I will answer this question in context of a wedding photographer, as I have had the most experience dealing with weddings on both side of the aisle (so to speak).
There are several questions here, and as @Guffa pointed out, these aren't necessarily specific to photography, rather generally how to run a successful independent service.
What do you look for in a photographer?
Back when I was getting married, I was new to photography but I knew what I liked and what I expected. This is the process I followed to select a photographer for my wedding:
- Searched for local photographers via google
- Visited each photographers site
- If their site had a good portfolio, I would check out their prices
- If the prices were in my budget, I would inquire about the weekend of my wedding
- If they weren't booked, I would ask to meet in person
Ultimately it came to price/performance. I was unwilling to pay money for any photographer who's portfolio did not impress me, but I also knew I had a budget I had to stick with.
I settled with a local studio chain that had standard packages prices. The cost was a little higher than I had allocated, but the studio consistently puts out quality work.
how can I make myself a more attractive offering to people who are considering purchasing my services?
People are price conscious. Now that everyone has a "professional" looking SLR, photography is a commodity. Add to that, there are enough of us amateur photographers who are capable of putting together a decent photo or two, competition is stiff. If you are serious about making money, you need to differentiate your services from the pack of camera owning weekend warriors trying to make a buck.
Weddings are all about budgets, and how to get everything you want to fit in the budget, and the first place most couples look to save money is by services that they can DIY.
One idea would be to find several wedding planners and team up with them. Wedding planners spend more face-to-face time with clients and can help guide them into understanding why hiring a professional photographer is worth their money.
Another idea, perhaps on your next wedding assignment, offer to create a website for your client. Many photographers do this now, so it's not out of the ordinary. Give the ability for wedding guests to upload their own photos to the site, and have them displayed on the online wedding album. Per your contract, you should secure the rights to use the wedding images you took, and images uploaded for advertising/marketing your services.
Use these images to compare and contrast services. Let the bride-to-be see what she might look like under the harsh lighting of a pop-up flash, and what types of images she might expect if she lets Uncle Joe do the photography instead of letting a professional handle it.
How do you tell if someone is a good photographer or not?
Without seeing how they work, I judge them by their portfolio. I cannot emphasize how important a great portfolio is!
What questions do you ask?
Ideally most of these questions should be addressed on your site. It will save both you and your potential clients time.
- Session Packages, and Costs (Do you offer engagement photos? Are costs on sliding scale?).
- Area of work (do you travel? how far?)
- Do you have an assistant?