Your photography business is not about you.

That’s not something we hear very much these days. In fact, I feel sometimes that one of the strongest messages we hear during this rapid growth of the industry is the exact opposite. We hear that it’s all about us. That we need to market ourselves in order to stand apart from the crowds. That it’s not about the photography, it’s about the photographer. That it’s about our unique personality, our particular eye, and our ability to make photographic art that nobody else can create. It’s YOU that defines your brand and separates your business from everyone else in the market.

I would agree 100% with those statements. But I still submit to you guys that your business is not about you.

Let me explain.

Your branding, yes, should reflect what makes you a unique individual and a distinctive artist. I think that successful photography businesses are able to brand the photographer in an effective and approachable way. But the purpose of branding and marketing is to attract clients that believe that your unique experience will provide them with the highest degree of pleasure. Your branding is simply a picture of how your services will fulfill your client’s idea of happiness.

When you think about it this way – that your business is really all about how you bring others joy – it means the “you-ness” in your branding is actually all about the client.

So what if we took this client-centered approach beyond just branding and marketing and focused every part of our business on making our clients lives better instead of making our lives better? From the booking process, to the way we communicate, to the kind of customer service we provide, to way we shoot, to the way we deliver the final products – what if our ultimate goal were to serve our clients in the best way possible instead of worrying about elevating ourselves?

If our most important goal were to serve other people, how would we change the way we do business?

It probably sounds a little strange – why wouldn’t we want to make our lives easier? Why wouldn’t we focus on making our business serve us? Don’t we want to operate a business that will grow our brand and make us more successful both inside the industry and out?

Yes, we do want all of those things. And for Jeff and I, the way we achieve all of those goals is by making ourselves less important and serving others first and foremost. The more we authentically serve our clients, the more we actually end up serving our business. The more we focus on making their lives easier, the easier our lives become. The more emotionally fulfilling we make the photography experience for them, the more fulfilled we feel in our artistry and our career.

In short, the more we make our business about serving other people, the more successful our business ultimately becomes. And that’s something pretty stinkin’ remarkable.

I want to acknowledge here that many times we think we are serving our couples above ourselves. I mean, it makes total sense to serve our couples first and foremost right? Otherwise we wouldn’t garner any referrals, which is usually the main avenue of new business for photographers.

But the truth is that if many of us took a hard look at the way we operate, we would find that in some ways we’re not very others-focused at all (Jeff and myself included).

It’s so easy to fall into a self-focused mindset that it’s almost imperceptible, but if we truly take a hard look at how we respond to others, we may realize that we don’t actually have our clients’ best interest in mind.

For example, how many times has something slipped through the cracks or you’ve dropped the ball because you haven’t actually taken the time to organize your client communications or set up ShootQ to handle your growing workload? Or how many times have you gotten frustrated with a client because they keep asking when they’re getting the DVD of images, but in reality you have never clearly communicated the timeline of product delivery? And how many times have we wondered why a wedding coordinator has never referred us business, but we’ve never actually given them any images? Or we gave them images with our watermark all over them?

So how does a service-minded business truly operate then? What does the day-to-day look like? I would say that when it comes to an others-focused business style, it’s all about making your current clients – not your future ones that don’t exist yet – a number one priority.

This means responding to emails and phone calls in a timely manner. It’s not about making excuses about how many emails you deal with everyday or auto responders that say (essentially), “I get a thousand emails a day and yours is not important enough for me to answer.” It’s about anticipating your clients’ most commonly asked questions before they ask by educating them effectively with documents, emails, or blog posts that are chock full of useful information. And when they do ask, it’s about answering their questions pleasantly and thoroughly, with love and kindness. Not one-liner emails that can come across as, “I’m too busy.”

It’s about being clear with timelines regarding their products, and then sticking to those deadlines, perhaps by skipping a blog post that day or sacrificing your education by staying off of the photography forums to finish their images on time. It’s about resisting the urge to overbook yourself, and realizing you can only serve a certain number of clients per year (the easiest way to create dissatisfied customers is to have too many to handle).

It’s about focusing less time and money on drumming up new business from unfocused campaigns (this could be things like online ads, wedding blog features, and magazine publications) to focusing your marketing budget and energy on making your current clients feel like gold by doing things like taking them out to dinner. Current clients that feel cherished and important will bring you more business than any wedding blog feature out there – trust me.

On the wedding day, an others-first mindset is about focusing the First Look on an emotional experience for your couple instead of a way to make photos less stressful for you. It’s about responding with delight instead of annoyance when the mother of the bride asks for five additional pictures with Aunt Sue. It’s about serving the wedding coordinator by being on time for the grand entrance even if it means sacrificing that one last “crazy awesome” shot at sunset. It’s telling the Uncle Bob photographer you are thrilled they’re capturing so many moments for the couple, instead of barking at them to get out of your way. It’s about staying at the reception an hour longer than you’re booked without pay so that you can capture the great-grandma on the dance floor.

When you mess up, it’s about owning up to your mistakes with humility and honesty instead of laying the blame on a busy schedule or on the client. It’s about doing anything you can to make the wrong situation right instead of ignoring the problem or, much worse, disappearing altogether.

It’s about serving the “difficult” couples better than you could ever possibly imagine.

When you really think about it, it’s remarkable how slight the differences can be when you operate your business with a self-focused attitude versus a mindset that revolves around making your clients’ lives better. Jeff and I definitely are not perfect – we have fallen into a self-serving mindset often in the lifetime of our business – but I think it’s because this kind of attitude isn’t necessarily natural. It takes a lot of time and practice to make truly serving others the knee-jerk response within your business.

But the results are huge. Because the better you make your client’s lives, the better you make your own life. The more you serve others, the more you serve your business. The more joy you give away, the more joyful you will be in your work. And I think that’s ultimately the kind of business worth building.

Written by Erin Youngren

photographer erin youngren

Jeff and Erin Youngren are international wedding and lifestyle photographers running one of the fastest growing boutique studios in the competitive Southern California market. Although based in San Diego, their deeply emotional style and passionate partnership has taken them from the streets of San Francisco to the canals of Venice to the family suburbs of Chicago to photograph extraordinary weddings and incredible couples. As leaders in the photographic community, they are passionate about helping other photographers build viable, authentic businesses, while building a photography community built on integrity and honest leadership.

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