If you found this post, you are looking for something. Something with a mysterious, scary name: CRM. Perhaps, our quest to find a CRM for our business could help you as well.
What is a CRM?
CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management, a formal and boring way to describe a system to deal with many jobs, tasks, and activities when your business scales, and you have more than a few customers to work with simultaneously.
In our case, our photography business grew to a degree where our memory was about to start losing track of what was happening.
Questions arose. “Did we send a contract to the customer? Did we send an invoice and receive payment? Did we discuss any requirements specific to the customer? Did we send a reminder or questionnaire? What about a review request?”
The number of tasks and things to remember grows very quickly with a successful business.
Searching for the perfect CRM
So, the search for a perfect CRM for our photography business began. Please note that we looked at programs targeting photographers, which are optimized for our purposes and easier to set up for our business.
First, what do we need from a CRM? Surprisingly, this is not such an easy question. We probably want it to make our life easier by saving time, keeping track of things, automating tasks like reminders and invoices. Most of all, we wanted it to give us a convenient way to communicate with the client, keep us organized, and perhaps give us some reports.
Features included in a CRM
Pretty much all CRMs, not just the photography-focused ones, have the following features:
- Contact form integration with your website (this is a way to create an initial contact). This contact is called a “lead,” a person who is interested in your services and can potentially buy something from you and become your client.
- Email reminders for shoots/proposals/invoices/appointments.
- Contracts with the ability to send it to the customer as part of some form of the booking proposal and with the ability for the customer to sign a contract online.
- Email templates for typical communication – think about inquiry, follow-up, reminders, proposals, etc. The quality of the pre-defined templates varies.
- Contract templates.
- An ability to use variables (i.e. customer’s name, phone number, etc) in the email templates and contract templates.
The CRM has some kind of customizable and automated workflow to help you:
- Take that “lead” information (name/email/phone)
- Communicate with the lead
- Schedule and book a session via booking proposal, which may include contracts, questionnaires, and/or invoices
- Prepare you and a client for a shoot via reminders and tasks
- Complete a post-shoot/fulfillment step (i.e. culling, an ordering appointment or simply working on images and sharing them, ordering wall art)
- Close a job/shoot and send some kind of thank you note
Think about what you are looking for. A booking calendar for the clients to schedule shoots? Google calendar sync? One-way or two way email integration? For example, a one-way CRM can send emails via your mail address but cannot read them. A two-way CRM can send AND receive your messages (often google mail). Not all CRMs can do this, and even when they do, only a few do it well.
But wait, there’s more…
There are some other less common but often essential features:
Are you looking for an advanced scheduler for clients or you to schedule more than shoots – perhaps consulting and ordering appointments or signing up for group events?
Maybe you want to do more with email marketing, including “drip” campaigns where you can target a specific audience?
More advanced reports, both financial and photography specific? For example, some CRMs can track your revenue per shoot location!
Maybe integrations (with zapier or other apps)?
What we wanted from a CRM
So… what is the difference? Why do we have a couple of dozen, if not more, CRMs for the photographers?
The devil is in the details – while on paper they do similar things, HOW they do it and HOW WELL they do it is quite different.
For our business, here is what we wanted from CRM. Our must-have features included:
An advanced built-in scheduler for 1:1 and group appointments clients could create or join.
Zapier integration to feed leads and invoices to our accounting software. (Zapier can link together different apps, for example, create a contact in another app when a contact is created in yours.)
An ability to send SMS reminders to the client about upcoming shoots. For this to happen, we need the ability to send emails to a specific Zapier email address before shoot day as part of the automation workflow (not all CRMs support SMS or the ability to send emails to non-client addresses).
Email marketing, ideally with drip campaigns (drip campaigns are more than sending bulk emails to dozens or hundreds of recipients – drips can track how clients respond to the email and focus on people who showed an interest in your service).
Our highly desirable features
Easy to use but customizable. This combination is difficult to archive. On paper, all CRMs are almost identical. HOW they do the same things is VERY different. It should make sense and be easy enough to understand and use.
Two-way email integration. Not a deal breaker, but we would love to have it.
Square as a payment processor – not a deal breaker, but ideally, we would like this option.
Ability to accept online and offline payments (surprisingly, some CRMs do not allow you to mark invoices “paid” unless paid by credit card online).
Decent reporting. Not a deal breaker, nice to have.
7 Photography-focused CRMs with Free Trials
So here is a list of 7 photography-focused CRMs with free trials we evaluated:
All CRMs above are browser-based. In addition, some CRMs have phone apps (in our case, we do not care about phone apps, since mobile browser pages work just fine). The only exception is StudioCloud, a desktop and phone app with data syncing between those via the cloud.
Our opinion about some of the CRMs we tried
Here is what we discovered:
Tave. We loved it. The way they implement all those CRM features is amazing and resonates with us. Tave got terrific two-way email integration and probably the best automation. It supports ApplePay & GooglePay with Square integration. Reports are fantastic. Generally, a lot of small things which just made right. Tave, however, is missing a built-in advanced scheduler and email marketing. If you do not need those two features, we highly recommend evaluating Tave.
ShootQ. This CRM is certainly worth evaluating and might be a good fit for many photographers. “Emerging” membership is free, which is very cool to try out for a longer time than a free trial. It comes pretty much pre-configured and ready to go with flows, templates, etc, all preset. For some reason, you can not send emails to any recipient as part of the automation workflow, which is one of our must-have requirements. Reports look reasonably useful, albeit basic. ShootQ has an app that we haven’t tried. ShootQ might be a good option for larger studios with personnel where you need to assign photographers to jobs. The online booking and workshop module is an add-on that we could not evaluate during a free trial. No email marketing.
Studio Ninja. This CRM looks like a great choice for IPS photographers, with templates pre-configured for this kind of work. We must mention the excellent quality of templates, as Studio Ninja is pretty much ready to go as soon as you start using it. Easy and common-sense configuration. Reports are somewhat basic. It cannot send emails to any recipient, which is our must-have requirement. No integration to Zapier. No scheduler, no email marketing. The booking proposal implementation works fine but did not resonate with us for some reason. Highly recommend Studio Ninja – it is one of the easiest to use – just sign up and start using it with a minimum effort.
Iris. Very nice pre-defined templates for questionnaires and contracts. Excellent workflows and a modern, lightweight interface. Looks like pre-canned templates and workflows are more oriented to digital image photography. It has location scouting, but for some reason no auto-filling of the address when typing it – kind of hassle. It has only square as payment and no way to accept offline(check/cash) payment – this is not convenient at all. It has email marketing for an extra $10/month, but it looks like not a drip campaign (we could not evaluate it in a trial). It has a booking calendar, but not the advanced one we need. Iris is similar to Studio Ninja as one of the easiest to jump in and start working with it. It is certainly worth evaluating – highly recommend it.
Pixifi. We kind of got lost with this one. It looks like this CRM is for larger studios and more advanced, but it requires quite a bit of customization. It is supposed to have email marketing and online booking, but the overall complexity of the interface means it is not for us.
StudioCloud. This is the only CRM we tried that is a desktop app, not a web app. Phone app and desktop app sync via the cloud. Similar to PixiFi, we got lost in StudioCloud. Highly customizable, but too much work for us to make it happen.
Sprout Studio. Has everything on our must-have list. Nice drip email campaigns. An amazing scheduler. Great looking booking proposal. However, no two-way email integration. Advanced reporting requires a PRO subscription, which is kind of pricey. Hit some issues in the email reminders area, which the Sprout team promised to fix and actually seemed to be working on. Highly recommend it if you need an email marketing/scheduler.
In summary, here are our recommendations if you are looking for them:
Easiest to use and ready out of the box (but may lack advanced scheduler or email marketing):
- Iris (shoot and burn/digitals) and
- Studio Ninja (IPS)
- ShootQ is certainly worth comparing
Try and see which one resonates with you.
Technical excellence and quality of the product implementation (all those little details):
Tave. Superior from our perspective in terms of HOW features are implemented, you will be pleased.
Sprout Studio. The only CRM which marked all (well, almost all) our checkboxes.
Keep in mind that all CRMs have onboarding teams that can help with configuring everything for you and guiding you, often for free. Evaluate some CRMs, choose the one you like, and ask for help if necessary.
After sharing this blog post on social media:
1. We use Sprout Studio at the moment. Not perfect, but it serves our needs. If you decide to try it – all links to Sprout Studio in this article are Ambassador program links which give you and us some extra savings. A significant issue with Sprout Studio – it is quite buggy. We found issues in Sprout Assistant, invoicing, scheduler, and email campaigns. This is a concern, but we are yet to find something better. On the other hand, while browsing Tave community forums, we discovered that Tave also has plenty of issues. It looks like modern software development practices just can not deliver a quality product – time to market drives everything, resulting in a pretty bad user experience.
2. We were not interested in a built-in gallery as a CRM feature, but many of them either have it or can be easily integrated with gallery apps.
3. We skipped some of the CRMs, but planning to review more, including 17hats, Lead Savage, and Picsello. Any other suggestions? We are going to update this post with our observations or create a new one; we are not sure yet.
Tetiana Kostenko is a photographer and the owner of Light Breeze Photography. She specializes in portraits, including business headshots and branding photography, modeling portfolios, women empowering sessions, senior portraits, maternity, newborns, family, kids, and more. You can find her online and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.