Sunday, August 14, 2011

Paying for picture-perfect referral

While at a Las Vegas conference for wedding photographers, P.A., of Columbus, Ohio, decided to attend an open forum one evening.

One topic high on everyone's mind was how to market their services. A high-end wedding photographer joined the conversation by talking about how she worked with bridal salons to secure recommends.

As the high-end photographer talked, P.A. was reminded of a bridal salon in Columbus that had set a policy about 10 years earlier that required all photographers to pay for referrals. P.A. declined to participate in such a program.

"I felt that the referral would not be an honest one because the salon would only be referring people who paid them to do so," she writes.

During the discussion in Las Vegas, P.A. asked the high-end photographer if she paid salons in her area. She and several others said that they did and saw no problem with it. They likened it to paying for ad space.

P.A. has no problem paying a salon for ad space in its store or newsletter. But the paid referral feels different to her. "A bride would not know the salon had paid for this referral, and would think it was a vendor the salon trusted, not just someone who paid for the referral."

Many of her fellow wedding photographers in Las Vegas disagreed. When P.A. asked if any of them asked for a referral fee from salons for recommending brides to them, all said, "No."

While she knows that a salon would likely have a lot more clients to refer to photographers than the other way around, P.A. also believes "it is unfair for someone to ask for money from us, but not be willing to pay for the same service from us."

"I feel the kickback taints the referral," writes P.A. "If the salon wants to do it that way, it should tell its clients somehow, perhaps by calling it a list of 'preferred vendors' or something, but not call it a 'referral.'"

There are many instances in business where a premium is paid by a product or service provider for better placement or mention. For years, supermarkets have charged food distributors slotting fees for premium shelf space. Book publishers have paid extra for having their titles featured on the end caps of bookshelves or on spotlighted tables throughout the bookstore.

Whenever there are many product or service providers vying for the same consumers, an opportunity arises to charge more for better access to those consumers.

So, it's no surprise that such a practice occurs within the bridal industry.

But my reader is correct to suggest that the right thing is to let consumers know what's behind such referrals. The married-couples-to-be should be allowed to judge for themselves whether it matters that a photographer has paid to be mentioned by a bridal salon. If it's more important to them that they get a recommendation unsullied by a financial transaction, then they can solicit such opinions from friends or other service providers that don't charge referral fees.

There's nothing wrong with the practice as long as everyone involved knows the practice is going on.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net.

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

1 comment:

Bill Jacobson said...

referral [ri-fur-uhl] noun - A person recommended to someone or something. Referral does not in itself indicate lack of bias or self-interest in the person making the referral.

I don't believe any bride these days would be the least bit surprised to discover that placement on her bridal salon's referral list would require a payment from the servicer. It is, after all, advertising. The question is rather why the bridal salon ought to advertise your services for free. Seems rather entitled.

I would think that any rational wedding photographer would realize that the cost-benefit analysis will likely cut very much in favor of paying the fee. It probably only takes one shoot that you wouldn't have had otherwise to be in the black on this transaction and these are likely customers you wouldn't have reached any other way.

Having recently completed a wedding, I can say for certain that little to nothing in this industry comes for free. Feel lucky for what you can get.

Bill Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

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