Do the little things right and you'll do pretty well.

I like this image because it was lit so simply that I'm still amazed by it.  These two people were in an office and I'm shooting thru a doorway.  I've placed a Canon 508 EX2 with a radio trigger on a desk behind then facing the wall behind them.  The entire room is lit by that one light bouncing off the back wall and lighting them from the back and going around them and hitting the wall in front of them and then bouncing back into their faces.  Amazing to me.

I've been interviewing photographers who have been in the business for decades.  The successful ones do the details very, very well.  Let me circle back to that but first let me define what I mean by successful.  I'm thinking entirely from a business point of view.  So successful would mean that in good times and especially in bad times the doors stay open, customers call and share work, and all the bills get paid.  Now, a year like 2009 tests everyone but even in those dire circumstances there were a number of photographers who put their shoulders into it and pushed harder.  They were working with the same clay as everyone else but they focused on doing it better and more often.  

When I say, "better"  I am in no way talking about the quality of the work.  I'm talking about their unyielding resolve to keep up the advertising, the marketing, the blogging and whatever else they did to keep things moving forward.   And to a person they made it through not because of one or two very high budget, glamorous advertising projects but by doing the daily work that keeps clients happy.  And rather than see that "daily work" as beneath them, or remedial they approached the small jobs with the same professionalism as the bigger jobs that came their way in previous years.  Because, at the core, they realize that these jobs were just as important to their clients as the big ones.

They took the time to write a "thank you" note for any job they were asked to shoot.  They worked just as hard on the their post production.  They reached out and connected with their clients.  What I'm hearing now from these photographers is that all of their clients are coming back to full life.  Bids are being requested.  Contracts are being written and assignment work is back in style.  And, to a person, the clients have come back to these photographers and rewarded them for working the details. 

As I reflect on these interviews I've given some thought to my own business.  While I've had some big, fun, high profile jobs over the years the "bread and butter" jobs are the foundation of the business.  I've had one client at Motorola (now at Freescale) who's used my services for over twenty years.  None of the projects were the type that would get me on the cover of Adweek but all of them were challenging and fun to execute.  And the loyalty of my client translated into good income.  In return I would do whatever it takes to make this client satisfied with my work.

In all the years we've worked together I've never missed a deadline.  Never arrived late.  Never forgotten a critical detail.  After a few years my client stopped getting competitive bids.  She just calls on the phone with the details secure in the knowledge that there will be no surprises on her bill.  No complaints from her team.  And she's never forgotten to submit my invoice to accounting or recommend me to her peers.

Much of the marketing that photographers did in years past was aimed at getting the "big job".  Now the big jobs have become more scarce and the smaller and medium sized jobs are what photographers are looking for.  If they're smart.  Stringing a number of smaller jobs together can make an imaging business profitable and it's a way of not having all of your eggs in one basket.

I did this image for the same Annual Report as the image above.  These are the smaller "profile" images that accompany the bigger double truck spreads.  But the fact that they'll run smaller doesn't make them any less important to the client.  In this image I balanced the color of the small flash in an umbrella with the florescent lights in the rest of the facility.  I put a 1/2 plus green filter on the flash and it matched the overall light color pretty well.  I used the smaller flash because my intention was to match the overall light levels and provide clean fill.  It's not a difficult shot but it does take time to do it right.

So, besides doing the thank you notes and showing up on time and taking the work seriously, what are the little things and how do you keep track of them?

1.  You should have a job envelope for every project you do.  In it should be a copy of the job brief telling you what the client wants and what sort of details will be involved.  It should also contain the signed letter of agreement or contract.  During the job all invoices, parking fees, and client notes should go in there.  Clients hate it when little stuff falls thru the cracks.

2.  Pre-production is the foundation of all successful jobs.  Map out the job and make lists.  What kind of equipment will be required?  What kind of models?  Wardrobe?  Makeup?  Even what kind of snacks and refreshments.  Make maps to every location.  Put together a crew list with everyone's phone #'s.

3.  You need a packing list.  You might as well make a big list and have it copied.  Then, at the start of each job you can look through the list to jog your memory and make sure you're not forgetting a vital part.  What good is a softbox without a speedring?  A camera without a battery, etc.  The most forgotten item around here seems to be model releases and pens.  That's near the top of the new list around here.  The car is part of my production system so gas for the car is also on the list.....

4.  Make sure your client gets the files they want.  Every clients seems a bit different.  Some want big Tiff files while many who work mostly on the web are looking for Jpeg files.  A few even like working with RAW or .PSD files (whether you let RAWs out to your clients is a personal decision.  I have a few clients who are PhotoShop experts.  I'll give them the raw stuff.)  Give them what they need.  Give them what they want.  If they are web designers you aren't doing them or (by extension) yourself any favors giving them 120 megabyte uncompressed Tiff files.

5.  Make the process smooth. If you can knock some rough edges off that's a good thing.  Might mean bringing extra pens and pads for the forgetful or making sure the coffee addicts have access to the right brew.  Might mean finding the right restaurant for foodies.  Just don't leave anything to chance if you can help it.  We probably won't find "just the right chair" at the location.....

6.  The follow up.  After you deliver the files you need to follow up and make sure everything works and the designers are happy with both the files and the images.  Then you need to follow up and make sure you haven't messed up anything on the invoicing.  And finally, you should make a note to follow up and see how the photo worked in the ad or on the web.  The more interested you are in their work the more interested they will be in your work!

7.  The "thank you."  Without them you will not make money.  Clients need to know that you appreciate being invited to the party.  If your mom and dad never made you write "thank you" notes for gifts you got  from relatives and friends then you need to work that out with your therapist.  But you should make thanking your business partners = your clients mandatory when they give you the opportunity to show off how good you can be while giving you money in the process.  I've never met a client who didn't appreciate an honest expression of gratitude from an important vendor.....

8.  The "non-creepy" check in.  You want to stay connected to your client and you want your client connected to you.  Between jobs it's important to keep in touch.  But not in a creepy, "Hey, it's Bob.  Do you have any work for me???"  sort of way.  How do you do it?  If you've worked with a client on a project you'll probably have chatted about fun stuff like favorite TV shows, favorite music, favorite foods and what not during the course of their project.  A quick link to something you know they'll be interested in is nice.  A "no sales" lunch at a favorite lunch haunt is always welcome.  Just keep the selling to a minimum.  If you have some new work to show send them a taste in the form of a post card.

Finally, make sure there are no loose ends from a job.  If you promised a print or a file, jump on it right away.  If you make your jobs smooth and pretty much carefree for your clients you'll be invited back to the party again and again.  We all like working with people who make our lives easier.  And we've all dumped vendors who gave us confusing bills,  showed up late or acted gruff and surly.  Don't get dumped for forgetting the little stuff.


Dave Jenkins said...

Totally excellent. Thanks for a badly needed kick in the pants. I'm especially poor at following through. I'm going to print this one out and put it in my commercial photography binder for future reference.

Abraham said...

Plus one on the kick in the pants. Procrastination is my worst enemy!
I like the idea of the postcard, or the thankyou! What would i read with my cup of tea without this blog :)


Broch Gerling said...

Thanks for this great checklist, Kirk! Very valuable information!

Will said...

Great list Kirk! I will be saving this one to read again in the future!


Well said! Down to earth and pragmatic.

kleeks said...

Great article. Perfect timing. Will take a copy to share with fellow students in a great digital arts marketing class I am taking.