Spencer Lum is a storyteller with an indelible belief in the raw humanity of weddings. He is the founder of the photography journal, Ground Glass, and with 10 years of experience running Brooklyn-based 5 West Studios, he has developed a style that combines influences from fine art and photojournalism. He has also enjoyed time as a designer, creative director, and filmmaker, and he is a doting husband and father of two beautiful children in Brooklyn, NY.
In the simplest terms and the most basic words, you are not your business. No structure, entity, or process could ever contain the complexities and beauty that you possess. As you become intertwined with the day to day burdens of living, life, and the baggage we acquire that makes pack rats of us all, remember that you must always let your vision lead your business and not the other way around.
A friend of mine has a lasagna recipe from the old world. Passed on through the years, it was tradition that each generation added one improvement to the recipe. The current iteration is a sight to behold. Laden with grease, muddled by complexity, and very clearly the result of more than one too many a generation, it is a beastly thing that no person should have to consume.
The problem wasn’t that no one cared. It was that each person who added their special touch saw only the trees and not the forest. Lamb instead of beef? Yes! Three cheeses instead of one? Yes! More layers? Yes! And so it went. No lasagna should have to suffer so merciless a fate. Yet this is life in action. It’s not just lasagna and cooking and generations of people. It is the day-to-day. It is us, running our business, trying to get by. We don’t have time to think about what we are at every moment in every action. But never let it get too far away.
It is tempting to treat business like that lasagna. To break it all down into a series of isolated steps, where each thing we do becomes severed from the actual goal we’re after. More schwag? Yes! More follow-ups? Yes! More previews? Yes! But no amount of more will ever match the power of a simple, meaningful gesture. Each act that truly expresses who you are – your care and your value – is worth 10 times more than any generic gift or email.
What you want is not more. But better. What you want is not for people to like you, love you, be happy with you, or even recommend you. What you want is to be essential.
The rest will follow suit, but it will not work the other way around. It is when you are essential the referrals don’t stop. It is when you are essential that you create bonds, and no one else can replace you. This is when people go to bat for you. To do this, you must make your beliefs theirs. You have to seek out those clients who can share your vision, and let them become a part of it.
In other words, you have to stand for something.
You must have beliefs that you put into action and let them roam the world. No one will ever hire someone for their opinion who is unwilling to express it. Yet this is exactly what you want to be hired for. Not just to know the rules of photography. Anyone can pick that up from a few online tutorials. Not even for that finely-honed instinct about where to be when. But for our decisions about what to capture and how to capture it. For each choice we make when we press the button and say that this image we create – in our way with our abilities – is the best representation of the moment and the day. When we are hired for that, our clients give us the greatest thing possible. Their trust. They are believing in us and not just in our skills.
If you want to achieve this, do not fall into the trap of “yes.” Do not pit yourself against your client as adversaries, where you are deciding how much of yourself you’re willing to give in exchange for how much money they are willing to pay. You’re not a parking meter, where dropping in a few more coins gets more time out of you. Yet too many of us position ourselves that way.
While “yes” is an the essential quality of good service, you must remember that good business starts when two people find a common nucleus of need. It is about mutual opportunity. What is good for you must be good for them. What is good for them must be good for you. No business is sustainable when you drive yourself into the ground in sacrifice of your client. If “yes” puts you at ends with your client, if getting it done hurts you whenever it helps them, it’s time to re-examine what you’re doing.
Being essential and earning trust requires two things. First, you must offer true value to your client. You must establish that it is them you are looking out for and not yourself. This seems at odds with the notion of mutual interest, but it’s not. When you put your client first, what you lose in time will be returned in spades in the form of respect, trust, belief, and opportunity. In a good relationship, you will not just feel better about who you are. You will become better. Money may will be a byproduct of a good business relationship, but it cannot be the foundation for it.
Second, you must be willing to offer your truest opinion. Sometimes, you’ll even need to push your clients for their own good. This is hard. We fear rejection. We are afraid to offend. We think we’ll lose the business. But you cannot shelve this part of yourself. An opinion forged by the pressure of experience and the intensity of belief is everything. You are at your most potent when you can stir this mix into the soup of the present. This doesn’t mean diva behavior. It doesn’t mean grandstanding, showing off, and being abrasive. It means you can only give all of you when you create an environment that lets you perform your best. And that never happens if you don’t show people who you are, what you’re after, and what they need to know to let it all happen. If you want people to believe in you, give them something to believe in.
In reality, both of these are just flip sides of the same coin. To look out for the client is to engage the full value of your experience and judgment. Or to put it another way when “Yes” works, art and service are aligned. It is too common a misconception that we create the art for ourselves and offer service for others. It is equally common that we should create art for our clients and not for ourselves. In one model we are too invested. In the other, not enough. Neither should be the case. Service needs to foster art. Art needs to foster service.
Service is an enabler. It doesn’t just hide our mistakes and fulfill our obligations. Good service should relate to the product we deliver. Use it to tell your story. To paint the picture of you and your value. Not just the technicalities of what you do. Service should guide and cradle our clients. It can make them excited and get them on board with our ideas. How much more interested will a client be if they feel like they’re participating in the same journey? How much more trust will they give? Service carves out the space you need to perform your best.
Too many people sit passively by until the wedding day, then scratch their heads wondering why no one gets them. Service creates opportunity. How would anyone know what to do and what to expect if we don’t let them in on it? That is our responsibility.
Good art, on the other hand, powers service. Without it, there is no way to show an opinion, fight for a perspective, or to even find the meaning of what we do. It will determine the words we use in our brand, and it will tell us the things to ask as we prepare our clients. Art demonstrates the values we espouse. It is a foundation.
Neither art nor service should exist in isolation. If things aren’t working, examine the relationship between service and art. If the art is too self-serving and disconnected, it becomes detached from the service. If the art is too mundane, it gives the service no fuel for the fire. On the other hand, if your service only fulfills the duties without crafting a fully-fledged process, it won’t establish the value of the art. It will leave us positioned as a vendor and nothing more. It is the duty of the business to show the value of the art.
At the end of it all, you must not be afraid to share yourself. Don’t be afraid of the person you are. Don’t bury the very best you, while the lesser parts slave away for a few extra dollars. It’s when each part of what you do aligns and points in the same direction that everything comes together. It’s when you never lose sight of what you’re after that things happen. That’s the sweet spot. And the formula couldn’t be simpler. Make people part of your world, and let yourself become part of theirs.
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