the nagging voice in the back of our heads, asking if there was more, asking what was next, and wondering who we were. Photography was the answer. The thing that set us free and let us be, in this world, as part of it, with purpose and power and feeling.
But as the days grew longer, and the nights got harder, we were slammed into the wall. We can run our hardest, but we can never catch up, because what’s next is always an arm’s length away. It’s always out of reach. It’s the carrot in front of the stick, and it’s never going to be here in the now, when the here and now is the only thing we ever have.
It’s a question we can never answer.
But we can stop asking.
These are hard times to be sure. But the choice is always the same. You can put full faith in the present or you can let the doubt swallow you whole, because when you wait for the money and the likes, and dwell in the tension and fear, you diminish your power and bypass all the potential of the now to build a hollower, emptier future.
Committing to the moment lets you find the future you need and forget the future you want. Do what matters. Reconnect with the stories you need to tell. Start writing the unwritten tomorrow.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Look. Act.
Now, I’m not saying business doesn’t matter. But Duke Ellington had it right: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Do not create a business that pits you against yourself. Our security against our freedom. Our ego against our creativity. Don’t let your vision detach itself from your destination. The question isn’t how to get it done. It’s how to get it done your way.
It’s fully true that you don’t need to take great pictures to make a great living, but it’s so often said, and we’re too often mislead, because when you connect the dots and relentlessly stuff your products so full of your vision that they’re ready to burst at the seams, you’re worth your very most.
The trick is so deceptively simple. What’s true is selling only the quality of your images is a perilous proposition. But what’s too often left out is that the dedication to delivering your very best – all of the exploration, the toil, the craft, and the art – these are the most powerful weapons in your arsenal to build the exact story people will hire you for.
The world craves the real, but it’s a story you can’t fake to make. You’ve gotta hit the ground hard, keep on the move, and push your way through. True grit is the stuff of real legend, and skipping it is the surest way to find yourself back at the end of the party, wondering what’s next. So if your very best doesn’t matter to your business, change things up and make it so, or else you’re wasting the very power of the stories you have.
We’re blessed with a task that asks us to dwell in the present. You can’t engage in the act of photography without some vision, some direction, and some place you’re trying to go. We don’t always know what it is. We don’t always know how to get there. But don’t lose faith before you arrive. Dive headlong. Find your verve. Find your vector. Find your little corner in the universe, and build from there.
Are you moving forward with heart and dedication? Are you living boldly? If you can just see the movement, that’s enough. Because once you lock-on to even the smallest sliver of that person you are, you’ll never need to think about washing, rinsing, or repeating ever again.
“Let go of yourself.”
When you speak, you don’t imagine yourself being quoted. Doubly not, when it’s because you’re tongue tied, you’ve gone off script, and the words just rattle out of your head. But Carla Ten Eyck made it a tweet for the world to see.
“Let go of yourself.”
It didn’t mean much at the time, but I think Carla knew something I didn’t.
See, up until September of last year, I had never even heard of the Inspire Retreat, and now for the past three days, I was not only an attendee, but a speaker. And like all things new and foreign, you’re a little bit anxious. Anxious about what you’ll say, what you’ll do, whether you can make it all work. But more than anything, about All. Those. People. Where you’ll eat. Who you’ll talk to. What everyone is going to be like.
Will it be high school all over again? Will there be the cool kids and the outcasts and the rockstars and the egos? The thought sent shivers down my spine.
But that first night, as Carla delivered her keynote, it all came into focus. In brave, bold, and raw words, she showed something beautiful. She cut herself open and let her life spill out for all of us, and it became clear that the conference was exactly about letting go of yourself.
It was not the egos and the cliques and the who is better than who. As I watched and the days passed, I saw this retreat was about community and about love. About letting yourself go, not in the simple, practical way I had conceived of it as I uttered the words, but as nourishment and growth. As letting go of limitation and doubt and as a necessary step to becoming tomorrow’s you.
We are a community on the edge. These are hard times. Budgets have evaporated, the market is overheated, crowded, and full, and so much of the magic has been reduced to formula. It is a fight to survive.
And we are fighting. I heard so many stories of life being lived. Of fights being fought. Of standing up and being counted amidst the challenge of children and family and work and a market that doubts your value more than it ever has.
But it can’t only be a fight. It can’t only be survival. It has to be more.
Inspire was exactly that more.
As small business owners, we live a solitary existence. There is a wonder and brilliance in a life that’s yours. Where you dare to make the world your own. But there’s a loneliness in the day-to-day fights.
Inspire was a sledgehammer to this isolation. There were no sales. There was no show. It was pure giving. A reminder that we are not alone. A lesson that we are all more. That in our similarity, we can find our individuality. It truly was letting go of yourself. Knowing that there was nothing to fear for being who you are. It was permission to find your future free of restraint and restriction. It was the purest of inspiration.
So thank to the entire team. To Enna and Eric and Krista and Carla and Paul. To everyone helping to make it happen. And a special thank you to Mark, who asked me to join. What they pulled off was nothing short of tremendous. For the heart, for the inspiration. For the group of people they assembled and for finding a way to do exactly what they asked of us. In an industry filled with surface, they dared to dig deep and open themselves up for each of us to grow.
You went a different direction? What do you mean you went a different direction?!?!
I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I read and re-read the email. This had to be wrong.
I had it in the bag. This can’t be. They fit the ICP!
I didn’t understand. The couple came signed, sealed, and delivered. They were a referral from a happy client who knew the same people, hung out at the same places, and even liked the same food. I had it. I could feel it in my bones. Everything was flawless from start to finish. I cracked open my best jokes. I shared my best stories. I was the first person on their list , and my pictures were exactly what they needed. Only a fool could fail. Of course, I was that fool.
They were a spot on match for my ICP. In marketing speak, that’s the Ideal Client Profile, and I had mine defined to a T. I knew the music they should listen to, the things they should value, the way they thought, they way they bought, and what they wanted. And what they wanted was supposed to be me.
But they went a different direction. Where had I gone wrong?
DO WE REALLY NEED IDEAL CLIENTS?
You couldn’t spit into the blogosphere more than two feet without hitting an article on ideal clients and target audiences. Define your clients. Get more clients. Find good ones. Fire bad ones. But is the ideal client really a silver bullet? I couldn’t help but wonder, with all that information out there about reeling the right person in, why aren’t we happier with our clients? And why is it so hard to find more of them?
WELL, YES, BUT…
OK, so what is an ideal client? It’s basically a thought exercise to identify the people who are best for your business. You know – who you work well with, who your services fit, who can afford you, and all that. Once you have that person in your head, you have a shorthand ideal you can use to decide who to focus on, how to focus on them, and who to ignore. Do I want to be featured on that blog? Nope, they don’t attract my type of clients. Should I say “Hell yeah!” on my blog? Yep, that’s totally my clients.
Finding the ideal client is a Big Deal, and the articles abound (if you haven’t done the exercise, go do a search and do it – well worth the time – this article will still be here), but the point is simple. If you don’t know who you’re trying to talk to, you can’t really know the best way to talk to them or reach them. Hard to deny that logic. What’s equally true is if you don’t know the best way to talk to people, it’s pretty hard to give people that glorious “OMG! This photographer is the one for meeeee!” feeling when they learn about you, which is the key to big, endless gobs of money and lifelong freedom. Not really. But it is the key to good marketing and strong relationships, which isn’t too shabby, either. But for all that…
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Creating a great People Match is awesome. But, like all things, there are as many ways to muck it up as there are owners running businesses. It may not be rocket science, but it’s easier than pie to go off track, and the culprit is that good ol’ chestnut of a flaw that haunts us all: self-interest. The problem is it’s all-too-easy to focus on creating what we want – a perfect client – instead of finding a perfect match, which is why I use the term People Match instead. Here are three common mistakes people make when creating their ideal client and how to correct them.
1. PROJECTING YOURSELF
Instead of identifying what your clients are like, you slot your own traits into your People Match. You know you’re projecting when your ideal client profile reads like your separated-at-birth twin. They’ll think the same, want the same, and basically be the same as you.
The problem is this violates the point of it all. You create a People Match to figure out who is right for your business, and to understand them thoroughly. When you slot in your own traits, you’re making a huge assumption that you’re the perfect person for you, and you’re shortchanging yourself from the process of going out into the real world and looking hard for the right match, which is part of the learning a business needs to do. Have you tried selling to you? You might not be as easy to work with as you think. You might not buy the services you want to sell. You might be more demanding than you really want to deal with.
Remember, you’re looking for someone who is a complement to you, not the same as you. And more specifically, you’re looking for someone who is a complement not to you as a person, but to you as a business. Would you want someone who was pleasant to deal with, easy to sell to, and didn’t fuss about your price but wasn’t like you? Or would you want someone who you could hang out with at a bar, but who was a whole mess of trouble?
Now, I’m not saying a client just like you is always a whole mess of trouble – very frequently, your best clients do share a lot of your values and that’s what lets you relate. But even so, it’s often the careful examination that gives you the Aha! moment when you suddenly figure out exactly why your clients are really buying from you, and that’s gold. There are probably a lot of reasons that are very different than you think.
Re-align your People Match by taking a hard look at your business and seeing who is really out there. Don’t create characteristics just because you think they’d work for you. Have you ever read most people’s wish list for their partners? They don’t always look a whole lot like the real thing. The point? We don’t always know what’s good for us.
The good news is life does the legwork for you. Just watch for the problems you actually encounter. There’s nothing better than real life to clue you in as to what you need and who works well with you. If you’ve been in the business even just a little while, you probably already have an idea as to the types of people who value you the most and need what you do, as well as who you get along with and who can make your life a living hell. Figure out what traits mesh well with your business, then connect the dots and figure out how the people with these traits live their lives, so you can seek them out and understand their problems.
How valuable is this knowledge? The Swiffer came about when the design agency Continuum watched real people using mops. The seed was planted when they saw an old lady wet a paper towel to wipe up some spilt coffee grounds instead of grabbing a mop, giving rise to an invention that generated $100 million in sales early on in a meager 4 months. Nothing beats knowing how your clients really behave and think. Remember, people don’t love you because you’re just like them. People love you because you get them that much. Use your People Match to find who’s right for you and find out what they’re about.
Usually, the more specific you get, the better. But you still need to rein it in. It seems harmless enough to say your perfect match prefers ice cream over frozen yogurt, thinks Marc Jacobs is better than sliced bread, and sings soulfully during her time off, but if you can’t make any actionable decisions based on these things, it’s a distraction. On top of it, if you get too attached to it, it might even lead you to exclude people who don’t fit your People Match, when they’d be great clients in reality.
Does that mean you shouldn’t go that deep? No. It means after you’ve gone that deep, you have to decide what really matters and what doesn’t. The worst case is when you feel like you’ve built a bulletproof profile that’s really a castle made of sand. Focusing on the wrong traits can take you take you down the rabbit hole instead of getting actual results. Even if it’s true your ideal client loves ice cream, you have to ask whether that tells us much about their relationship to your photography.
What you want is real specificity. Good business is specific business, but specific isn’t just being detailed. It’s knowing which details count. The common conception is that businesses fail, because they don’t know how to do the right thing. But a lot of people do the right thing all the time. The problem is they do even more of the wrong things, and it burns through their resources and time. If your ideal client is stuffed with characteristics that are questionable in value and limited in use, you’re creating a breeding ground for bad decision making – ironic, given that this is a problem defining the ideal client is supposed to help solve.
Go back to the basics. Look at needs and pain points and what personality and life traits influence your clients’ buying decisions for your services. That’s what you want to know about. What you’re looking for is correlation. For example, knowing that your client considers style part of their identity probably correlates with values like uniqueness, individuality, and artistry, which you could then be sure to talk about and reflect in your marketing (a note about correlation – never assume these things are true – go out there and talk with people). Look through the traits you identify in your People Match, and see what correlates to specific needs. Maybe corporate types are concerned with professionalism and reliability. Maybe some age groups tend to care more about people instead of decorations. Who knows. Go find out.
3. CLIPPING THE THORNS
This happens when you remove every objection possible. Unlike projecting yourself, where you simply assume your perfect client has the same problems you have, when you clip the thorns, you flat-out remove potential issues. Tired of people who object about money? Doesn’t matter, because your perfect clients have trust funds or they make exceptions for the good stuff (a.k.a. You). What about micromanagers? Never, because your client has complete faith in you and would never ask you to do anything you wouldn’t want to do.
If you filter out every possible flaw you could encounter, you’re creating a target audience of zero. Every client has potential issues. But the point is good businesses know exactly how to handle the issues that are unique to their audience. That’s the whole point of the exercise. Knowing exactly who your best clients are, for good and for bad, lets you create a full, nuanced profile that clues you in to the small, subtle things that let you click with them.
Forget about being extra special. No matter how many times popular culture will tell you, “You’re worth it,” what your clients care about is themselves and not you. Caring about you only comes after you’ve shown you care about them. That means you have to put in the legwork to figure out how to service them the best way possible.
Create a profile that helps reveal what issues you’re going to encounter. People who fight for their clients get clients. It’s not a character flaw that a couple doesn’t know why you cost so much. It’s a hurdle. It’s a character flaw (to your business) when they’d never ever pay what you need to charge. Be aware of the difference between problems you can readily solve and problems that hurt you.
For the longest time, I was sure I had a rock-solid People Match. As it turned out, it was a perfect profile that fit no one. I created a person better than reality without figuring out how to make my business attractive to them. I assumed the pictures would say it all, and I blamed everyone else for my problems. They didn’t appreciate me. They didn’t understand me. They didn’t have the budget I needed.
I never found out why that couple went a different direction. But I can take a guess. We shot the breeze, we talked about their story, as well as where we liked to hang out, what we liked to do, and how great my pictures were. But I never learned a thing about what mattered to them and how I could help. They say to a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. My problem was I never saw that their problem had nothing to do with a nail.
The clip and the clop clack their way through, as each day folds into the next. An unending blur in a whir that grows hazier by the day, until you’re left blind and deaf in the day’s din. But there are those times – those times when you stop dead in your tracks, and life ceases, your mind freezes, and you stand outside of yourself just long enough to check stock and take inventory. Sometimes, the world is like that. It gives you no choice. And far too frequently, I must confess, I have asked “Is this it?”
Maybe I can’t be more. Do more. Find more. “What if this is all there is?”
Silence answers me back. There’s nothing more than a distant yesterday, an unimaginable tomorrow, and me in this frozen moment, dark, still, and cold. Enough to rattle you, but so rarely enough to shake you free, eventually, the moment thaws, life calls, and the clip and the clop continue.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way.
My life as a photographer was born in the warm haze of inspiration. A sort of drippy, gushy feeling. Maybe it’s what it feels like when your heart comes alive. Maybe it’s the stars in alignment. Whatever it is, somehow, in that brief moment, I knew I had found more of me. Photography was my drug, and I could feel the high.
It’s fascinates me that this desire – something that started as nothing more than a way to pass the time and have some fun with that mysterious little black box – could burn so fiercely. We call it a hunger, and hunger is the right word. It’s no coincidence that we equate such passion with our most elemental and primal of needs. Once you get it into your system, you never really flush it out.
But like a drug, over time you can grow numb to its effects. The high is a little less high, the low is a little more low. The creativity starts to look a little less creative, and inspiration calcifies as you go through the motions, praying each time you do, that if you do it with enough verve, you’ll rekindle that lost flame.
And if you’ve made it your job, the cycle accelerates, as you find your creativity pitted against itself. When creativity defines you, change is oxygen, but when you double down and put your livelihood on the line, it’s formula that so often saves the day and puts food on the table.
It’s the most vicious of cycles. Inspiration defines you. Definition limits you. Hunger becomes sustenance. Passion becomes work.
You can never return to Eden. And, yet, the irony is neither do you need to leave. Life is the process of change, and we all do so, whether we like it or not. The question is whether you recognize this change.
You can never really be reduced to formula, though too often, we do just that in the face of unrelenting pressure and unending work. But if you can never go back, then how do you go forward?
The beauty of beginnings is the romance. We live anew, undefined, and unrestrained. There are no voices in your head telling you who you are, how it should be, and what you’re supposed to do. It’s a time of limitless potential, where the only question we need ask is how it can be. But, invariably, as things settle, and we learn the rules, learn our ways, and see the patterns, in the face of the pain we feel when we find our limits, we stop asking how it can be and we start saying how it should be.
And in the face of creativity, how-it-should-be is death. It is the triumph of fear over inspiration – a loss of the faith in the unknown that once gave us strength and a loss of the belief in tomorrow’s tomorrow.
We live by archetypes – fancy little models in our heads about how it’s supposed to all go down. In beginnings we don’t know enough to have them. In ends we know too much to steer clear. We’re filled with notions of how. How we should sit, how we should stand, what we should think, and, of course, how we should take our pictures. But the most damning of them all is knowing who we are. Because if we know who we are, then we just as readily must know who we are not – all the things we can’t do, won’t do, won’t accept, and don’t accept. This is the true loss of creativity.
It may be that knowing who you are is everything. But, if so, only in inclusion. Only when you remain willing to see the world with the newborn eyes, keep the doors open, and cradle the universe in your arms. When you know there’s no way you have to take your pictures, no way it has to be, when you revel instead of revile, then knowing who you are becomes as much an act of letting go as letting in. It’s allowing yourself to change and to follow the path to new conclusions.
Too often, we feel we aren’t measuring up – that we have failed – when in reality, we simply don’t see we’re on a different course. Emerson was right. It is indeed the journey and not the destination.
Each day, we live the journey, but the destinations will change. We do not have to follow the course charted by our younger selves. Yesterday’s rules were meant for yesterday. Today is a different ride. The course correction you need is not to realign the now with your past. It’s to realign your past with the now.
You are at your most brave and powerful in the silence. In the moments you check stock and take inventory and feel the hesitance and fear of an uncertain you. But we have to be willing to shed our own skins and crawl out of ourselves to fly. And while the path might be fraught with challenge and change and the sweat and blood of a hard-earned life, the message is clear. In this moment, as you read this, as you take your next picture, build your next life, and think about who you are, the true danger isn’t that you become someone else. It’s that you don’t accept who you are now.
“Why would someone send an inquiry and not respond to my reply? It makes no sense!”
I couldn’t figure it out. My prices were good and my pictures were solid, but time and time again, the emails would go out and nothing came back.
What I didn’t know was that I was consistently violating the first commandment of good sales: Thou shalt be responsive. In fact, I was not only violating one, but I was violating all three of the core sales principles listed at the end of this article. And it was killing my business.
It all started with the drought of 2009.
It was mid-year. Days had become weeks, and weeks had become months. It was an agonizing, bone-dry stretch without inquiry or call.
On more than one occasion, I went so far as to send myself emails just to make sure it was working. In the meantime, I was pulling out all the stops and digging deep, but I’ve gotta cop to the fact that I was giving some serious thought to throwing in the towel.
Then it came. The most precious of precious words: Inbox (1), Subject Line: Wedding Photo Inquiry.
Someone was interested! Better yet, she loved my work and couldn’t wait to hear back. Things were looking up.
I mustered all of my energy for the reply, clicking and clacking my way through with the full force of my enthusiasm. I double-checked every line. I combed through every word. Everything was good to go. Finally, with that special mix of apprehension and excitement you find at the brink of hope, I released the email into the digital ether.
An hour later, nothing. Two, static. Finally, after two more follow-ups and a week of waiting, I accepted my fate. The lead was dead.
The numbers will blow you away. Professor James Oldroyd of MIT partnered with InsideSales.com (see the study) and found that the odds of qualifying a lead if you contact them 30 minutes after an inquiry drops by a full 21 times compared with a reply in 5 minutes. Even going from 5 minutes to 10 minutes translated to a decrease in response by a factor of 4. And forget about what happens after an hour or more.
I didn’t know it, but the hours I waited before sending my oh-so-perfect email did me in. Just by eyeballing the charts, it would have lowered my chances 186 times plus or minus a few.
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
When you’re replying to an email, time goes fast. You’ve got things to do, places to be, and you’re in the middle of life. A few hours or even a day is nothing. But when you’re waiting for a reply, time stands still. You’re suspended, held back because you don’t have the information you need to move forward. Nothing is more annoying than waiting.
You have a window – maybe five or ten minutes – to really impress your potential clients. If you reply in a minute, it’s like a chat. Your client is ready to go and excited to respond. In five minutes, she’s probably still at the computer and thinking about you. At ten minutes, you’re pretty fast. And that counts. This is your first chance to make an impression, and a quick response shows how attentive you are. Great connections start with great service.
By half a day, that chance is gone. Odds are you’re just one of many stuffing an inbox. People are constantly in motion. They aren’t plants. They’re not static. They’re changing their perspective every second, and while neither an hour nor a day is enough time to lose interest in you, it’s more than enough time for a client to find themselves in a different state of mind. Even at a few hours, you’re opening the door for other photographers to beat you to the punch, and you’re giving your client the chance to move on to other tasks that might make them too busy to respond. If nothing else, this is a world where things come up constantly, and as a vendor that means finding yourself stashed on the back burner.
The great thing is this is one of the easiest things you can possibly change.
Here are three tips you can use to right away to get a better response from your clients.
1. Reply fast
If it’s crunch time and each booking counts, you just do not want to let this one slide. The numbers are too big to ignore. Make it your goal to reply to every inquiry in five minutes. Sometimes that will slip. But don’t make your target hours or a day. Have a bullet-proof template ready to go on your computer, your tablet, and your smartphone, and get back to people right away.
Over the years, I’ve tried short replies, long replies, casual replies, formal replies, psychological replies, and low key replies. Speed made a bigger difference than all of them. Time can make the difference between feast and famine.
2. Tell them what to do
Now that you have a fast reply, you can work on creating an effective reply. Start by making sure your communications have a call to action. A call to action is a request to do something. That might be setting up a meeting or asking for a phone call, for example. But whatever the case, if you don’t ask, people won’t tell and won’t do. Don’t assume people will know what the next steps are. They’ve probably never shopped for photography before, and you need to help them along the way.
In the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, they discuss a study asking students for donations. Students were divided into two groups – the jerks and the saints – based on characteristics that correlated to their chances of donating. When given a basic letter just asking for donations, none of the jerks donated, and only 8% of the saints did. Not terribly impressive.
Remarkably, when given a detailed letter that included a map, a specific request to donate a can of beans, and a suggestion to think about a time when the student would be close to the donation center, a full 42% of the saints donated, and 25% of the jerks did!
In other words, the instruction letter had a greater effect on people’s willingness to donate than their personal characteristics. If you want people to take action, don’t assume that their desire to work with you will make the difference. Find ways to lead help them through the process and remove all barriers that could derail them.
3. Get them on the phone
At the end of the day, it comes down to trust above all. That means taking the time to show you care, learning about your client’s needs, and getting to know one another. And there’s no better way to start that process than getting on the phone. It’s true, a lot of people just want your basic information. But that doesn’t mean you should give it all out. Your job is not just to give people what they want. It’s to help them find what they really need, and no price sheet or email is ever going to say enough to get them there. Until you talk to them, you’re nothing more than an abstraction and a number.
One of the top complaints I hear is that people treat us like a price sheet. The best way to change that is to warm up those vocal cords and to get people talking. Don’t just send a reply and consider it a done deal. Talking is the best way to start building trust and one of the easiest ways to give your business an edge.
What things have stopped you from getting the response you wanted from your clients? Let me know how you can use this information and what hurdles you’ve encountered.
2013 was a roller coaster ride. There was more advice out there than ever and more questions, as well. The industry continued its march from vintage to Gatsby, as yellow skies from blue channel curves moved on to become VSCO overtones, and more than ever, efficiency and effectiveness ruled the business landscape, as day to day challenges grew, pressures mounted, and staying in business became a business.
As for me, I hit the ground running, I stalled out, got sick for a month, and started to build anew. My shooting season hit me full force, and it came hard, but there was more learning this year than ever before, and I can’t wait to share it.
As I saw empowerment become the norm, I made my first efforts to launch a video series to try to tackle real problems head-on, and I had the pleasure of seeing them shared on SLR Lounge and Fstoppers (apparently, I need to keep the hand gestures down – man, that’s gonna be tough, but try I shall).
Right this moment, I’m gearing up for my workshop at Inspire 2014, and I’m trying my hardest to pack it with everything I’ve got. It’s going to be a fantastic group of people. But that’s just a start, because I’ve got all of next year mapped out and ready to go, and we’re just starting to kick things in gear. More videos, more information, and a full length course.
So hang on, because there’s a lot to come. Here are some highlights from the past year. And thanks to everyone for spending some time on Ground Glass. I can’t say enough how much it’s meant to me to see some of your names in the comments, on Facebook, and through Twitter. So many of you have provided so much inspiration. In fact, more than anything, it’s seeing how so many of you have gone out there and gotten it done that has been my biggest inspiration for the year.
Thanks to everyone for spending some time here. I can’t say enough how much it’s meant to me to see some of your names in the comments, on Facebook, and through Twitter. So many of you have provided so much inspiration. In fact, more than anything, it’s seeing how so many of you have gone out there and gotten it done that has been my biggest inspiration for the year.
What’s been yours? And where do you want to go for 2014?
THE SCENE: Walt has ripped off Hey You from Pink Floyd for his high school talent contest. After being discovered, he’s brought in to see the school therapist, Mr Waddles, who confronts him on the issue.
WALT: I felt I could’ve written it.
MR. WADDLES: Okay. But you didn’t. It was written by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. I think you know that.
WALT: Yes, but I felt I could’ve so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality.
From The Squid and The Whale
Plagiarism makes no damned sense. Mind you, I’m not talking about absent-mindedly borrowing a quote here or mentioning an idea there. I’m talking about the wholesale and intentional stealing of images and words to create a false representation of who you are.
There was Jasmine Star and Doug Gordon. More recently, there was Rob Adams on Creative Live. There was even Shia Laboeuf, who not only ripped off an entire comic book, but – wait for it – plagiarized the apology. What the hell is wrong with this world?
I can understand the temptation. But that’s the thing – the temptation shouldn’t be that easy to understand. We’re so used to chasing the money, we don’t give a thought to trading-in the dream for it. In fact, it’s so easy to understand plagiarism, that almost every discussion begins not with the shock that someone stole, but with the shock that someone thought they could get away with it.
In other words, we’re not saying the people are idiots for stealing. We’re saying they’re idiots for thinking they wouldn’t get caught. And while it may go without saying, in a day and age where students see it as par for the course, and, let’s face it, how many of us haven’t cribbed some homework or a bit of a paper, it certainly deserves the mention: when we steal, we are being idiots, too.
Why? Because the whole act of stealing creative output instantly confuses and inverts the point of creativity. It’s not just an offense to those you take from. It’s an affront to yourself. Creativity isn’t a means to an end, where we seek to be, so we can become. You don’t pursue acts of self-expression for the sake of fame and fortune. You do it, because it lets you live your life more richly, whereas stealing just makes life cheap. It’s like having someone else lift your weights for you at the gym. What would be the point?
Maybe it’s all-too-natural in this quick-fix world, grounded by materialism and the all-mighty dollar, but the act of plagiarism is one of self-removal. It’s extracting yourself from your very own life in favor of the lives of others. It’s choosing to say I do not believe in the process of discovery. I do not believe in living life in the first person. I don’t want to feel it myself. It’s saying the real value of the world is not the beauty and the wonder. Instead, it’s believing in a duller and deader universe where striving, believing, and loving are forgone in favor of dollars, cents, likes, and metrics. A world, where that paradoxically asks you to cash in on your own existence by giving it up.
But you have a choice. You can believe in your own power and invest in your ability, knowing that when you do, you will have everything you need right there with you all the time. Or you can give in to a world of infinite fear, where your only security comes from the validation of others and the unending pursuit of more. Take your pick.
Last time, I talked about a marketing solution to clarify your value and increase what you can charge. In the follow-up, we’re heading over to the sales side, and what you can do in-person.
For years, I let my clients walk out the door without ever learning what their real needs were. Is it a wonder I didn’t close well? Because if people aren’t buying, but they’re coming in the door, the odds are something’s not clicking when you meet with them.
As it turns out, it really is the small things. In fact, more times than not, it’s the small things, because those are the things no one shares but that can make or break a deal. You just need to Google sales or branding to find thousands upon thousands of articles. And they’ll tell you how to find an ideal client or make a mission statement or connect with someone. But no one tells you exactly what to say once you’re in front of that ideal client or how to make that mission statement work on a daily basis. In part, because everyone needs to find their own answer, no doubt. But, also in part, because it’s just hard to explain once things are that granular, and it’s hard to put yourself on the line and say “This really works.” But no joke, as simple as it is, what I talk about here was worth more than an 18% bump in bookings initially, and, over time, it became worth a lot more than that.
Check out the video, then read on below. Is my complexion looking a little orange there? I gotta get out of the sun.
To wrap it all up, let’s take things a little further. Here are a few things to know:
1. Talking about something makes you believe it.
If you were thinking about buying a camera, and I said “What things can that camera do for you?” you’d automatically start to think about its value to you. As you explain it to me, you’d likely be talking yourself into a purchase, as well.
2. People like to talk about themselves.
They don’t in sales meetings, because they feel like they’re supposed to be there to listen to you, but, also we clam up because so we don’t inadvertently commit ourselves to anything. That, however, does not change the fact that we like to talk. It just means that you need to give people a push to get it going.
3. Conversations snowball.
Once people open up for real, it gets easier to keep things going.
Now, you can see how points 1 and 2 lead to 3 and how point 3 reinforces points 1 and 2. So now let’s go back to what I said at the end of the car negotiation. It’s about the process you go through, not the price. A question-based strategy doesn’t mean you’re being pushy or nosey. What it means is you’re helping people examine an issue and show you care.
What it also means is you’re pulling attention away from the price and focusing on how your clients feel about everything, which is way more important. There’s no price to put on feelings. For example, uncertainty and certainty aren’t value issues. It’s just that people won’t act if they feel uncertain, and they’ll act and be very comfortable if they are certain. So while they may translate to monetary decisions, trying to reduce everything down to numbers really just fails to address the real issues. And the same goes with all the other emotions we feel, as well.
So focus on finding ways to help people verbalize what’s worrying them. Once those concerns come out, you can address them for what they are, and not through dollar numbers. It will get you a good part of the way towards not just a sale, but towards making a genuine connection, which is infinitely more valuable.