Cruise Event Photos

Building Clients for Life Or Being Kim Jong Un

2010. I’d been working nationally for a few years, when I received a call from Stan. He wanted me to photograph an upcoming conference of very distinguished scientists in Dallas, TX. The schedule was longer than your average executive event, roughly 5 days, smaller in terms of attendance, and I fretted over what to charge for my services.

You see, I base my conference and convention photography price structure on a 2.5-day event. I figured the average conference schedule goes something like this:

  • Day 1 opening reception (fly into city that morning)
  • Day 2 full day
  • Day 3 full day with evening event.
  • Day 4 fly out —ideally to the next gig.

I knew what I needed to charge for that schedule, pretty much anywhere in the US. Go out of those parameters, however, and I was at a loss.

8 Year Clients

I was afraid Stan would bulk at what I needed to charge to tie up my schedule for, let’s face it, a week. On top of that, what looked like a fairly small event.

I sent off a proposal, thinking privately it wouldn’t fly.


I followed up with another email, my standard before figuring I didn’t get the gig.

Reply: “The directors discussed this, and we would love to work with you.”

I’ve been working this event ever since, and this year, it (and I) travel to Munich, Germany for the conference.

Which taught me a key business lesson, maybe the biggest lesson of my life, and here it is:

  • Charge what you need to charge to make the job worthwhile.
  • Don’t charge more than you need to charge to make the job worthwhile.
  • Every time you work for a client, add value to the package without adding to the core rate — only adjust modestly for inflation
  • Educate the client.

Here’s how that worked with this client:

First, I talked to them about the importance of not just taking photos at one event, one year, but building a consistent record with photos for the history of the organization over many years. These pictures, I reminded them, were part of their history. It was my hope to build and document that narrative with each conference. That made crystal clear sense to this client. They are the top thinkers from across disciplines, coming together to discuss ideas. Any idea that seems worth exploring. String theory. UFOs. Quantum whatever. Many attendees are Nobel Prize winners. All have a sense of being historical.

But smart people don’t necessarily know how to pose for a photo. In fact, everything from their head shots to past conference photos were.


That brings me to point two: set aside time in the schedule for something the client needs, but don’t know they need it. In this case, head shots. No extra charge. Just time, usually on the final day, when these celebrities in their field could get a headshot updated. Then talk to everyone about why you’re doing that. Volunteering, effectively. Why are you doing it? Because they need headshots. They DESERVE good headshots. (Because you are about to make yourself indispensable. For years. For life?)

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Third: always be nice. Even on hour 15 of an 18-hour day, slap that smile on your face and treat them like rock stars. They are rock stars. At least, in their respective fields.

It reminds me of the time mom and I were shooting a trade show for the National Association of Vending Machines. At their Award Gala, they announced the “Vending Machine Sales Person of the Year.”

The winner wept. On stage, unabashedly, wept.

“This is the highlight of my life,” he said. His wife nodded. So did his kids.

That may sound extreme for anyone not a vending machine salesperson. But, for this group, winning that award was better than getting married, the birth of their children, the vacations in Belize.

As a photographer, why would you treat that moment as any less important? Just by being on the same page as your client, mirroring the value they place on key moments, you’ll win the client for life.

Like Kim Jong Un, who is Supreme Leader for Life of North Korea (Little Rocket Man), building clients for life is a key part of creating a successful photography business. Think about it.

What’s the hardest part of being self-employed? Cash flow. Worrying where the next money comes from. Looking at a calendar and seeing a great, big empty slate instead of something booked wall to wall. With clients for life, at the start of each year, you pretty much know what key events will fill in and complete your schedule. The more clients for life, the more your schedule is pre-populated. Basically, your new year is already half booked. It’s a lot easier to fill in the gaps than start from scratch every day.

In this next batch of posts, I’ll give you my ideas on how to get and keep clients for life. This key concept is why I can sleep at night. It shapes how I view our business. It is the single most important thing a photographer can do to be successful.

Love him or hate him, Kim Jun Un is a successful little rocket man. Ruthless, competitive, maybe a little crazy — but successful. He’s finagled a summit with the human Cheeto (only fair, if we’re using assigned nick names), developed his own weapons of mass distraction, and scares the pants off western powers, larger competitors who are capable of “making his jungle glow”.

I’m not suggesting we embrace the tactics of North Korea (am I? Hmmmmm…). I am suggesting we have a few weapons in our arsenal and being competitive is a good thing. Building a legacy with clients for life is a good thing. Because the alternative may be Trump’s approach—


(Oh, know he didn’t!)