On Selling, Negotiating, Commodities & Differentiation
This essay originally appeared in the handbook given to attendees of the American Society of Media Photographers‘ (ASMP) very successful Strictly Business three-day conference series earlier this year. The essay is reprinted here in its entirety. (ASMP’s updated-daily “Strictly Business” blog is another great resource for photographers.)
Selling and Negotiating. The words strike fear into almost every creative person I’ve met. As creatives in the photography business, we love to take pictures and have a strong desire to satisfy our clients. The selling process, by its very nature, involves give and take, and at some point along the way, we’re likely to not give the client (or potential client) everything he or she wants. And, keep in mind that sometimes we won’t get everything that we want. That’s negotiating.
In my mind, the way to grow any business, is to differentiate your product from your competition’s. What is it that you do differently, better, or smarter than everyone else? This differentiation provides you with “value” that your competitors don’t have. Value to your clients of course, but in a sense, “value” to you, because your clients will be less likely to find what you offer from your competitors.
You might ask, what does that have to do with selling and negotiating? Plenty. Remember the definition of commodity from back in that Economics class you took in college? From Wikipedia: “A commodity is some good for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.” It is a product that is the same no matter who produces it. The definition continues: “One of the characteristics of a commodity good is that its price is determined as a function of its market as a whole.”
If you are unable to differentiate your product from that of your competitors, then you are at a distinct disadvantage in any negotiation. In fact, there likely won’t be much of any negotiating going on… callers will simply tell you what they will pay, take it or leave it. They’re able to take this stance because if you don’t take the job, they’ll very easily find another capable creative to take the job for the money they’re offering.
So let’s assume you do indeed have a product that clients want and one that is not readily available elsewhere. Let the negotiation begin.
The phone rings. I like to get that initial conversation off to a somewhat casual start if I can. We rarely get face time with prospects, so it’s important to work to create some sort of relationship with the person if at all possible. Because I work primarily in the corporate-direct end of our business, creating images for corporate brochures and annual reports, many prospective clients call after having viewed my website.
My “Personal Work” portfolio of images is often a good stating point in the conversation. It’s a chance to talk about things I like to photography when I’m not being paid to do so. While that conversation is taking place, I’m also working to gather information about the client.
Things like, how did they hear of me? (If it’s a referral from another client, I know that client has “pre-sold” me to the person.) What’s their website address? (I can check it to see what sort of images they presently use; what are they used to getting and perhaps a sense of budget they give to visual content.)
Next, I invite the person to tell me about the job. At this point, I’m relying on my listening skills to glean as much data as I can. Don’t interrupt! If you think “talking” is active and listening is passive, you have it backward. (Read my related post on this topic.) Don’t let emotional filters prevent you from hearing what you don’t want to hear. And above all, take notes, concentrating the entire time on what the other person is saying, not what your reply will be.
Keep the “count to two” rule in your mind. After the other person finishes talking, count to two before you reply. Knowing you have these two seconds to craft your reply affords you the ability to really listen to what the other person is saying. If you must ask questions, ask open ended ones. Keep the other person talking.
A key piece of information to get is whether or not the person you are talking to is indeed the decision maker. I’ll ask at some point, “Is there anyone else that I should email a few samples of my work to?” If they provide a name, you’ve just discovered the decision maker.
Think of yourself as a salesperson first, a creative second. The entire purpose of this negotiation is to show your value to the client. But you need to be touting your value to the correct person, so if you aren’t talking to the decision maker, do all you can to get that other person involved in the process. If that’s impossible, then empower the person with who you;re speaking to “sell you” to the person deciding who will get the job. This is critical. Give them “talking points” so that they’ll be better able to “sell” you to that hidden decision maker.
Focus the conversation on your value. Why are you better than everyone else, why is your work superior? Is it your style? Do you have a lot of experience with the type of work they want?
Most important of all, remember that if you focus the conversation on price, the price will likely fall. If instead, you focus the conversation on value, the price will likely rise. Good luck!