Annemie Tonken

#85 Annemie Tonken on Automation & Creating Systems


In Oh Shoot! episode #85, Cassidy Lynne (@cassidylynne) and Annemie Tonken (@megapixie) chat about the best way to automate your photography business, and what systems you should set up to stay organized. Annemie is a family and portrait photographer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She’s been in business since 2010 and has been in the photography education space since 2017. Annemie has a podcast for photographers called This Can’t be That Hard and a course to help photographers streamline their sales and workflow.  She also co-hosts a yearly conference called The Family Narrative

Listen to the full podcast on Spotify or watch it on Youtube!

How Annemie Got Started in Photography

Like so many other people, Annemie did not start out with any intention to become a photographer. She always thought it was fun, but didn’t take it seriously. When her older son was born, she was living in New York City in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. She didn’t have space for any big gifts, so she asked her family for money, a stroller, books, or a camera. She was able to purchase her first DSLR back in 2016 when her son was born. She “accidentally” took some good photos one time and her obsession with photography began. 

A few years later she was on maternity leave with her second son and was in the middle of a master’s program in nursing that was not lighting her up in the way she thought it was going to. She started asking herself, “Is this really what I want to be when I grow up?” A tiny seed grew of thinking she could make a photography career work and she ended up never going back to her master’s program. She continued working full-time as a nurse, so over a couple of years, Annemie built her photography business on the side. Eventually, she was able to quit her nursing job and focus on photography full-time.

Favorite Tools for Photographers

If Annemie could choose two specific tools that make her life easier as a photographer she would choose: 

#1 Pic-Time

Annemie has used Pic-Time, a gallery software, for a long time and feels like it’s an incredible tool that has done wonders for her sales averages. Pic-Time has a lot of marketing tools built into their software that Annemie loves.

#2 Dubsado

Dubsado is her favorite client relationship management (CRM) software. It has completely rocked her business world and has made everything so much easier. A CRM will help you think through things in your business that you didn’t even know you needed to think through.

Systems in a Photography Business 

Annemie is known for being a systems expert when it comes to running a photography business.

What are systems and why are they important?

Annemie likes to think about systems as a series of steps and when you take those steps over and over again, they produce a predictable outcome. By systemizing a process, like your sales process, you will begin to know what to expect each and every time. 

Systems are important because they give you the ability to know what you’re doing a little bit better and it makes what you’re doing more consistent. Consistency is important in every aspect of your business. You want to be able to provide consistent service. You want to be relatively consistent in the art you produce. You want to consistently market your business. Systems also help you come across to your prospective clients and your paying clients, as a more trustworthy professional. It gives you the appearance of knowing what you’re doing, even if you feel like you’re in the beginning stages. 

Systems give you a checklist to follow, a framework to lean on, and help clear up your mental energy. Having more mental energy and the ability to focus more on her art was something that Annemie realized systems gave her. Prior to implementing systems, Annemie was constantly in a state of feeling like she was missing or forgetting something. 

Once you have your systems all mapped out, you know what to do, and you can use software that supports it. It’s like having an electronic brain with your to-do list and it frees up your brain from having to remember all of that. You get more time back because you don’t feel like you’re constantly working on the business side of your business. Though systems do require time, effort, and mental energy to set up, the benefits end up paying off for years to come.

Systems Create a Sustainable Business 

Annemie believes that as artists and creatives it is vital to create white space in your mental calendar. A lot of people are really good at multitasking, managing, and getting all the things done, but once your business grows beyond a baby business it can get overwhelming. Eventually, if you’re not checking off all the things, somewhere down the line you’re failing yourself and your clients. It’s a stress that nobody needs to take on. Most of us start businesses without a strong business background and don’t know much about actually running a business. It’s important to educate yourself about the business side and simple stuff like setting up systems will make your business sustainable in the long term. 

3 Basic Business Systems 

Every business has three basic systems: 

#1 Marketing: How you find and connect with potential clients. 

#2 Sales: How you take potential clients and convert them into actual paying clients. 

#3 Fulfillment: The actual services you deliver to your clients.

Marketing System 

When people think about the marketing front, they often think of tactics like social media, email marketing, etc. However, Annemie is talking more about your marketing strategy. You have to narrow down who’s your audience, where are they, what’s the best place to interact with them, how are you going to interact with them, etc. When you start to see what’s working you need to narrow it down and decide these are the three places I’m going to focus my energy. It could be three or you could even just start with one. 

Once you find one, three, or five places, you need to create a system around that. For example with social media, it could look like deciding on your content pillars, posting schedule, daily engagement, etc. If you’ve ever been through one of those social media exercises where you create a schedule for yourself and it’s repeatable then you’ve created a system in your social media marketing. You could do that for each of your kinds of marketing (Instagram, Pinterest, email, etc.) and that would be your marketing system.

Sales System

The sales system that you need to create is the path you take a potential client from inquiring to hiring you. Here are questions you need to think about for your sales process:

  • How do you take an inquiry and turn them into a client?
  • How do you respond to an inquiry? Do you send an email with a PDF guide? Book a phone call? 
  • What’s your offer?
  • What’s the price for your offers?
  • What’s the actual booking process? 
  • How do you follow up with an inquiry? 

All of that goes into your sales system.

Fulfillment Service 

Fulfillment is what happens once somebody hires you. These systems can be simple, but there is a lot to think about. 

  • How do you welcome your clients?
  • How do you prepare them to work with you? 
  • How do you show up for the session?
  • How do you deliver what you’ve promised them? 

Think about all the different ways you’re managing your client’s experience from the time they book with you all the way to the end. 

Marketing, sales, and fulfillment are the three major systems. Once you have those dialed in, you have a working business.

Mistakes Photographers Make in Systems

There are a lot of things photographers at all stages of their business don’t actually think through. For example, imagine there is a new restaurant in town. This restaurant has been getting a lot of hype and you’re excited to try it out. When you finally go, they’re slammed because it’s new and everybody wants to eat here. They’re really busy and the service ends up being terrible. They’re out of half the menu and you end up leaving thinking, “I’m never gonna go back.” In that situation, you have a business that put a lot of focus on its marketing system, but they haven’t dialed in the sales and fulfillment part of its systems. 

You can translate that example to a photography business and how photographers spend so much time focused on marketing. Marketing is the sexy and fun side of systems that everybody loves to spend their time on. We’re showing up on Instagram and doing all the things to get people into our funnel. However, 9 times out of 10, when a photographer is having a hard time finding new clients, what’s really going on is that the process they are using to sell and deliver their services isn’t stacking up right. They may be getting clients, but not giving enough of a “wow factor” to their customers. 

Instead, Annemie recommends focusing on your systems in the reserve order and thinking about the fulfillment system first. When you first focus on your fulfillment system and then think about how you can communicate this better through your sales process then your marketing kind of lines itself up too. You start to have more confidence in what you’re really selling. It doesn’t have to take a long time to dial those things in but could be a couple of weeks of focused attention on how you can make your systems better. 

The art photographers deliver to people is a small part of the experience. We need to take our clients by the hand and guide them through the process. Your booking rate can go up once you’re showing people it’s not just pretty pictures they’re getting, but a whole experience.

How to Start Automating Your Business

We need to sit down and imagine the perfect client experience for your client. For example, if you’re a wedding photographer, you’re going to think through what’s the first thing they’re most afraid of once they book. How can you combat that? Do you send them a welcome gift or a personalized welcome video that walks them through the next steps? Annemie likes to say that education is 90% of the battle. If someone knows what to expect next and then you show up and deliver on that or even exceed their expectations, that’s what good service is. 

Sit down with a notebook and a clear head and think through what would be the perfect experience for my clients from the first minute all the way to delivering their photos and they’re writing you a Google review. Anticipate every single step and then turn that into a workflow. For example, you send them an email at this point or mail them a handwritten card here. Map it all out and put timestamps on it. Then you can get into the automation part so everything is a rinse and repeat for you.

Automate Your Email Templates

Email templates are step number one when it comes to automating things and taking things off your plate You should have email templates for any email that you write more than once. Obviously, that doesn’t mean they need to go out automatically and sound like a robot. These are the kind of emails you would normally send in your voice that you might go in and tweak a little bit for each client. 

Most of Annemie’s templates have bracketed parts where she adds in any customized pieces. So instead of sitting down and wondering, “What do I need to tell these people?”, she can go in and customize a couple of sentences and send it off. Annemie has a slightly different reminder email template for every version of family photos whether it’s toddler-age kids, newborns, or newborn and toddlers.  

Don’t try to write 80 email templates over the weekend. Instead, as you work with your next few clients and you’re writing those emails, spend an extra five minutes creating a template you can customize for every client in that position. Templates can always be tweaked because there will always be things that come up that you need to go back and add. Taking those first five extra minutes to put a template together will save you 20 minutes every single time when you send that email in the future.

Automating with a CRM

The thing Annemie loves about CRM software is that they really do support all of these systems. You build a map into your workflow and implement it into your CRM. For example, your CRM can tell you that it’s time to send this couple their one-month reminder, and here’s the email template to edit and send off to them. Instead of reinventing the wheel, you can sit down and take three minutes to customize that email, send it, and check off the box in your CRM.

Systems Can Change With Your Business

Annemie has had different systems over time. In 2017, Annemie got divorced and that required her systems to really be shaken up. She likes to say that as business owners we get to run our businesses the way we want them to and we have to run businesses that serve our needs. Sometimes your needs change and therefore your systems are going to change. 

Annemie used to do in-person sales, but when she got divorced she realized in-person sales were taking too much of her time and she couldn’t take on more sessions to fill the new income gap. So she thought through her system for both selling and fulfilling the work, and realized a lot of in-person sales rely on high-touch conversation. She thought through how she could use all this technology to still connect with her clients, and systemize it so she didn’t have to do it herself every single time. She ended up creating a system called the Simple Sales System that she now has a course on. It’s a comprehensive system that goes from the time someone inquires with her all the way to when their images are delivered. All of those steps have been automated or turned into a template. Going through a major life shift allowed Annemie to reinvent the whole process and gave her the ability to create a system that has served her business really well.

What Would Annemie Tell Herself as a Brand New Photographer 

Brand new photographer Annemie would look around at all these people who had been in business for a long time and whose works seemed better or like they knew what they were doing. Annemie would assure herself that over the course of time in your business you will get better. You’ll get better at systems. You’ll get better at explaining things. You’ll become more of an expert and will feel more confident. You’ll be able to show up and turn out the work every single time in a consistent fashion. However, you will never have the level of excitement and willingness to try new stuff or step out of your comfort zone that you did when you had that hot-blooded brand new relationship with photography. 

Even if it’s not perfect, even if you don’t know what you’re doing with editing or whatever, embrace who you are at this stage of the process. It is foundational to who you will always be in this business. Give yourself a hug and know that the stuff you want right now will come.

Annemie’s Free Sytems Masterclass

If you’re interested in learning more about creating systems as a photographer you can sign up for Annemie’s free master class here!

Thank you so much, Annemie for coming on the podcast!

Show Notes

You can find Annemie Tonken here: 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/megapixie/

Annemie’s Podcast & Systems Course: https://www.thiscantbethathard.com/

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