April 25, 2022
When it comes to selling your photography, chances are, you’ve chosen 1 of 2 models. Either “All-inclusive” (meaning the client gets all the digital files for one price) or In-Person Sales.
But did you know there is a system that takes the best from both of these into 1?
In this blog, I want to introduce you to my friend, Annemie Tonken. Annemie has been a professional photographer since 2010. She is now a respected educator, speaker, and podcaster focusing on business systems and strategies that help creative entrepreneurs run profitable and sustainable businesses that they love.
She’s the host of This Can’t Be That Hard, a top-rated weekly business podcast for photographers, the creator of the Simple Sales System, which was the inspiration behind Pic-Time, a popular marketing app by the same name. She’s also the co-founder of the Family Narrative Conference.
Annemie: My name is Annemie. I am a family photographer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I started my business back in 2010 as I was in the middle of a master’s degree and realizing that like, “Oh, this thing that I’ve been working toward for so long, really, isn’t what I want to do.”
My second child had been born in late 2009 and I was having this kind of existential crisis of, “Well, I’m 30 years old, I don’t think this thing that I thought that I wanted to do isn’t what I want to do, but I have no idea what I wanted to do.” And that mixed up with like postpartum hormones and everything else – I was really a big, hot mess.
But in that process, someone raised with me, “You know, you’re really good at taking photos,” which I had started doing, like so many of us do, when my older son was born or had gotten more serious about it when my older son was born. At first I kind of laughed that idea off. I was like, “That’s not a business. That’s just a fun thing.” And then the more I thought about it, the more I was like, “No, you know, I think maybe that’s something that I want to try and pursue.”
So I put my degree on hold, never went back. I took a formal photography course and a business course and started my business later that year.
And the rest is history. I did weddings and families for several years. And then things got busy enough that I decided that I needed to sort of go in one direction or the other. It was a no-brainer for me to go in the direction of families. And I have been in business now, it’s hard to believe, for 12 years.
It’s been quite a journey, but yeah, I’m excited to talk about all things business and sales because over the course of that journey which started my Master’s Degree, and your audience will appreciate this, was actually in midwifery. I had gotten an undergraduate degree as a nurse.
And it was all in on women’s health and was very excited about that model.
And so I was very much not in the business frame of mind, but I got some really good advice early on in my career from a photography mentor who said,
I’m so glad that I got that advice. I took it to heart because I really wanted to make it work. I wanted to be able to quit my job. And it has been the thing that has sustained me. I almost went so far in on learning about running a profitable business, sustainable business practices, and all that sort of stuff that I would say the part of photography that I kind of loved the most was the entrepreneurial side of it.
If you had told me 20 years ago that that was going to be my path, I totally would have laughed you out of the room, but here we are!
Tavia: Yeah. Isn’t that funny? How life throws us all these different things to get us where we’re supposed to go?
Annemie: Yeah. Oh, goodness. Well, it has taken many turns and five years ago, I got divorced and so that actually kind of threw another curve ball into my story. Even though I had pretty good business practices set up prior to that, I had to really re-evaluate and re-invent several parts of my business to be sustainable as a single income earner.
And then a couple of years after that, I had ankle surgery that took me out of commission for a while. So in that process, I was like, “Okay, not only do I need to make more money as a single income earner, but now I also need to figure out a way to plan for situations where I can’t work for a couple of months,” because that’s what happened to me.
These days, my business actually runs primarily as a portrait membership model. So I invite families who I’ve worked with before into a membership where they work with me once a year. My income comes in largely each month on repeat cause their credit card gets charged each month. And that has really stabilized things.
Fortunately, that all started pre-COVID. And so even when COVID hit and much of my business shut down for six or seven months, that income kept coming in. And that was really what kept me and my kids afloat during that period of time.
That plus the system, that I guess we’re probably going to be talking about, that I created when I got divorced in order to increase my sales averages while decreasing the amount of time that I was spending with my clients –those two things have really combined to make my photography business run in such a small amount of time each week that I have started doing a lot of education.
So now, my business looks like about 25% photography and then about 75% of the time I’m helping other photographers do the same thing.
Tavia: I had no idea that you did this portrait membership. And I love this idea so much because that’s one of the things that I love about birth photography is that when people book you and they pay a deposit, and then usually, most of our clients pay monthly towards their balance. So you have a certain amount of money that you know is coming in every month for those birth clients.
And it’s so helpful for budgeting and like knowing everything like, “Okay, well I know if I get nothing else, I have $4,500 of birth payments coming in every month.” So I love that you figured out a way to do that for portraits.
Can you talk a little bit about how you got clients on board for this to pay you monthly for something like this?
Annemie: So I positioned it like I position everything else as like, “Let’s talk about what you want and what it is that you come to me for”. And one of the things that I’m sure anyone who works with family knows that one of the big things that you hear every time it’s like, “Oh, I meant to call you last year, but…fill in the blank.
We had a big expense come up or we just got so busy and didn’t get around to it, or we were out of town anyway – there’s a million excuses. But your kids are only little for a very small period of time and that time just keeps going and they keep changing.
And every other client that got in touch with me would have this sort of story of regret that they hadn’t gotten in touch sooner. And like, oh, I wish we had, you know, gotten this window of time, whatever. So when I positioned this membership, as I said, I only pitched it to. Clients who had already worked with me. And so I was able to anchor my offer in the way that I normally price things and set up my offer. So I made it a better deal than working with me in a one-off kind of a way and I made it so that it wasn’t one big lump sum all at once, but instead they were spreading their payments out over the year.
And by signing up, they got some special perks. They got early access to my calendar. I normally charge a weekend surcharge for people who want to work with me on the weekends and they got to work with me without paying extra. I also don’t do mini sessions in my normal business, but my members can call me and set up a one-off mini session, which has paid in addition to their membership.
But let’s say grandparents are coming into town, or they have a new puppy, or they want a holiday card, but they want their family photos in the spring, or whatever the case may be, they can hire me for an extra charge.
So there’s some benefits. And then I said, you know, this invitation is only open for this week and you can join. And if you join, you lock your rates in. And so now I’ve had this running for three years and it’s mostly full. And all of the clients that I work with on a regular basis are just part of the membership. And so I don’t have to worry about marketing to them or reminding them. It’s just like, “Hey, it’s time for you to book your session.
Here are the dates that are available.” And it makes it really easy for me and I think really easy for them. Most of the people who have joined have talked about how like, “Oh, thank goodness you’re doing this. I would never have gotten around to photos this year if we didn’t do it.”
Tavia: Man…I love all of the perks that you gave the client to incentivize them. Because I think that something we hear often is like, people don’t want another monthly payment. And so it’s like, “Okay, how can I look at what my client actually needs and wants, and the struggles that they’re having?” Like you said, they forget about booking the session, their kids are only little once, and all of these things, and it’s only to clients who have already worked with you. So they know your pricing, your process, you’re not having to bring people in who don’t know what’s going on, and making it a better deal than working with you one-off. So it’s serving you and it’s serving the clients.
Are you comfortable sharing how you priced this? What percentage are they paying annually compared to an average family session they might purchase from you? Because I’m just sitting here thinking that sounds like a lot of extra stuff that they’re getting, like the ability to book on the weekends and the ability to book one-off mini sessions and all that stuff. So how did you figure out how to price this?
Annemie: So, there is a lot to that. The short answer is that they save between 15% and 20% if they’re working with me as a member, as opposed to as a one-off, but it’s kind of tied into the way that I structure my original pricing. And we’ll talk about this a little bit.
Instead of all-inclusive pricing where they’re getting all of the digital files with each session when they book me a la carte, they’re actually having to choose among a few collections and only the top collection includes all the digital files. Whereas when they become a member, that becomes an automatic thing.
So that is actually the real key in my personal business to making it a much better, much bigger perceived value. And perceived value is something that I talk about a lot.
But you have to get clear on what’s important to your clients, and when I say your clients, I actually mean your specific clients, because I think we think about clients in this kind of global way. But the more specific you can get about who it is you’re trying to talk to, for instance in my business, I would say my ideal clients are not just families, but they are families where both parents are working, they’re working professionals and they’re very, very busy. So at every single turn, at every little bit of messaging on my social media and newsletters, I am talking about how I am going to solve the problem of things being time constraint for them. We’re going to make this as easy as possible, everything, but the session itself is going to be on your own time from the comfort of your home, all those kinds of things.
Even down to talking about when the session itself happens, they can just hand over the reins to me. You’re going to get these photos, like the ones that you see on my website, without having to do almost any planning in advance. And I’m going to walk you through the parts that you do need to plan. That’s the real key.
Tavia: That’s so, so good. The primary reason that I wanted to have you on the show is because you operate your business in a very different way that I operated my portrait business, which I actually love that we do things differently because I don’t think that there is one right way to have a successful photography business.
We’re going to talk specifically about sales! I have done IPS since 2015 and I love so much about it. And I know that you teach kind of a different way to do sales and ordering and all of that stuff and I wanted to talk with you about that. So can you explain a little bit about your sales method and how it’s different than what other photographers are teaching?
Annemie: So I also did in-person sales for a long time, starting at the very beginning of my business when that photography mentor told me to take your business seriously. And I went and took a class and learned how to do in-person sales, and it feels really vulnerable and weird, but if this is what I have to do to make my business work, sign me up, I’m doing it.
And so I learned how to do it and I actually got pretty good at it. I made peace with the fact that I wasn’t trying to hard-sell people. I was really just showing them what was possible and they came to me because they wanted expertise like, “I know that you do in person sales, you know what the benefits are.”
And I got to the point where I was super comfortable with it, but over time it did get…I did it for seven years and it got repetitive, time-consuming, expensive and all those kinds of things.
I guess most of the expense was kind of upfront: I had a studio for a while, but I also had a projector and lots of samples that had to be updated frequently and all that sort of thing. When I had the studio, people would come in, I’d pour a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, you know, there were all these little expenses that went into that.
But the biggest expense of all, for sure, was just time where not only are you doing the scheduling of the IPS session, but then you’re having the session itself, you have to place your order, the order comes in, you package it up, you drop it off or schedule a time for them to come pick it up – there’s all this back and forth.
And at one point I tallied it up and I was spending like eight hours, after my edits were done, just for the sales portion of each client’s session. Now, the benefit to that was that I was making really good money with most clients.
My average sale was quite high, but I didn’t have minimums. I would make it just buy what you want. So every once in a while I’d have that client who would buy $5,000 worth of stuff and then every once in a while I would have a client that would be like, “Great, we got that digital files that we wanted and now we’re done.” So for sure, it was a little bit like my stomach would go into knots before each session.
So I mentioned before that I had gotten divorced and I had always felt like I took this business class and I did a really good job of running my numbers and I knew what I needed to be profitable and I was making that as my average in-person sale.
And so when I sat down with my lawyer in the process of getting divorced and we were going through my expenses to try and calculate if there was going to be child support or something like that, and she turned to me and asked if I am planning on going back to my nursing job. And at that point, I had quit nursing 5 years prior and everyone in my local market would have looked at my business and been like, “Oh yeah, she’s crushing it. She’s doing a great job. She’s super profitable.” And I was like, “But I am profitable.” But what she was looking at was the bottom line of I was profitable with each session, but I wasn’t able to handle enough sessions, just given the fact that they took so much time, that I was able to bring in enough money to cover the bills that I was just about to have to cover all on my own.
First of all, I felt it was like everything I could do not to get super defensive or burst into tears. And I did spend a lot of time crying around this at the time. But eventually I was like, “Okay, these are numbers. This is not a judgment about who I am as a person or the quality of my work or anything else, but I have a problem with my numbers and I have to either solve it or I’m going to have to dust off my nursing license.
So what I ended up doing was taking the lessons of in-person sales and reconfiguring them in a way that I could automate to a certain degree. I tried to decide: what are the things that are important about in-person sales that work that actually get people to spend more money, and then what are the steps in that process that I can either create some sort of automated version or something like a templated version.
And now when I finished editing someone’s session, I literally press a button and the whole thing runs on its own. And I get an email saying that a client has purchased this collection. And 30 days later, I get the notification that their gallery has closed and they’re all set and I’ve made X amount of money and they ordered these products.
And really, it took a long time to get it set up and sort of think it through and figure it out, but once I started having that run in my business, which was in May of 2017, those seven months in 2017 were more profitable than I had ever been.
I made more money in those seven months than I ever had in a year prior. And then going forward, it was more profitable and I was able to take on more clients.
Tavia: I love that you were like, “The in-person sales concepts work, but this doesn’t really work for my life right now. So how can I take what’s working about this and systematize and shorten the amount of time that it’s taking.”
So what I hope that people hear from this is that there is value in pausing and reflecting on what’s working in your business and not. And sometimes there’s a life circumstance or there’s something that happens to where we’re forced to figure this out, but if you can make it even just a habit to stop and look and go like:
Because hearing me, Annemie, or anybody else talk about something sounds good, cool and exciting, but when you’re just like bouncing from this, to this, to this, and you’re never sticking with anything long enough to actually see it through and optimize it, then you’re going to continue to struggle in your business. And so I love, Annemie, that you saw what’s working well, how can I take this and optimize it to work for my life right now? And it seems like it worked really well.
Annemie: And to your point, I think that so many, there’s just no one size fits all in photography or probably small business in general.
So when I am looking into someone else’s system or when someone else is like, “Hey, try this,” it’s like “Great!” But how much flexibility is built into that? And I’m all for to your point, don’t go picking and choosing, my favorite thing is going on a recipe site and reading the reviews and people are like, “This spaghetti and meatballs was great! I made this dish of ice cream and it was wonderful.” It’s like…”What is your review have to do with what’s over here?” You do have to try something the way that it’s kind of prescribed, but you need to make sure that whatever it is that you’re trying is also going to work for your market.
I’ve actually talked to several people, and this was actually true for me. When I switched from in-person sales to doing Simple Sales, I retained a lot of my original clients, but some of them, I sort of bless and release, are people who really wanted that super handheld experience, where they were just like being kind of pampered at every turn.
The people who stuck with me actually thanked me and said, “You know what, those sales sessions as great as they were and as helpful as you were, we don’t have the time for that.” And then the new clients that I have brought in since then have been more along those lines where they want the convenience factor and they want things done on their own time. And that works great for me because that actually fits my personality way better than in-person sales and kind of the whole song and dance piece ever did.
Again, I was good at it. I was able to do it, but it never really felt like it sat right with my own preferences. So it turned out to be a good shift, even just from a personality fit perspective.
Tavia: Yeah. And thank you so much for opening people’s eyes to the realization that there is something else besides being an all-inclusive shoot and burn photographer and super high-touch IPS. There are other options. And so thank you so much for just opening people’s eyes to the idea that there could be something else.
Annemie: Well, I didn’t know it for a long time and it really saved my business when I found it out. So I’m happy to share it. Thanks for giving me the platform to do that.
Tavia: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to dig in and talk a little bit about pricing and sales and maybe some tangible things that people can walk away with from this episode to know what they could do to improve their sales system?
Is there anything that they could do to improve their average sales? What are some common mistakes that you see photographers making in their sales that’s costing them big time in terms of revenue specifically?
Annemie: So I will say that if systematizing a whole process sounds interesting to you, I teach that whole process in a free masterclass it’s free.
There are several components that you can just take piecemeal and sort of add into your own strategy. So if you’re doing in-person sales, these may be things that you’re more familiar with because you’re already doing the thing that my system is based on, but I think they’re good reminders.
And if you’re doing more of an all-inclusive model, or if you’re trying to do digital collections plus hoping that people will buy something in your online gallery store or something like that, these are things that can make a big difference.
Number one is that I think that as human beings, and specifically as artists, we are typically not wired to sell, sell, sell, right? For most of us, the whole idea of that is kind of a turnoff. So when we think about, “How do I serve my clients and offer them the option to buy without being pressur-y,” the number one thing I’m going to do is I’m going to take all the limits off of them. I’m going to give them as many choices as possible and then I’m just going to sort of let them figure it out.
So I am a huge proponent advocate for limiting people’s choices at any given time. And this is true in the money-earning side of things, when they’re actually buying products and things like that, you want to limit those choices, but really it starts at the very beginning of the process.
When somebody reaches out to you, one of the biggest mistakes that I see, you talked about niching down, but even once someone has niched down, let’s say that somebody is a family photographer and they offer a suite of different things and you can do a one-hour session, a mini session, a half day in the life, a full day in the life, and somebody lands on your website and they see all these different options. They are going to be overwhelmed unless they happen to be a photographer who knows exactly what it is that they’re looking for. They’re going to see that and it’s going to put them in like a state of paralysis. So that person may never even get in touch with you.
But once someone does get in touch with you, you know, when you are in the process of trying to book their work, you want to lead them down a very narrow set of decisions that they have to make.
And if you start that early, I think it will increase your booking rates. And then as you move them along in the process, once they get to the place where they’re actually trying to buy, then it’s really important not to overwhelm them because anyone who has ever sent someone like, “Here’s your gallery, just let me know when you’re ready to place an order,” 8 times out of 10 that person’s just kind of fizzle out on you or you’re going to spend two months chasing them down and being like, “Hey, are you ready to place that order?”
And that’s not because they don’t want those photos on their wall. They do! It’s just that they don’t know where to start. And it’s kind of like when you turn on the TV, 20 million options on Netflix and you ended up going to bed being like, “Well, I watched a bunch of trailers and never really found anything. So I just decided to give up.” We need someone, and we are the experts in this situation, people need us to curate a good series of options for them and give them good reasons and then let them choose.
I think the other big mistake that I see people is. Photographers committing mistakes is that they give people unlimited time for things. So with in-person sales, it’s not that you’re necessarily like putting a time limit on someone for an order, but there’s kind of a limit in that we’re having an ordering session. So you’re going to order by the end of that hour or whatever. And if you’re doing something outside of in-person sales, you really need to give someone like a hard deadline and then you need to really stick with that deadline in order for them to make a decision.
So in simple sales, one of the pieces of that is that I send people a preview of their images for 24 hours. They get to see them for 24 hours, they can share them with grandparents or whatever they want to do. And at the end of that 24 hours, if they haven’t yet placed their order, their preview disappears.
And I get a lot of pushback from photographers who are like, “Oh no, my clients wouldn’t handle that very well. I need to give them more time.” And 24 hours is a long time to look at that preview and kind of decide, do I like this? Do I not? Do I like it enough to buy the whole shebang? Am I going to narrow it down?
And so my argument is always like, “Are you sure you’re not doing that just because you don’t want to kind of put that deadline in front of them?
They just saw their photos. They’re super stoked and ready to go. Then, if you wait a week or two, and in that process, they’re like, their car broke down and they had to pay that big bill and whatever. And then they’re like, “Well, I guess we’ll just go with the minimum option.” So I’m all about time limits and narrowing down people’s choices for them.
Tavia: I love the time limit thing. I think that a lot of times photographers think that they’re being mean, or they have some insecurity about putting a time limit on it. And it’s like, if we can just flip that and help you, the photographer, understand that it’s actually serving the client for you to put that time limit on them because you want them to have these photos.
You want them to take the time to sit down and look at them. And if there’s no time limit, you know, whether you do IPS or something like the simple sales system, if there’s no time limit, they’re never going to do it. They’re just going to keep delaying because they haven’t made the time.
So when you put that time limit on them, it is a way of serving them because it’s like, “Okay, we have to sit down and do this, or it’s going to go away.”
Annemie: And if they actually get it done, and then they have that photo hanging on their wall or that album sitting on their coffee table, then they’re enjoying the thing that they hired you for in the first place, right?
Whereas if you allow, and I do put that burden on myself as the service provider, if you allow that person to string it along to the point where they never end up with anything, they will look at the whole experience with regret. That will be wasted money for them.
And that is the last thing that any of us want. We don’t want someone to think about the service that we provided them, which that’s no fault of yours that they didn’t get to put their order together. When in reality, if we had put some like tighter controls on that, then perhaps we would have actually gotten them to the finish line.
Tavia: Yeah, I totally agree. So my next question is kind of similar, so it might be similar answers, but I’m just curious if somebody is listening to this and they’re like, “Okay, what are some ways that I can increase my average sale right now?” Like I would venture a guess that 50%-ish of my listeners are currently doing like an all-inclusive, ‘here’s-all-your-files’ type of model. So if somebody is doing that, what are some like simple things that they can do to increase their average sale before committing to something like the simple sales system or even IPS? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Annemie: Yeah. So one of the things that I really like about in-person sales versus all-inclusive, because I toyed with doing all-inclusive as my alternative so that I could increase the number of clients that I took on. But something that is really attractive to people about in-person sales, and this seems counterintuitive because oftentimes people spend more money in the end when they’re like working with a photographer who provides in-person sales, but typically their upfront investment is actually lower. So their initial buy-in with a session fee is, let’s say $300 or $400, and then once they see the photos, that’s when they’re asked to spend more money.
I think that one of the biggest hurdles for people when it comes to all-inclusive pricing is that you’re being asked upfront to pay a lot of money. And so from the photographer’s standpoint, I would say that even though all-inclusive is very easy, so you can just say, “Here’s the price, work with me, and then here’s your photos,” that is about as simple of a transaction as you can get. Not only are you going to end up with clients who, for the most part, aren’t going to be great about getting their stuff printed and like having the physical, tangible reminder that they need to call you again next year, but also you are very much limiting your income by forcing them to pay it all upfront.
So if someone is listening and they’re all-inclusive and they’re not interested in really changing that, I would suggest that they consider a way of breaking that up, where somebody is charged something smaller upfront. And then once they see their images, that in order to get those images, then they have to pay the balance or whatever.
And you can set that up in the contract that they are obligated to pay the balance. But I like the way that both with simple sales and in-person sales, it feels less of a risk because they’re starting out with a smaller amount, so they have some kind of leverage if you just like skip town and never deliver their images, or you can say, I guarantee that you’ll love your work and if not, we’ll do a reshoot and all that sort of stuff.
People are just partying with a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of stress and all that sort of thing. I like to make it feel like they have more control, even though I know I’m going to deliver on it, so I know they’re going to end up spending that money.
Tavia: Yeah. That’s super valuable. And I totally agree. We think about it from the photographer’s angle so much because we are the photographer, but if you think about it from a client’s perspective, it’s like, “Oh, I’m all inclusive for $800.” And it’s like, “So this person is paying you $800 and has no idea what their photos are going to look like, if they even like you?” It’s like they know nothing. And so I love that you pointed that out. It’s such a good piece of advice.
This has been such a great conversation. I feel like we could, can I still have so many questions, like we could still continue to talk for forever, but I know that, um, this whole conversation has been really valuable. So please tell everyone where they can learn more about the simple sales system about your podcast, wherever you want people to connect with.
Annemie: The podcast is called this can’t be that hard as is the website. You can find the podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts. And you can sign up for that masterclass about the Simple Sales System here.
Tavia: Awesome. And we’ll link all of that in the show notes as well. Annemie, thank you so much. This has been so valuable. Any final words as we’re wrapping up here for anyone listening to this?
Annemie: No, just that I am glad that this was valuable for you because my listeners completely were head-over-heels for everything that you shared a couple of weeks ago on my show. So thanks for coming on. This is, uh, this is great. I feel like, and I have known you in the business sphere for a while now, and I feel like we have like business minds. So it’s super fun to get to deep dive with you a little bit.
Tavia: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much.
Annemie: Thank you! Have a great day.
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