Friday, March 27, 2009

(Updated) If You Can't Make It Better, Make it Cheaper
(Hint: Not A Good Idea)

“I’m just not cool enough to be a Mac person.”

So says Lauren, in one of Microsoft's latest commercials.

Now, I'm not saying Microsoft isn't cool. They have some awesome applications - like Expression Media, Sea Dragon, and so on, and they are spending much more time being photographer-centric. In fact, I run a HP Windows Home Server in my office with 7.5TB of storage space so I can access my archives from the road. However, Lauren IS suggesting she's not cool enough to be a mac person, and she's shopping price alone.
<br/><a href="" target="_new" title="Laptop Hunters $1000 - Lauren Gets an HP Pavilion">Video: Laptop Hunters $1000 - Lauren Gets an HP Pavilion</a>

We can presume Lauren is shopping features and quality, and she says something to the effect that "I got everything I want", but let's discuss price-shopping, since that is the point of this commercial.

*** UPDATE *** Gizmodo found Lauren, and she's an actress in LA - Someone Found Microsoft's Lauren! And She's an Actress.

(Continued after the Jump)

What Lauren has done is commoditize her laptop. What our clients sometimes try to do is commoditize photography, and the lowest price wins. Clients like this are not loyal. I know that the economy is down, but Nordstrom's fourth quarter sales which included the holiday shopping season showed profits up 22%, and fourth quarter sales increased by 15%. Nordtroms customers don't walk in and focus on price, they focus on the level of service. "Nordstrom thrives on providing legendary experiences through unbelievable customer service, which result in customer folklore and the most powerful word-of-mouth marketing possible", and other stories abound here on the subject.

On the photography business side of what we do, customer service is key. We deliver a premium product, and when, like yesterday, the client said "oh, we need to get 7 photos e-mailed to us today for distribution", my answer is the same as it ALWAYS IS. "That's no problem at all. There's a nominal additional charge for that, but we are happy to take care of it." The client today, asked, as about half of them do "ok, do you know about how much?" I responded "yes, as outlined in our paperwork, it's $65 per image we prepare and send out". The clients response? "Ok, that's fine." Later on that day, I conveyed to the client "A number of the people we've photographed have asked about being able to download images, would you like us to set up an online gallery where they can do that?" The clients response? "Yes, that's a good idea." In both cases, we solved the clients problems or needs, despite having several other things we had to tend to that day. This client was not a price shopper, they were a quality service shopper.

Almost all our clients are quality-and-service-first clients. But the question is, how do you get those clients? Easy - it takes patience.

The question often put to inexpensive photographers is - would you rather do 10 $1,000 weddings, or 1 $10,000 wedding? Well, the fact is - $1k weddings beget $1k weddings. The decor is usually minimal, and the scenery that makes for a potentially great wedding album (and thus, portfolio) isn't there. It may take more effort and time to book the one $10k wedding initially, but once you get the word-of-mouth ball rolling, booking $10k weddings is usually not much harder than booking a $1k wedding, relatively speaking.

We still do get calls from clients who want to pay a pittance, or want all rights. We treat them just like those who are not price shoppers or rights grabbers, up until they decide to use someone else, and 90% of the time that's the case, and that's ok. We move on. Over time, the 10% that go with us realize the value of what we offer, and are lifetime clients. Occasionally, they will stray, but usually they come back after a bad experience with another photographer.

However, statistics suggest that for 1 in 5 prospective clients, price is only a detail, not a deciding factor. Over time, "collecting" just the 1 in 5 clients that have this perspective, will yield a client base that is sustainable. This is what we have done. It's not rocket science. We never put ourselves in a position where we had to accept a bad deal. Thus, over time, fair deals with fair and reasonable clients, are what constitutes our client base.

Today, before I had arrived back to the office, I spoke with the client and she said she had raved to her boss back in the company headquarters in their home state about how great it was to work with us, and she made a point about asking for my card at the shoot. My Office Manager sent me an e-mail phone message quoting the client as telling her we had done ". . .a fantastic job. Just wonderful."

Will Jill have a break/fix incident that requires her to ship her computer somewhere, or make a call to Bangalore where she gets further frustrated? Likely, Jill would opt out of the additional $250 3-year Applecare service contract that is regarded as a "must have" for a laptop purchase? Apple has such significant brand loyalty because of customer service, ease of use, and ease of troubleshooting. How many lost hours of productivity, or interruptions in a business day will Jill have that will end up costing her client revenue because she went with the cheap laptop? How much will Jill spend with break/fix incident calls when something isn't working? Consider that a Panasonic Toughbook, for example (yes - they run Windows!) is $5k or more. These machines are designed to take abuse, be on the road, and so on. Further, Panasonic's customer service for these machines is exceptional. With a $1k machine you're getting older/slower technology, and shaved corners on things like soldiering, or sub-standard CD drives.

Avoid being the cheapest. Strive for a clientele that pays you what you are asking. Like Nordstroms, during a downturn in the economy, it will be much easier to weather the storm if your clients are not so price-focused, and are more results and service oriented.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Ed Araquel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

In the slightly over one year I've had my Macbook Pro, I've had the RAM go bad, a superdrive replaced, and a complete replacement of the logic board due to the fact that my video card died.

Total time without laptop...2 weeks.

Oh, I also had to do a complete reinstall of OS X after it came back with that new logic board.

As much as I like OS X, I'm quite glad that I went with Lightroom instead of Aperture. I'm platform agnostic at this point. My work computer needs to run Photoshop and Lightroom for 98% of the stuff I'm doing. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me which OS it's running on.

Now, factor in glossy screens, and an almost total disregard for what I as a photographer want in a laptop (One firewire port on the MBP? Only an 800? Display Port? How many dongles can I hang off of it?) means that my next laptop is probably going to be running Windows. The price/performance gap is getting crazy again...

Anonymous said...

I just don't understand how Apple develops this cult of personality. Their reliability record is not fantastic, and now they're using the same architecture as Windows boxes- they're speccing the same OEM supplier, but they're charging a heck of a lot more for the privilege. Good work if you can get it...

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

I'm a huge fan of your work and I attended your classes at the North. Short Course last year (I was the US Marine who in the same unit with the Nick Kirven, whose mom you photographed at his graveside in Arlington.) I've used your book as a helpful roadmap in setting up our business.

I understand why you beat on lower-cost wedding photographers so much. I know that in many ways we're impacting how photography is being seen and valued by the general public.

You say: "would you rather do 10 $1,000 weddings, or 1 $10,000 wedding? Well, the fact is - $1k weddings beget $1k weddings."

Of course I'd rather shoot 10k weddings, but we're not there yet - if that market is even going to exist in a few more years. We operate our studio in Buffalo, NY - no one here has a 100k budget where their 10% photography solution would cover that cost. If we started at 4k a wedding we'd be out of business in a year.

As to the idea that 1k weddings beget 1k weddings - I sure believed that as I left the Marines to shoot weddings full time...but we had to shoot some stuff on the cheap to get our name out there and build a following. I actually made a list of all the 1k and 1500 brides we shot whose friends booked us for 2 and 3k - 22 of them for this year alone. All our business comes from referrals.

It's a tightrope out here in a small, somewhat glutted market. I don't think I'm letting down the industry - we're well above the cost of many other local photography studios (but we provide a much better product). I'd like to raise our prices further, but we just don't have the financial cushion to do that if it fails and the bookings go away.

Thanks, again, for all you do,


PS - we use a PC from dell that I customized - it works great. We're going to be purchasing a new macbook pro, however, because we know that they make the most reliable notebook systems for photographers, period and we're starting to do more and more weddings on the road.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post John. I really appreciate the posts that follow up on ideas presented in your book.

To me, customer survice is key and priority number 1. It becomes tedious at times with a difficult client, but even then, he/she is paying me for the service I do, and deserves the best I can deliver.

Thanks again.

brian faini said...

"Lauren IS suggesting she's not cool enough to be a mac person, and she's shopping price alone."

This statement is incorrect.
She mentions specs and buys one based on specs, not just price alone.

AdvRdr said...

Looks like some folks have missed the point of John's post.

John Harrington said...

AdvRdr - you are correct.

Brian - she sets forth a figure of $1k, not really knowing if that is reasonable, and then sets out to find what fits within that price range. This point is parallel to the points about superior customer service.


Anonymous said...

The problem is the point of the post is backed up with drivel that looks like an Apple PR person wrote it.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, remember...

Will Seberger said...

I just got back from a wedding. My wife's friend from grade school. I was a guest; not working.

I don't do many weddings at all anymore because they're not worth the hassle for the money. Here's why:

The photographer at the event in question was useless. Even the bridesmaids noticed. Bad attitude, and a sloppy technique.

Worse, the shots were straight out of Dummies Guide to Wedding Photography. He was such an amateur that he didn't bother to gel his strobes to match ambient.

Nothing like a piss-yellow background to win you some print sales.

But you know what? The bride knew how crappy he was before the big day - and she didn't care. She wasn't that impressed with his portfolio, but liked his price and that he "threw in" an assistant/second shooter (who was the only one actually working, btw).

Her reasoning was that she couldn't argue with the price (~$1500 with no printed product included is the word on the street), and with all the equipment he had (which wasn't actually much - A D200, and a bouncemaster 9000+++ on a frame) the photos would be good enough.

She knew there was better out there. But the 'better' wasn't worth the higher price in her mind.

At the end of the day, you can be the best photographer in the world, and the bride is going to go first on price 95% of the time, and 99% of the time will respond best to the snapshot of herself arm-in-arm with her friend she's known since daycare.

As in almost every other consumer market, cheapness itself is a valuable commodity. Cheap and adequate is better than expensive and excellent in the American marketplace.

And a majority of people have sobered up to the fact that what was traditionally spent on a wedding can be a healthy downpayment on a house, the average marriage is measured in years over decades, and no matter how spectacular the pictures are, they're in a book that will quickly be relegated to the closet under the stairs until the next move.

Weddings, in most markets for most photographers, have become a side-job. Maybe an easily attainable $20k-$30k/year (based on a $2500 pricetag) can make the crappy rates paid on the editorial/commercial side more livable.

Maybe for others an easy $20k-$30k per year on weekend weddings will make the cubicle, coffee or bar job feel better.

Whatever the circumstance, the market has set the price, and as Untenable Model A fails, someone is lined up to occupy the space with Untenable Model B as soon as the space is open.

Just like the rest of the consumer market, the vendors who are flashy enough (and possibly talented enough) to justify the high pricetags will get them, but the vast majority of the weddings will be $1,000/night distractions from the reality of the cube farm. Maybe the money for a new lens for the weekend warrior in exchange for a night he would have otherwise had to spend with the wife and kids anyway.

Way more Fords get sold every year than Porsches.

Morningstar Productions said...

Interesting thought to try and capture one in 10 prospective clients. For years I've been happy to see us capture about 80-90% of the prospectives. But the last year or so it's been dropping to maybe two or three in 10 prospectives hiring us. I've been agonizing but then really appreciating the regular clients who have stuck with us for many years (some for decades). Maybe I should just focus on gaining one or two good long-time clients and not worry so much about those who shop only by price this year.

But then again... there are bills to pay.

Javier Freytes said...

One problem I have found about the clients looking for cheaper options is that there are a lot of photographers promoting themselves as cheap. I check craiglist from time to time and I've seen photographers marketing themselves as $100.00 family portrait session with a CD with all images at the end of the shooting!. Also I've seen photographers looking to shoot weddings on a specific location for $1k and giving a CD with all images, and all that just because their going on vacation to that location and they wanna get the trip expenses covered. What about the photographers on those areas that try to make a living everyday there? I have found that once the clients have a chance of comparing quality vs price, they most of the time opt for quality, but the temptation of a cheaper options always grab their attention first.

Anonymous said...

The point is, you can get a PC that meets all your specs for half of what a mac goes for. I am a professional photographer that uses pc's made by Sony and I have never had any service issues or problems with the OS. my everyday laptop that I am posting from now I have had for over a year now and runs my D3 files with no issues.

No one is getting your point Mr. Harrington because you chose to highlight it using a Mac vs PC example which your never going to win. everyone has their own preference. The Nordstrom example is a reach as well, since their are many independent small stores that provide excelent service and quality products with out the "Big Name" which is what your story seems to imply. Your story does seem to read as if it was written by an Apple PR person.

Morningstar Productions said...

I beg to differ Mr. Anonymous. Nordstroms is an great example for teaching the point of how excellent service brings in quality clients. Nordy's is a big enough national chain that I'm guessing most readers of this blog have at least heard of them. I for one will never forget my first shopping experience there. I only spent $100 on a pair of slacks and was treated like a king before, during and after the purchase. That is how I want to treat all of my clients regardless of their budget.

Anonymous said...

I see Morningstar is still working on his reading comprehension.
Nordstrom has great service, I was pointing out that there are many other retailers that are providing the same high quality service.

Anonymous said...

I am the only PC user in my lab being surround by at least 10 Macs- all bought within the last 2.5 years and God know how many Linux boxes.

All the Macs except two have now needed to use Apple Care and I am still using my PC that is six years old with no issues. I get to all the time how Macs run windows faster than a PC; yet I giggle every time they need to use Apple Care especially when a laptop goes in for repairing a video problem and they wipe the hard drive clean.

Morningstar Productions said...

Mr. Anonymous,
Please avoid name-calling in the forums. If I misunderstood your comment then feel free to clarify. Saying I need to work on my reading comprehension is an unnecessary slap.

I use my google blogger login of Morningstar Productions. My name is Rand Larson. I am always ready to be corrected. Please be polite and kind as you want want others to treat you.

Anonymous said...

Not many photographers can make a living shooting 10K weddings and 1K weddings do support a lot of people out there, part-time or not. The guy that thinks that a part-time wedding photographer goes on a job to avoid spending time with his kids and his wife on Sat evening, you're wrong. It's really no different than shooting technically-perfect, ambient-balanced pictures that will end up in junk mail campaigns and cheezy magazines nobody looks at. Except may be wedding albums don't go into landfills as fast. Your wife and kids need you just as much on Mon, or Wed, as they need you on Sat night. I hope.

Oh, mac vs pc, or high quality vs good enough quality? Hardly anybody is shooting with Leicas and Hasselblads anymore. If Canon and Nikon is good enough for less, why bother?

I think Apple has wedged itself into a tight corner marketing-wise with the whole iPod/iPhone revolution. If you're not an artsy type, or at least don't do anything artsy professionally, showing up somewhere with a Mac today tells people you're not very computer-savvy, but you have plenty of cash to spend on your ego. It's too bad, because their underlying Unix-based OS is brilliant.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand what the big deal is. I drive the same Ford Focus for the last 8 years. It get's me there just the same as any fancy car. Plus it send a message: I value my money!

35 Saturdays a year I shoot $1K weddings.
(Plus the meeting time with the couples, and editing). There really aren't any more available Saturdays in my area, what with weather and holidays.

After all the costs: camera gear, computer, health insurance, business insurance, web, advertising, travel, etc. I net almost $20K a year before taxes.

It helps that my wife works full time too, but we need the extra income to pay for childcare, etc. We don't believe in retirement, so I don't need to charge the higher rates.

Adam said...

"We don't believe in retirement, so I don't need to charge the higher rates".

That's got to be one of the most short sighted statements
I've come across in recent years. Do you really think photographers charge higher rates solely to ensure a comfortable retirement?

Did it ever cross your mind that perhaps they were charging higher rates not only cause the quality of their work justified it, but perhaps because the industry requires it? Were everyone to charge a low rate simply because they don't "need" to, this industry would turn into nothing but a part time nerd convention. Sad, but true.

I've never shot a wedding, and don't have plans to ever do so in the future, but do your fellow photographers a favor and consider the impact your actions have on the industry, whether you need retirement or not...

Adam Barker

Adam said...

While people may have different views still good things should always be appreciated. Yours is a nice blog. Liked it!!!

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