Photography Business Tip – Set Boundaries
I don’t have time to create a video today, but I wanted to get this post out there while I am thinking about it. It’s not often that you hear a photography speaker bring up the term boundaries. Typically that word is reserved for more personal matters… emotionally charged relationship issues, for instance. But after being in business for many years, both as an employee, manager and business owner, I have come to realize that many of the challenges photography business owners run into are actually boundary problems. Monday night, at our APPA (Austin Professional Photographers Association) meeting we had two amazing photographers and speakers present to our group. Mary Fisk-Taylor and Jamie Hayes, two incredibly knowledgable professional portrait photographers from Richmond Virginia gave us some terrific tips on sales, marketing, PR and setting up your portrait studio for success. And, during their presentation, Mary brought up boundaries. She mentioned that she and Jamie have really clear boundaries in their businesses (they own and operate two different types of portrait photography businesses… one high end, and one more mid-range). Her comments really got me to thinking about boundaries in business, and I have been mulling things over in my head since Monday about this concept.
Then today I got a call back from a potential client about an event we have been discussing. It was at this point that I came face to face with the legitimate difficulties that we, as professional photographers, face every day with setting business boundaries. This potential client wanted something from me, but it was something I had already determined I was unwilling to give… as a business owner. Giving her what she wanted was going to put me in a position where I would have to take a big risk, and that risk likely had no up side. So, what did I do? Well… first of all… I took a deep breath. Pausing and breathing helps me focus and relax for the difficult conversation ahead. Then I re-stated to her my original answer to her question, which was basically what I was willing to do, but which clearly gave her a “no” to what she was asking for. So it wasn’t an ultimate no… like I do not want to work with you, but it was a no to how she wanted to arrange things.
Now, if you are speaking with someone who accepts a “no”, then this is really all there is to setting a boundary. First off, you have policies that you stick to so that you don’t get thrown from the very beginning. Then, armed with the knowledge that the boundary is necessary, you state your answer, and you wait for their response. Often the response will be something along the lines of “I understand”, and I appreciate you considering my proposal. However, most folks will not give up this easily. And this particular lady works for a non-profit organization, and is especially adept at pulling on the heart strings. So she persisted. She explained why it needed to be done her way, and I listened. Luckily, I have many years of experience with folks asking for free photography, so I have learned a thing or two about how to handle it. This starts with being able to empathize with them and hear them out, so that they feel like I understand where they are coming from. This step is incredibly important, because our emotional response to someone asking for us to work for free, and attempting to (essentially) emotionally blackmail us into doing so, can cause us to emotionally react. The two most common emotional responses are to either 1. Call them on the carpet, and tell them why they are wrong, or 2. Give in. When your emotions are all triggered, these seem like the only two options. But, if you can breathe, slow down, hear them out, and repeat back to them what you hear them saying… if you can empathize with the fact that they don’t have a budget for a photographer, and that they really need your help. Then you can leave them in a space where they may be able to hear your response.
So back to the story. After hearing her out, and repeating back to her what she had said, and letting her know that I understand how difficult it must be for her to raise money for her organization… then I was ready to craft my own response. Again… deep breath. Whew! I won’t go into detail, because I don’t want to give away any personal information about this particular call. What I will say is that it went something like : “I would really love to help you, but this is why I am unable to do so.” Then I explained why the proposal was not a Win Win for me or my company. I explained that I have costs that need to be covered, and that this is a very busy time of year for us, and I cannot afford to risk paying events for events that likely will lose money. Then I did my best to offer her solutions to her problem that she might be able to live with. Solutions that would be a Win Win, for her and for me. I even made suggestions for how she might be able to raise her needed funds without me, and save herself a lot of time and heartache. Then I asked her to think about my proposals and let me know by a certain date and time, and graciously attempted to end the call.
You would figure that the call ended here, but it didn’t. She and I went through this same process another two times, before she was willing to let me off of the phone. The solutions I offered her were not what she wanted, but they were what I needed. And they were fair. So eventually, she did allow me to get off of the phone, without either of us feeling taken advantage of.
Now… I don’t always handle things like this as well as I did today. It has taken me many years of practice… setting boundaries in business and in my personal life. And I fail to do so perfectly many times still. But, today was a success. And, for you, in your photography business, you won’t always do it perfectly either. But boundaries are a learnable skill. You have to be able to say no sometimes in business to be able to succeed. You have to be able to turn down business when it is not the right client for you. You have to be able to negotiate solutions that will work for all involved. You have to be able to deal with difficult personalities and people who are very persistent. Boundaries are one of the keys to being able to create a photography business that you love, and that supports everything you want to create.
There are lots of great books out on this subject if you want to learn more. My most recent favorite is called “Crucial Conversations”. There are also several books on boundaries by Townsend and Cloud. You can get one of their books by searching with the words “boundaries, townsend, cloud”. Any of these books, and many others are available on Amazon.com .
And now I’m off to go photograph a cool green screen event. Wish me luck!