Monday, October 13, 2014

How to keep customers - an OP-ED and Photography Tip - The Importance of Customer Service

Engagement Photo taken by Efong over at Emagine Pixel - Great customer service, technical skill and timeliness. 
In my never ending goal to improve my business as a photographer, I always try to find ways to educate myself on a technical level and from business standpoint.  While I think my Accounting degree has significantly helped 13th Floor Photography on an administration end, I feel there is always room to improve. Not too long ago, I came across an old article published in May 2012 about how to keep customers by the Harvard Business Review (see article HERE). In their article, they believe that what makes a customer, "sticky" or willing to go through with a purchase, buy it repeatedly and recommend something to others is decision simplicity. In fact, their findings indicate that it beats out other factors such as brand loyalty and/or exposure to said brand. They assert that "...offering trustworthy information tailored to the consumer’s individual needs" will more likely make a consumer sticky. Coincidentally they even used camera brands as an example. 

While I find the article quite interesting, I find there are other factors, especially in the photography industry, that truly stand out. Cost in my experience will always be a factor, but I find that to be more associated with one's brand more than a potential customer's "stickiness".  Anyone with a camera has the potential to convince someone that he or she can take their photo, but it takes more than technical skill to make sure that they return and refer you to their friends. My anecdotal evidence suggests that Customer Service, Customer Service and Customer Service contribute highly to a customer’s “stickiness”.

There’s a popular notion that your work will speak for itself and if you are good enough customers will come. Personally, I feel this is terrible advice to live solely by. Very early in my “career” did I realize that this is a service-based industry and applying a human touch goes a long way. Although I feel my business degree has helped tremendously on an administrative level, my professional mentors have helped me develop a constantly evolving idea of what it means to be a professional (even if you don’t consider yourself one, it's always prudent to act professionally). There are most definitely key factors that I believe contribute to serving your customers well and this will surely alter with continued experience. 

Now that I am planning my wedding with my wonderful photo assistant =), I have been disappointed in the manner in which certain companies and established professionals fail to communicate or fail to communicate in a timely manner.  I make it a personal policy to get back to individuals within 24 hours of receiving an email and a contract within 2-5 days upon completing the negotiation stage. A quick response time sets a tone of a possible relationship so I try to get this right immediately and it most definitely relates to my final bullet point. 

Simply put, if you are on time you are late. I make it a point to meet with the client 15 minutes to half an hour before the scheduled event or session. It gives me a chance to re-scout an area (I try to scout the location beforehand, especially when engaged to do event photography) to see if there are any changes from my last visit like decorations, lighting, configuration, etc. This also gives you ample time to respond to issues like equipment failure, forgetting to bring spare batteries, traffic and so on.

Managing Expectations
I know this is a sensitive subject to those who juggle clients left and right.  I can understand that editing is almost 50% (if not more) of a photographer's workflow, but communicating when photos will be delivered and providing a follow up status update are keys to keeping your client happy. My turn around time, as stated to clients, is 7 business days but I try my darnedest to get a gallery up within 3-5 days.

More important than delivering the actually files is managing your clients expectations on the type of photographs you can deliver. I am never afraid to let a client know that a certain project exceeds my skill level. Although some might consider this a weakness, I see this as being forthright and in my opinion establishes trust. On many occasions I have been approached to do video projects. While my camera is perfectly cable of taking videos, I would rather refer them to my network of friends who are excellent videographers than tarnish my reputation by delivering sub par work. At the same token, I wouldn't accept a photography job that doesn't interest me as it will show my in the end.  

Creating a perception 
Many think I have a love affair with Disneyland for it's characters, movies, history, but the reality is it couldn't be further from the truth. My admiration stems from their dedication to creating a perception that YOU are the most important guest at their park. Until you've dined at one of their restaurants, stayed at one of their resorts or interacted with their cast members and compared that level of service with another theme park or business then it's hard to understand the extent of their customer service. Creating a sense that a client is the most important person(s) to my photography business is my #1 goal. This in my opinion is the single most important bullet point in the Customer Service spectrum. 

I've been very lucky to have had great teachers and mentors in my life, many of them do not even own a camera or have any interest in photography. I've deduced through observation and interaction with far greater businessmen/women than me that it takes three things to keep customers sticky (besides the information provided by the attached article): Excellent Customer Service, Technical Skills and Timeliness. 

So say we all,

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