Client Retention: How to Secure Long-Term Photography Success

Some years ago I decided to try something that one of my competitors had been doing that seemed to be working well for them. It was what we call a Portrait Plan. I was careful not to copy their plan exactly but to take the idea and make it work for me. I called my plan, the Premiere Portrait Plan.

A portrait plan is where a client agrees to pay an up-front lump sum of money that entitles them to “x” number of portrait sessions down the road.

That might already sound like a scary scam to some but I believed in the idea for three reasons.

  1. I was already producing high-quality photography.
  2. I was already giving a great customer experience.
  3. I believed the plan would save my clients money and keep them coming back to me for years to come despite possible downward turns in the economy. I would also benefit from steady cash flow as a result of additional image sales.

The first time I launched my plan in the late 1980’s I offered it to clients that had already come into the studio for at least one or two portraits already. The plan was primarily aimed at families with babies or young children. The majority of my first joiners were couples whose wedding I had photographed. Since they had already enjoyed a great customer experience with their wedding photography and we enjoyed a good level of trust it wasn’t difficult for them to see the value of my portrait program.

How to Pitch

Pitching the Portrait Plan to your clients

I explained the plan like this. For a one time investment of $895 you will get ten portrait sessions with an 8×10 print included from each session. The program is good for up to ten years, or less. You may use one or up to three sessions per year. (so some programs were done in just over three years while others came in only once a year.)

You had to use at least one session per year or forfeit that year’s session. In addition to the session and the 8×10, they could also get an extra 15% off any additional prints ordered at the proof viewing and ordering session. This provided them with an incentive to get more prints at a lesser cost but it also helped them realize that to get the 15% off they had to place the order at the specified ordering meeting. That was a win/win situation because I had often had clients prolong the ordering process for days and weeks so they could think things over.

One of the best things about the plan was in the creative ways I could show families how they could use it.

For example I suggested the obvious family portrait of all the family, another time to do just the kids, or individuals. What about the grandparents with the grandkids, or mom and her sisters. We could do a portrait of Dad with his prized MGB convertible. I came up with many portrait ideas that many of our families had never considered but ended up thanking me for. I often talked about decorating the home with portraits as an alternative to traditional paintings and art. My client’s seemed to love the time we spent discussing where to hang the next portrait and what we’d do for that session.

How to Track

Tracking the Portrait Plan with your clients

Keeping track of our conversations was extremely helpful because it allowed me to ask questions based on something we talked about months or even a year ago. It impressed my clients that I remembered things spoken of casually so long ago, while in reality I had reviewed my notes taken at the last session and ordering meeting to jog my own memory.

Keeping track of the style of photography and backgrounds used was also crucial. Imagine if every time my client came in for an updated portrait, I offered the same background each time or used the same lighting or same outdoor location.

I made a point when each client joined that they could have sessions done in studio or outdoors on location, in colour or black & white. I explained how it would be more interesting to have many portraits done with the option of creating a different look in each one. If all the portraits were done in the same way with similar backgrounds, then I’d be offering the same style of photos of their kids that most parents get from the annual school photos.

I realized early on that with a higher session fee and print costs, I had to offer unique and interesting photography accompanied by a consistently great customer experience in order to attract and keep the clients I wanted.

A “portrait plan” is a great way to guarantee long-term clients in your photography business.

Many of my clients that enrolled in my plan had shown their portraits and explained their plan to their friends and neighbors. This often led to new portrait plan clients that were first time clients based on a direct referral from a trusted friend. I always made sure to give a tangible thank you to the client that referred me.

It did occur to me that I might want to limit the number of family plans at some point to make sure that I could keep track of all them, stay in touch, and properly service them in a way that lived up to the promise of the plan. They were after all considered to be a preferred customer of the studio because they had opted to join. One way that I gave them a preferred status was in available shoot dates. I made sure to leave a couple of open weekend spots each month just for my plan clients. That way they didn’t have to wait too long to get a sitting.

The “financials” of the Portrait Plan

I mentioned at the start of this article that my Premiere Portrait Plan was an upfront investment of $895. Back then many fitness gyms ran a similar offer that people payed for up front then never used. Obviously I wanted my clients to feel that their investment was a wise one and a great value. That’s why I took a page from my dentist’s business and sent my clients regular friendly reminders that it was time for a new portrait much like my dentist reminded me of an upcoming dental cleaning.

In each reminder I gave several ideas of what they could do with their session being sure to use their own family names. By personalizing the reminder and giving suggestions of location or groups I was helping take away the work of planning and giving them a gentle poke to use up the sessions they had already paid for.

The savings of the plan were what I presented when first offering the plan to a client. I explained that if over a period of ten portrait sessions they paid my regular session fees and 8×10 prices (not including possible price increases over a few years), they would likely spend well over $2000 (much more these days). Instead they could invest now $895 and pay less than half, and still save 15% when ordering extra prints. To most of my customers it was a “no brainer”.

Remember they had already sampled my customer experience before, trust had been established and now I was merely pointing out how to continue to enjoy fine portraits at less money.

These kinds of portrait plans, if handled well, can help keep you behind the camera, get more portraits on the walls of your clients homes, keep them coming back for years, and help establish your reputation as a solid professional business in your community. The key is to be organized, keep notes on each family, keep records of each session, and avoid repetition in the family’s portrait sessions over time.

Action item

What to do next?

This might be something you could try at your studio. If so I’d offer this advice:

Be sure to plan out what your offering in advance and figure out your terms and limitations to the plan. Make sure you keep good records of each client who purchases a plan, date of initial purchase, names and ages of children etc. Keep track of each session’s details i.e  who was in the session, studio or location, keep track of purchase records, know what they bought from each session for future reference and sales suggestions. Be sure to keep each session consistently high quality photography as well as giving a great customer experience.

Written by <br>Robert Nowell
Written by
Robert Nowell

Professional photographer, photography professor and co-founder at Sprout Studio.

Written by <br>Robert Nowell
Written by
Robert Nowell

Professional photographer, photography professor and co-founder at Sprout Studio.

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