Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Are You Creating Buyer Confusion?

I've had several experiences lately where the way a business moved me through their sales process actually invited me to reconsider my choice after I decided on what I was going to buy.  These weren't like considering add-ons or compliments to increase the sale of my purchase, which would be a bonus purchase strategy, but rather, considering completely different products and brands which made me question my initial choice.  The buyer experience was one of confusion and distraction, rather than confidence and readiness.

Example 1: Sharing Information in a Public Sharing Platform 
I was invited by a service provider to view a price list on, an online magazine layout solution.  When I got to the bottom of the price list, the platform invited me to look at other service provider price lists for the same service!  So, even if I was sold on my first choice, now I was being given many other choices to take me into the rabbit hole of comparison and being completely taken away from my original intent of working with a specific service provider.  Make sure that how you're sharing your information with clients who are ready to make a decision isn't a place that invites them to compare other services.

Example 2: Showing 5 More Options for The Same Item
I was searching for a pair of boots on and when I made my decision and was ready to check out.  I was then given a side bar during my check out to look at 5 more types of black boots that didn't initially come up in my first searches.  Now, instead of checking out, I was spending more time debating my initial purchase instead of actually checking out with my purchase.  While it increased my time on the site to look at more variety, it delayed my purchasing decision and made me question what else I might have missed.  I almost didn't buy the boots I was ready to buy because I was taken down the rabbit hole of distraction.  In the photography world, this might be like showing several different flush mount album providers at the same price point and creating client decision distraction, rather than picking the best one for your workflow and business and only making the client decisions about what kind of cover it should have.

Example 3: Showing Products That Aren't Available
Isn't it the worst when you get to a restaurant and see a special or a dish you really like, only to have a server tell you it's no longer available?  Doh!!  Now we're beginning our experience with a disappointment about what's not available and doubting how many other things may not actually be available.  Make sure that any visual or price list you offer a client is current with the actual products you sell.  Trust is a huge factor in feeling good about a purchasing decision and it's important to make sure our offerings build trust rather than undermine it.

What Can You Improve?
Now that I've shared several distracting sales experiences, take a moment to consider the full sales experience your client has with your products and your services.  Are are you building confidence or confusion?  How can you improve the experience for the client?

Anne Ruthmann is a professional photographer in New York City. With over 10 years of success as a full-time photographer in weddings, portraits, editorial, and now architecture and interiors, she spends any extra time she has helping others find smart solutions to business problems.  Stay in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Thumbtack Bidding & Closing Strategies

Whenever a new service enters the market, there's going to be a learning curve for testing it out, seeing what it's good for and what it isn't good for.  If you haven't heard of Thumbtack before from my previous post on Where to Find Freelance Work, it's a newer bidding system designed to connect service professionals with people looking for services.

Who It Attracts:
People who search the web for service professionals are usually doing so to research information about hiring someone or because they don't have any referrals from trusted sources.  When you consider the person who uses the web to find services, they also may not have hired a service professional before and are starting their search online with services like Thumbtack.  They may have no idea what to expect or how the process works.  Much like ranking at the top of Google, you'll need to sort through a lot of inquiries that may be duds in order to find the ones that become awesome clients who share your work and create more referrals.

If a potential client finds their way to Thumbtack, they can get bids from 5 different "professionals" by making one request in the budget range that they *think* is appropriate and that they can afford.  It's far more effective than trying to search Google because it's a localized result and takes much less time to hear from multiple professionals. This is not to say that they will receive qualified responses if their request seems unreasonable, but there are quite a few pros employing strategies to bring a budget request on board and turn it into a more appropriate professional fee.  I can honestly say that I've used it successfully to find some really wonderful clients, and I think it's a great new service, but it does have a learning curve, which is what I'd like to help you understand before you start using it.

What To Expect:
Based on the info above, you can expect that a lot of people using the service for the first time don't actually know what a professional service should cost.  They aren't awful people and they aren't trying to undercut a professional living.  Thumbtack generally asks for a budget, and if the client doesn't know any better, they may default to the lowest possible option.  This doesn't mean they will choose the lowest bid once they see their options, it simply means they haven't been educated about the differences between low budget and appropriate budget services, and Thumbtack may be their first introduction to the differences between a low-priced service and a professionally priced one.

What The Pro Sees:
The professional sees a new request in their email, on the website, or in their smart phone app with a set of details predetermined by Thumbtack. The professional uses the request information to determine if the job is worth bidding on or not.  The pro pays a fee to make their bid based on a point system, which is similar to what you'd pay if you were using other internet lead services like Google Ad Words or Facebook Ads to secure a new client.  The service is constantly growing and changing, so if you think a request item needs to be added to the service, it's best to suggest it to them.  If they get enough suggestions, than they will be able to add it to the system.

The Bidding Process:
Thumbtack delivers the first 5 bids made by professionals to a client request without regard to relevance, bidded price, or other factors.  Their goal is to deliver service professionals and bids as quickly as possible to the client to help them make a decision quickly.  If the client fails to look at their bids for 48 hours, all bid credits are refunded to the professional bidders.  Once you've made a bid, you then have an opportunity to provide additional information through the Thumbtack messaging system, which keeps most of the client's information anonymous unless the client has provided the info to the bidders.  Clients have the option to get more information before hiring a professional as well, and if they decide to hire someone, they are also prompted to leave a review of that professional's service, which becomes part of the professionals profile.

Tips for Bidding:
Before you begin bidding, create a profile and just sit back for a week and see how many requests come in at different price points and what the categories are- that will help you get a sense of what's happening on the service and what the initial expectations are. As tempting as it would be to bid on everything right away, save yourself some money and get to know what kind of requests are coming in first.  I would also suggest going into Thumbtack knowing that your first bunch of bids are going to be learning experiences rather than paying clients.  It may take you 10-20 bids before you really start to learn what bids will actually pan out into clients who will communicate with you and hire you.  If you feel like you have plenty of business already, than don't waste your time with this system.  It's designed for people who are hungry for more work and can respond quickly to a text message or email notification.  That being said, here are a few suggestions for making the most of your bids:

  1. Create A Specialty Portfolio- If you only want new portrait leads from Thumbtack, set up your profile to focus on that.  If you only want commercial leads, set up your profile for that.  This service works best when you focus tightly on what kind of new clients you want, so make sure you've tailored your Thumbtack profile to reflect that type of work and only selected that niche to receive requests for.  The more relevant the bids are to begin with, the higher chances you'll have of finding the right clients.  People who are seeking portrait work but have portfolios that feature products and vice versa are only confusing the buyer.
  2. Evaluate The Detail of The Bid- At first I couldn't tell which bids were serious or not, but over time I started to notice that serious clients provided more detail in their requests than the clients who never followed up.  This isn't a 100% accurate measure of a serious client, which is why you need to spend a couple weeks just looking at a lot of the requests that come in before you start actually making bids.
  3. Respond Immediately- Once you're ready to start bidding, you have to be lightening fast for some of the service categories.  Portraits and Commercial photography in NYC can receive 5 bids from professionals within 60 seconds.  If you aren't hungry for work and ready to bid, you'll probably find yourself shut out of a lot of opportunities.  That being said, you can increase your chances of seeing requests by setting up text alerts to your phone- just make sure you have an unlimited text plan before doing so.
  4. Choose A Smart Bidding Strategy- You can bid on requests with a fixed price, price per hour, or by saying you need more info.  I would say your best strategy is to give an estimated price up front and then simply explain what that includes in your message, rather than giving no price and saying you need more info.  If you think the request is really a $900 job and they've set their budget to $500, you could use the hourly system to bid $300/hr and suggest that it will be a 3 hour job and provide some additional education.  That way it may at first look like it's under budget, but with the appropriate detail and education of the client, you can walk them into a more appropriate budget for the job.  Likewise, if you think it's a serious client and want to come within their bid range even if it's lower than you'd normally take, you can bid at $500 but then limit the deliverables, the post-production process, or the time for the shoot to help keep it within what's affordable for you and your overhead.  Again, it's better to give a number to open the dialogue, than to provide no number at all.
  5. Ask A Question To Open Dialogue- I generally know how serious a person is about their request if they respond to a critical question included in the quote.  Questions like, what would like to do with the images after you've receive them?  Will you need a stylist or make-up artist, or will you be doing your own styling? A client who isn't serious, simply will not answer the question or provide any response.  A client who is serious will often engage in a dialogue with you and provide more details.  Unfortunately you won't know this until after you've made a bid, but it does give you insight into whether the client will actually move forward or not with the bids they've received.
  6. Follow-Up After Bidding- If 48 hours have passed and you haven't received a response or confirmation of being hired or the request being closed, follow up and ask if they need more information before making a decision.  Offer your email and phone number in case it's easier to have a conversation off of Thumbtack.  Occasionally, following up even a week or two after the request has resulted in a new client.  Some people are making requests as admins or virtual assistants for someone else and need to get approvals or share information before they can move further with a bid.  Following-up shows that your serious, professional, and willing to help.
  7. Never Lose Your Cool- If you are being "ghosted" in that a potential client has suddenly stopped responding, never write back in frustration or anger.  Just be cool if their plans have changed or they ended up going with another option.  Your cool is part of your professionalism and without it, you're taking the whole thing way too personally and expecting way too much out of people who may be exploring a service for the very first time.

Tips for Closing The Sale:
Because these clients have elected to search for a service online, the more you can move the process forward online, the more likely you are to close the sale.  If you can provide an online quote, an online contract, and an online payment option, you're far more likely to close the sale in a timely manner than if you require these clients to take extra steps offline.

It's also important to remember the client level of skepticism with hiring someone online rather than from a friend or trusted source- so asking for full payment up front may not actually close the sale.  However, you may be able to ask for a small deposit up front to pay for the travel arrangements or equipment rental to serve the client, but since you are not a trusted service yet, you will be more likely to close the sale with a quote and a contract that allows for payment to be due after the service is provided, but before final delivery of the product.  With all clients, I would suggest not providing final delivery of the finished or high resolution product until you've received full payment.

Have more questions?  Leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer them!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Goodbye Pictage - Now What?

Even if you've never been a Pictage member, it's important to note how this closure affects your colleagues, and to be aware that this is always a possibility with any service that you use as a key partner in your business.  For those who haven't been in the loop already, Pictage announced their final closure for Sunday, September 27th, 2015.

Pictage basically helped me launch my business over 10 years ago and I came to rely on them for nearly everything that happened on the back end of my wedding & portrait business.  Billing, hosting, cloud storage, FTP solution to vendors, printing, album designs, customer support, print orders, packaging, drop shipping, credit card transactions, marketing promotions, etc.

Technology has changed a lot since that point.  There were no iPhones 10 years ago.  Twitter didn't exist.  Facebook was just starting as a way for Harvard students to network with each other.  Digital SLRs were just starting to become affordable for the average consumer with a whopping 6.3megapixel files.  Amazon cloud storage didn't exist yet, but Pictage had created an incredibly advanced online solution for film and digital photographers to serve their clients.

The last year has been the worst year for Pictage.  Some people jumped ship early, but I hung on for quite a while, until I finally had a chance to move my archives to a new cloud solution.  The nail in the coffin for me came when Pictage separated off the free album designs and instant wholesale album ordering along with completely removing the one-on-one support for Pro accounts and the raised credit card rates.  Those were the last remaining advantages that Pictage had over many other services, and when they decided to remove those, I decided it was no longer worth keeping.  I upgraded my systems elsewhere and hired an assistant to help take care of the cloud file transfers via FTP from Pictage to Dropbox using MutlCloud.  I'm now finally ready to say goodbye as well and here's how I've changed my business to accommodate not using them anymore... (this is not a recommendation as to what anyone else should use, just my personal choices and examples).

Proofing: PDF of proofs created from the Print module in Lightroom emailed or Dropboxed to clients, which works out better for my commercial clients, since it allows them to keep and store the PDF for future image orders or sharing with suppliers who may also want commercial usage of images.  This allows them to mark any retouching or alteration requests directly on the document to return to me for editing.  If you plan to sell prints online to clients or friends and family of clients, you'll want to consider an online proofing solution mentioned below.

Invoicing, Billing, Contracts, Project Mangement: If you don't plan to have a proofing solution with built-in billing services, check out 17Hats.  It has been super easy to use, very quick to set up, and it facilitates creating as you go so that you don't have to have it all figured out or set up at once.  You can just use what you need first and then add on from there.  It accepts all major credit cards as well as PayPal and adds no additional credit fees.

Printing & Albums: Most of my commercial clients are doing their own printing or sending directly to magazines for publication and require no printed products.  If my former wedding clients were to want prints or albums at this point, I would still be able to source through the highly experienced team and great quality products at Photo Albums Direct, but would also consider many of the other options out there as well.

If you really need a new proofing solution, I think Julia May did a great job of comparing various online proofing and hosting solutions, so if you haven't chosen a next step yet, or are shopping the market for something better than what you have, check out her post here to compare some of the most used services currently available (chart is from the post linked below):

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Business Burnout - Ways to Recover

This year I've seen another round of my peers reach a point of serious business burnout.  Working to the point of exhaustion and losing the joy in their creative work.  I totally get it, I was there once too.

At the time, I wanted to give all of it up and find a completely different career.  I searched high and low for something I thought I'd enjoy more.  I picked up some part-time teaching artist gigs to get back into the classroom and public school system in case I wanted a job there again.  I studied and took the MAT's in preparation for applying for a Master's Degree in a completely different field.  I considered the hundreds of other, easier jobs I could do for the same amount of money or more.  Nothing ever felt more awesome, but my business wasn't feeling awesome either, and I felt like I was just getting sicker on a bad carnival ride that never ended.

I learned that by scaling back and doing something else for a while, even just part time on the side, and putting myself in a position of only taking clients I really enjoyed working with, that I was able to regain some of my love back for my own business.  I became reminded of how much freedom I have to create my own schedule and take on as much or as little as I feel like I can handle, I was reminded of all the things that I disliked about working in environments where other people aren't as passionate about their work, and I really started to acknowledge that I didn't actually hate being a photographer or business owner... I just hated how I was running my business.

I had been letting my clients take over and push me around but the clients had very little to do with it.  I hadn't set appropriate boundaries or expectations that provided the space I needed to do the work in a way that didn't stress me out each week.  I had taken more work than I could handle, but didn't outsource or hire to make up for the increased workflow needs.  I had been a terrible boss: giving myself no days off, expecting me to be available to clients 24/7, and not hiring more help when I really needed it.  If I'd been working a traditional job, you can be sure that I would have quit under those working conditions!

Being a small business owner doesn't mean you need to be slave to your business or your clients.  Your clients benefit more when you have the energy and creativity that comes with being well-rested, taking days off each week, making enough time for self-care each day.  You're happier, you're healthier, and little problems bother you less because your bucket isn't overflowing with stress.

When you learn how to take back the control you've had all along, but unintentionally had let slip out of your hands, you start gaining some of your joy back in your career and your life.  A lot of it starts with setting appropriate business expectations and acting accordingly.  That means, if you declare your working hours are 10am - 6pm, you literally turn off your computer and don't accept business calls after 6pm.  Period.  You don't open up your computer by your bedside at 9am.  You get up, take a shower, have some breakfast, and get ready like normal people before you open your computer.

That immediate response time is only expected when you make it a regular habit.  If you begin your client relationship by letting them know how long it generally takes to respond to emails and phone calls, than they can have more appropriate expectations up front.  I tell my clients that email may take 48 hours and I don't usually answer it on the weekends, but phone calls can usually be responded to within the next business day.  Just because they're thinking of some question at 11pm at night, doesn't mean I need to respond to them at 11pm at night.  To help make this easier for myself, I completely removed email from my phone.  If I'm on location, I'm not trying to answer emails on my phone.  I'm far more likely to write something rushed and mistaken when I'm trying to respond between travels and clients than if I put myself in a collected and thoughtful place behind my computer.

When you start taking back your life, you plan vacations and get togethers with friends and family and schedule them into your calendar so that you aren't tempted to schedule every weekend with no recovery.  You decide that there will be no shoots on Monday or Wednesday (or whatever days work for you) because you need a couple office days to catch up on email and post production and you want to get to the gym those nights.  You hire and outsource tasks that you're always procrastinating on, because you recognize that your time and stress level are more important than something someone else can do for $15-$20/hr.

You may have to take a break for a while to be reminded of all the things you love about being in business for yourself.  Of course, if you take a break and find something else far more freeing and awesome in the meantime, than isn't that a better situation than being stuck in a cycle of stress and burnout?

If you can't even fathom taking a break (especially in the middle of the season), start simple by implementing one new boundary or rule at a time.  Like declaring Monday is always a recovery day, or no email in bed, or portrait shoots only on Tuesday and Thursday.  Practice it for several weeks before adding another.  Allow yourself room to mess up and try again.  Be real with yourself when you're putting your mental and physical health on the back burner to serve a client, and then find ways to make up for it in the week ahead by taking a day off, scheduling lunch with a friend, or scheduling more gym time- whatever helps you get your groove back and feel more like a human than a slave again.  As you gradually reclaim the time and space you need to feel rested and recharged each day and each week, you'll gradually get yourself back to a place where you love owning a business again because you're really in full control of your schedule and your life again.

For more related posts see:

How to Stop Running Behind & Feeling Overwhelmed

What WON'T You Do?

Hire a Remote Photo Assistant

Anne Ruthmann is a professional photographer in New York City. With over 10 years of success as a full-time photographer in weddings, portraits, editorial, and now architecture and interiors, she spends any extra time she has helping others find smart solutions to business problems. Stay in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Handling Late or Missed Payments

If you've never had a client miss a payment deadline or bounce a payment, either you've been incredibly lucky, or you simply haven't been in business long enough.  Into every business owner's life a little late or missed payment will fall.

It's always best to approach this situation with the mindset that your client really does want to you pay you, but for whatever reason, life has gotten in the way and something slipped through the cracks.  Do not assume the worst before you've given your client plenty of time to resolve the situation.  Start the conversation with openness and understanding, having total faith in your client- this will take you much further than starting off with defensiveness and a combative attitude.

Hopefully you've set up your payments in such a way that final product is only delivered upon full receipt of payment being cleared so that you aren't giving your work away before it's been fully paid for.  If you've already provided your final work before receiving final payment, you may feel a little more antsy and defensive about the collection process, but you still need to approach it with the same level of professionalism and due process.  Chalk this one up to a learning experience in changing your policies so that you aren't in a situation of giving away your work before it's been paid for.

Step 1:  Email a payment reminder (ASAP)

As soon as possible after the missed payment, email a payment reminder with the scheduled due date that was missed.  If you haven't specified a late payment agreement with a fee, provide a grace period.  Offer the client multiple payment options and a direct link if possible to making the missed payment online with a credit/debit card, and offer a deadline by which you expect the payment to be resolved.

In this email, it's also good to state that a $$ late fee will need to be billed for any payments that need to be paid more than ## days after the payment deadline.  This both helps to incentivize quicker payment, as well as providing proof of notice that a late fee was announced for delayed payment processing and continued follow-up on collecting payment.

It's good to allow a full 14 days from payment due date in the event that the client is on a bi-weekly salary schedule, and to give them enough time to resolve any issues with their bank, or time to borrow money from family and friends if necessary.

Here's a sample email:
"Hi Jennifer,

We're looking forward to working with you and wanted to make sure that you had an opportunity to make the payment that was due on January 10, 2015 for the amount of $5,000.  We totally understand that sometimes life gets in the way and sometimes things slip through the cracks.  As a courtesy to you, no additional late fee will be charged if payment can be made before January 24, 2014.  

You're welcome to pay by check, mailed to: 123 Street Ave, City, State, Zip, or by Debit/Credit/PayPal using the link below:

We'll send confirmation as soon as payment has been received and cleared our accounts.  Please note that any payments received after January 24, 2014 may have additional late fees added to the invoice to cover our time and additional service to continue following up on payments not yet received.  

Please email or call us if you feel you need additional time, or have questions about this missed payment: 800-888-88888

All the best,
Service Provider"

Step 2:  Send A Second Email Reminder & Phone Call (7 Days)

If you don't receive payment or response within a few days of your first notice, prepare to send a second notice and make a phone call a few days before the grace period ends.  It's important to make a phone call in order to confirm that all of your emails have been received by the client.  They could be in another country, or their email may not be working, and all payment requests you've sent may not have gone through.  It's important to continue giving the client the benefit of the doubt, until you've confirmed the client has definitely received any of the information that you've sent so far.  In your follow-up email, note that the deadline to pay without additional fees is coming up and you'd like to help your client take care of this as soon as possible.

In your phone call, ask for confirmation about the receipt of the email, and offer to take any payment options over the phone so that it can be taken care of right away.  If you have to leave a message, state that a paper bill will be sent with an additional late fee if payment isn't received by the grace period deadline provided over email.  Thank them for their business and let them know that you really enjoy working with them and totally understand that sometimes things happen, and you want to help them resolve the situation easily.

Step 3: Mail a Paper Invoice After Grace Period (14 Days)

If two weeks have passed and payment has still not been received, it may be time to send a written invoice for the payment.  Again, it's best to give the client the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps someone ended up in the hospital, or they were on an extended vacation, or who knows what else could have happened.  You'll feel really terrible if you start attacking your client when their spouse or parent just died and they're having a hard time coping with life in general.  Be human.  It goes a lot further toward gaining repeat business and new clients than being a jerk.

In paper, send a copy of the contract, a copy of the emails sent, and notice of when you called.  Just document it all and share the documentation.  Write a letter showing that you're concerned you haven't heard from them and you're willing to set up a payment plan if that is needed.  Offer multiple ways to help your client honor their commitment.  Call within a few days of mailing your letter, once again, to talk on the phone and help create a solution.

Step 4: Determine Your Next Steps (30 Days)

If a client has gone completely missing after 30 days with zero response to any of your attempts to get in touch and resolve the bill, you will need to consider if you can ride out another 30-60 days of sending notices by email, phone, and mail every couple weeks before taking any legal steps.

It's in your best interest professionally and legally, to attempt to resolve any bill collection on your own before attempting to engage the courts or a lawyer.  A lawyer may make the case that they should be involved immediately, but you'll have a much stronger case for any additional fees above and beyond your original contract if you demonstrate how much time you put into attempting to resolve the issue on your own expense first.  I think 90 days is a good amount of time to help a client directly resolve any financial issues, especially if those issues have come about because of death, unemployment, or other sudden life changes.

If your client has remained unresponsive, than you will need to determine your next step of action.  Is this a small claims court issue, something a collection agency can help with, or is this substantial enough to engage legal representation for?  Will the amount for the service you pursue exceed the amount owed?  Consider all of your options before deciding which one may be best.

Anne Ruthmann is a professional photographer in New York City. With over 10 years of success as a full-time photographer in weddings, portraits, editorial, and now architecture and interiors, she spends any extra time she has helping others find smart solutions to business problems. Stay in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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