Caught In The Headlights

Caught In The Headlights

Design Aglow contributor Corwin Hiebert shares some great insight into relationships, the hustle and trust in the career of photography.

I know that look: the look of a photographer who knows they've got the talent but not the clients. They're feeling the pressure to put themselves out there and, like a deer caught in the headlights, they're paralyzed—frozen in the middle of the marketplace highway with a pending sense of vocational doom.

When a photographer realizes they're stuck and thinks the only way forward is to hustle like everyone else...they panic. 

Therein lies the problem: hustling can send you in the wrong direction, quickly. Business development is about pursuing authentic ways to present a unique offering to humanoids you understand.

In a world full of skilled and creative people with fancy cameras, talent is implied—your marketing efforts need to present YOUR creative vision, opinions, attitude, passions and personality to a group of like-minded people.

Stop chasing the twinkling lights and stay off the well-traveled road. 

One of those “highways to nowhere fast” is the one full of photographers who bitch and complain about prospecting. I refer to it as Highway 86—because I have zero tolerance for entrepreneurial martyrs (to 86 something is slang for canceling, cutting-off, or voiding it).

I’ve heard a lot of whining over the years about how some guy got some gig just because he knew some dude. Well of course he did! The buyer felt that they could trust that relationship enough to move forward. No matter one’s geographic market, genre, or niche, the cliché saying, “It’s not how good you are but who you know,” is a lot more true than most photographers would like to admit.

Practically speaking, photographers gain more quality leads and better client engagements through referrals than through any other form of marketing wizardry. Sure there’s got to be a fit when it comes to talent, offering, and value, but photographers who are successful all have something in common: they have built a legacy of trust and that’s what inspires the endorsement of others.

Relationships are everything.

It probably goes without say but I’ll say it anyway, it’s getting crowded out there and online networking is shifting, taking a back seat even, in favor of personal connections. Facebook is bloated, Twitter demands too much attention, LinkedIn is awkward, Google+ is a ghost town, and Instagram is nearly impossible to leverage.

Networking happened long before the Internet showed up, so it might be time to think about diverting from the information highway from time to time and focus on growing more meaningful, human, relationships.

As you think about your own freelance photography career, consider these questions when trying to gain some momentum:

  1. Are you proactive in collecting and sharing endorsements from clients or collaborators?
  2. In the last six months how often have you successfully referred other people and companies?
  3. Whom do you know that could benefit from a company or provider from within your network?
  4. When was the last time you asked someone to refer you to someone they knew?

Buyers buy because they have faith in the transaction, they have enough trust in the person providing the work that they’re willing to move forward. When there’s mystery associated with the process, the deliverables, or the execution, the relationship will be subject to more scrutiny and if there’s a seed of doubt or confusion about who you are and what you do then you’re not an easy referral.

Do things that build trust.

When trusted people sing your praises, good things happen. This is the kind of viral marketing I would encourage you to pursue. The credibility that comes from other people speaking well of you and your work creates a foundation of rapport that will stand the test of time. Referrals come from those people within your sphere of influence who are proud of the work you do, and they want to make themselves look good by making a meaningful connection. They look good to their friends and colleagues when they’re perceived as problem solvers or supporters in a time of need. When your creative work is the answer that’s being pursued, then it’s a win-win situation.

Here are a few ideas and action steps to help you foster a healthy referral network and inspire your contacts to generate leads on your behalf:

  1. Over-deliver. Exceed your clients’ expectations whenever possible.
  2. Do things that make your clients’ work and life easier.
  3. Be extremely organized with the tasks and deliverables you’re responsible for.
  4. Be early for every meeting and be more prepared than anyone in the room.
  5. Deliver the goods early and be excited to guide them through the review and revision process.
  6. Find creative ways to convey results and buyer benefits of your past projects.

The degree to which you’re willing to endorse those you trust is equal to how likely you are to receive a valuable referral for a colleague or peer. As an active referrer you are showing those around you that you’re a problem solver, that you’re there to help, and that you are willing to put your credibility on the line. When you endorse others you draw attention to your professionalism.

So in the end, my advice is to take a look at your network, and your sales process, a think about how you could do it differently. Think about people not prospects. Your goal should be to put your character on the line so that you have the opportunity to serve others professionally.

A photographer's career is not a destination, it's a journey. If you want to keep from being entrepreneurial roadkill, remember this: a creative legacy takes time and your marketing efforts should reflect your professionalism and your character. 


CORWIN-HEIBERTCorwin Hiebert is a photography business consultant, founder of Taendem Agency Inc and the author of Living the Dream: Putting Your Creativity to Work [and Getting Paid] (Peachpit Press). For more business inspiration, check out his Business Action Planner guidebook.


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