Difficult clients are not uncommon to come across. Just about every photographer that I know has had to deal with at least one difficult client. As artist and very hardworking photographers this is almost soul crushing. We begin to doubt ourselves and our work. What was the passion of our lives can become a chore that rivals with the dishes, and dare I say it, the laundry. But I won't go into any more detail about the artist's dark period of self doubt and regret.
This February I had my first encounter with a difficult client. I won't name any names. So here it is...
A friend of mine had some special pictures in mind for her husband as a Valentine's day present. Sounds like enough fun, right? We decided to open up the shoot to my friend's friend. All seemed great at first. Both ladies were having a wonderful time with the shoot. They were both comfortable in front of the camera and they were rocking it. The shoot was going great! Lighting was good, and the surrounding was perfect to keep attention on the subject while broadcasting beauty into the shoot. After the shoot things still seemed wonderful. I worked hours editing the boudoir images, and designing the perfect custom photo books for both ladies, and, oh, did I mention that I did this at the friends and family discount rate. Both galleries turned out beautiful, and both ladies best features were accentuated in the images. So the time came to reveal my work to lady number one, aka the good one, and she loved them. When she delivered my work to her husband, he adored it so much that he teared up and was speechless, and believe me he is a tough guy. "Oh yea, I rocked that," I thought. But then it was her turn, my very own difficult client to deal with. Although, with the rate I charged her, I am not sure that she could be considered a client at all. I mean I really did this friend's friend a huge favor, which is why I suggest that family prices not be extended to people you are not super close with. It is a proven fact that the people who want to pay less are the most likely to become the difficult client. Oh well, so lesson learned, let's get back to the story. So once again after hours and hours of working on these beautiful images to perfect them and designing a custom photo book, I was ready to show the "client" her gallery and custom designs. She loved them. She ordered a couple hundred dollars worth of extra canvas prints, and the photo book. The original agreement was that photo books and other prints would be the only products from the session, and she had decided that although that had been discussed, that it should not be that way. After our conversation about the digitals which went well, or at least it seemed that way, she had begun saying nasty things about me to our once mutual friend. I was concerned because she had not let me know that she was even upset, and instead, had started bashing me in the community, so I attempted to open conversation a couple times with her. Giving her the chance to express her concerns in the most professional and calm way possible, and she would not. She would tell me that everything was great whenever I asked. It had got to the point where, and I have witnesses, she had started creating lies about her interactions with me, of which I only knew about through our once mutual friend. In this instance, I decided that once the agreed upon products where delivered that I would just cut ties with her, because I appreciate honesty, and well, not being called terrible names behind my back, but this is not always possible when trying to diffuse a situation. The best way to deal with difficult clients is to prevent from having them, so I will discuss techniques for this below, as well as ways to deal if the situation presents itself. This was a mortifying blow to my confidence, but I can say that I have learned my lesson. You really can't please everyone. Just be sure and remain professional at all times.
Preventing difficult clients
1. Create clear expectations...
The best way to prevent a difficult client is to be upfront with what they can expect. Set clear boundaries and make them aware of all of your policies. This helps to keep misunderstandings to a minimum and will also show confidence in your business structure. When someone sees a stable structure they are less likely to try and bend it.
A big part of creating clear expectations is to have effective communication. Email is great for sorting out small details, but a phone call is more efficient to sort out the big ones. When the inquiries come in, turn them into phone calls or face-to-face consultations as soon as possible. This develops a line of trust and stability, as well as effectively eliminating the chance of a miscommunication across email.
Get into the common practice of signing an agreement and model release for all sessions, and make sure your client has a copy of all paperwork that is signed, which is an absolutely wonderful way to keep clear expectations. Just make sure that you go over everything in the agreement or contract before they sign. Also, I highly recommend requiring a booking fee/deposit for any session when the paperwork is signed.
*Not keeping policy damages trust*
2. Increase your prices...
Chances are you are probably working super hard for less than you should be, and then you are dealing with difficult clients on top of that. Well, it is a fact that in our business field the people searching for a bargain are the most likely to become difficult. Even after having set clear expectations, things seem to go south, because they basically want you to work for free. When your prices are already low they assume you are willing to bend just for their business. Certainly don't take less then you are asking, but consider raising your prices. When you charge more, you will draw in clients that are a wonder to work for. They know what your work is worth and they are willing to pay for the package as is. Wouldn't it be so much simpler to be doing work for someone who appreciates you and who isn't trying to shake you down.
3. Confidence really is key...
Always be confident in your communication. Confidence will build trust and help others to understand the worth of your work. Along with that, when you are confident in your business people will understand that the policies you practice will hold up, and that what you see is what you get.
4. Turn down those who are difficult from the start!!!
This may seem irrational to some of you, and you may be thinking "turn down business, what?" But think about it... From the very first conversation you have with someone they are trying to talk you down. They want to change the packages where they get more, and you are working for a fraction of what you're asking. For example, say they want a signature session for a mini session price. Do you let them talk you down or do you inform them that it is policy to stand behind your pricing? Stand behind your pricing! This is not the kind of client that you want. They do not appreciate your work, and guess what, they are going to tell their buddies, who in turn will expect the same. Also, as I said before, bargain hunters are the most likely to become difficult, so you will basically flood your business with difficult clients, while working for less then you should be, effectively destroying confidence in yourself and work. If you value your work, and sanity, turn them away.
Dealing with difficult clients
1. Remain Professional at all times...
So there it is, the crushing email you just received. You did everything as according to policy and now, for reasons unknown, the client is unhappy. Maybe they have resorted to name calling or are criticizing your work. It is okay to be angry and hurt, but you must not respond while you are upset. Take a breath, calm down over a nice cup of coffee, perhaps Starbucks <3, and when you can carry yourself in a professional manner, respond.
2. Maintain effective communication...
Email is a wonderful thing, however, like I said before it can create confusion, and this is especially true when you have an upset party. Things can be easily misunderstood over email and text, so pick up the phone for easier communication. Sometimes a face-to-face meeting is the best way to go, that is if the client has not become belligerent or threatening.
It is important to acknowledge that you understand they are upset, and that it is important to you for the situation to be resolved. Ask them how you can help or if there is anything you can do. If reasonable give them what they are asking, but if what they are asking goes against policy or just isn't reasonable do your best to diffuse the situation. Do what can be done to make sure they are happy with the outcome.
If by chance, you are at fault, then it is time to take responsibility, and do whatever you can to make things right. We are all human and it is admirable to admit it when a mistake was made, and to accept blame.
Sometimes no matter what you do to prevent a situation from presenting itself, it will, and along with that, sometimes no matter what you do to diffuse a situation, you can't. When this occurs, the important thing is to learn from it, and hopefully walk away with your confidence in tact, having remained professional and calm through it all.
If you want great clients, you have to find the ones that appreciate you and your work!!!