Is In-Person Sales the Best Business Model for Portrait Photography?
WHAT BUSINESS MODEL SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?
"Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” – Pelé
Choosing a model for your portrait business can be a daunting task. How do you navigate the waters within all these sales models, customer service types, product offerings, and marketing?
There are proponents for almost every business model, but there seem to be no more passionate evangelists than those who use an in-person sales model. In this article, we’ll compare the two most diametrically opposed business models and ask: is in-person sales the best business model for portrait photography?
PORTRAIT BUSINESS MODELS
Like much of life, portrait business models exist on a spectrum. In photography, the two polar opposites that make up the ends of the spectrum are generally known as “shoot-and-burn” and “in-person sales.” Between these two poles are inclusive models, hybrid models, and everything in between. And while there are innumerable successful business models, we'll focus on these two.
- High volume
- Digital products, often in an online gallery
- Little client interaction
- Low bar to entry
- Focus on value
- Low time investment
This model could be compared to McDonald's in that it focuses on serving a high volume of customers, providing a solid product at a low price, and requires little time investment per customer.
McDonald's is a highly successful business but requires a high level of organization and energy to be profitable.
- Low volume
- Physical products sold at a sales session
- High client interaction
- High bar to entry
- Focus on service
- High time investment
This model could be compared to a high-end restaurant in that it focuses on a low volume of customers and relies on the experience, high-quality product, and exceptional customer service to demand high prices.
A boutique model is highly successful, but requires a serious time investment, as well as emotional availability, to be profitable.
Both business models require commitment and energy from their practitioners. The high-volume model requires constant and consistent shooting, while the low-volume model requires constant and consistent customer attention.
Each cost structure can be successful, resulting in great photographs, happy customers, and thriving business people. So why are the practitioners of IPS so passionate about their model?
THE UNIQUE BENEFITS OF IN-PERSON SALES
Some of the benefits of an IPS business model are derived from the downfalls of the shoot-and-burn model. In order to be profitable, a shoot-and-burn photographer must see a high volume of clients for portrait sessions. While having a lot of clients sounds like a dream to most photographers, it requires photographers to be constantly busy, either shooting or advertising for new clients. Unlike McDonald's, where one customer may purchase products several times a month, most portrait customers don’t need photos that often, leaving them few other avenues to generate revenue.
That means shoot-and-burners need a constant supply of new customers. The cost of acquisition becomes crucial in this instance because profit will be determined by how much time and money it costs to acquire new customers.
Because IPS relies on a lower volume of customers, they have more time to spend with each client. And each client has a higher CLV, or “customer lifetime value,” meaning the difference between income and cost-of-acquisition is generally lower for high-value customers. The IPS model allows photographers to earn more money per client.
Another unique benefit of the IPS model is that there is no cap on sales. Because the value created is not based on the paper and ink or digital files being sold but on the experience and customer service, photographers who practice in-person sales can increase their prices to thresholds a shoot-and-burn market segment could not bear.
IPS also has the ability to use a marketing strategy that relies on the customer to bring in more work. Because this target customer is looking for experience and service, they often become word-of-mouth marketing machines. And meetings with clients, high-quality products and services, and personal attention engender the kind of personal connection that makes clients more likely to invest...and encourage their friends and family to invest.
There is also the ability of IPS to create multiple revenue streams through products and services. While S&B deals primarily with digital files often showcased in online galleries, IPS models sell everything from huge pieces of wall art to albums, folios, or other art pieces. This means they can shift or alter product offerings to supplement their income.
THE STRUGGLES OF IN-PERSON SALES
As with any business model, there are aspects of IPS that won't be ideal for every photographer. IPS requires a business owner who wants to spend time serving their clients in person, and who is comfortable walking them through purchasing decisions at sales meetings. They must believe in the value of service and personal attention and effectively communicate that value to their chosen customer segments.
They also have to manage supply chains and business relationships because their products must be of high enough perceived quality to complement the service and justify the thousands of dollars their clients spend. They cannot rest on discounts as the driver of sales but must show their clients a high level of personal care.
Both types of business models can produce successful sales processes, and business model innovation can be high in either camp, with alterations to the traditional systems that customize the experience to each photographer. Both require a serious investment of time and energy, as any worthwhile pursuit does.
But the shoot-and-burn model is generally a less sustainable long-term business model because of the amount of effort required to attain new customers and maintain momentum. Often, these businesses must scale to remain profitable because it's difficult for a single person to sustain such high levels of output.
On the other hand, while the In-person sales model also requires a high level of investment, the value per customer is so much higher that most portrait photographers can make an equal, if not greater, income with less effort. That alone makes IPS an attractive model for photographers looking for a high return for the effort, and customers who are deeply invested in the process and happy to market on behalf of the business.
There is no right or wrong in business model generation, only what works for each person, what makes their life as a business person worthwhile, and what is sustainable. Make the right choices for your life and your business, and don't be afraid to tweak things when they aren't working.
Test everything and, most importantly, never give up.