Coping with the Client Pyramid

The following excerpt from my forthcoming book “A Life in Photography” and is mostly aimed at portrait photographers I think there’s a word of wisdom that photographers of all types might find interesting…or not.

One reason there’s a McDonald’s on every street corner in America and not a Ruth’s Chris Steak House is that Ray Kroc wanted to sell lots of products to lots of buyers. The average diner isn’t going to eat filet mignon each week but no matter what the economic climate may be, he or she can afford a hamburger. Many small photo studios ignore this reality when they fall prey to “carriage trade” envy, which happens when they disregard one of the oldest business realities: The customer income pyramid.


Think about the shape of a pyramid and remember that the higher the spending potential of any group of potential clients, the smaller their numbers will be. But more importantly (and remembering what Earnest Hemingway once told F. Scott Fitzgerald) “the one reason the rich have so much money is they don‘t spend it.” The rich are also being constantly photographed —and not paying someone to do it—at charity events, the country club, you name it…

Many photo operations make the mistake of chasing the big dollars while ignoring smaller sales that are available (by comparison)  in greater numbers. When competing for the tip of the pyramid, the competition is small but fierce, often with entrenched businesses that hold sway in the market because of their political and social connections to the buyers. One trend that’s helping the independent photographer and small photo studio is the gradual disappearance of mall and “store” photography operations that used to siphon bread-and-butter business from the small studio. They’re still there bit in greatly reduced numbers.

book-coverI know a photographer who one dumped most of her customers because she was “embarrassed” to admit to her peers that she was servicing a less prestigious, less affluent clientele but one that gladly paid for her services. When her business floundered, she desperately tried to get these same customers back because she was more embarrassed about being broke. It took her three years to build her client base back to a level she destroyed in just a few months by simply cutting these customers loose.

Another studio I know specializing in Fortune 500 clients created a school photography division that had its own, separate staff. It provided recession-proof income and when tight economic times caused cutbacks from corporate clients; the school division boomed and eventually became more successful than its parent studio. Ray Kroc, it appeared, was right.

Author: Joe Farace

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