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How to Handle an Unhappy Photography Client

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This post is part of a series called Freelance Photography.
How to Embrace Convergence and Thrive as Hybrid Professional Photographer
Understanding Copyright and Licensing for Photography

Most of us will have an unhappy client or negative feedback in our time. It can be a tricky situation to learn how to handle. If you’ve only just started out in business, your first complaint(s) can be a real knock to your confidence, but if you learn how to deal with these situations effectively, you can really turn things around and it might even become a valuable learning experience.

Photography in particular is very personal; we’re often taking pictures of weddings, children or businesses, and things people feel strongly about. It can be hard not to be defensive when confronted with an unhappy client. In this article, you'll learn a number of strategies for responding to these sensitive situations effectively. 

Listen and Identify the Problem

Firstly, your customer will want to be heard and whether their complaint is right or wrong at this stage, don’t interrupt them or start to protest, however hard this might be. It’s really important that they feel listened to and that you take in everything they mention so that you can better manage the issue.

Once you’ve heard them out, take a moment to think about the situation in reverse. If this was you, how would you want the person to respond? If you try and see things from your customer’s point of view, it makes it easier to empathise and attempt to resolve the problem in a way that keeps you and your client happy.

Make sure you fully understand their problem. If they just ‘didn’t like’ something, find out what exactly it was they didn’t like and why. Think about taking notes while you listen so that you remember important points.

Don’t Take it Personally

When we work very hard or pride ourselves on our work then it’s difficult not to take a complaint to heart. You have to try and switch off your personal feelings and view the situation objectively. This comes with time and practice so if you’re feeling stressed about the situation, don’t be afraid to ask advice from someone, just remember not to give out personal details or be too specific.

Don’t disagree with what they’re saying or tell them they’re wrong—even if you think it! Flat out disagreeing with someone will come across as confrontational and you’ll find it very hard to recover. 

Face to Face, a Phone Call or Online?

phone
Think about whether to call or meet with the person rather than correspond online [photo via Picjumbo].

How the problem is brought up and the medium you use to respond can really make a difference. I’ve seen a great many complaints escalate on Facebook posts when a company (or their fans) jump in feet first and it never looks good for the business, even if you’re in the right! If you receive a written complaint (by that I also include social media and email) then resist the urge to reply immediately. A quick response is required in this fast paced age but just take a few moments to compose your thoughts first. 

If you’re worried that the person can see you’ve read the message and will think you’re ignoring them, try a ‘holding’ message such as, ‘I’m really sorry to hear you’re not happy with your photos, let me look into it and get back to you’. This will give you time to assess the situation and reply in a calm, professional manner.

How something comes across when written can be interpreted entirely differently depending on the person reading it. If the complaint seems angry or heated then consider a phone call or meeting up face to face to discuss a resolution. Tone of voice and/or body language can go a long way to reassuring someone that you’re on their side and doing your best for them. 

If your client is angry, stay calm and try to cool the situation down. If that doesn’t happen, don’t be afraid to walk away—nobody should have to tolerate abuse.

Offer a Solution

You don’t want an unhappy client, regardless of who’s to blame, so think of options to offer that will rectify the situation in a way you’re comfortable with. Making excuses is just going to annoy the person who’s complaining so you should be looking to resolve the situation and avoid inflaming it.

Obviously your solution is going to be dependent on what sort of problem there was or packages you offer. If a bride hates her wedding photos then a re-shoot isn’t really possible. You might disagree with the bride about the photos being horrible but that isn’t going to make her any happier; you might think about offering a refund (at one end of the spectrum) or maybe a free framed print or canvas (at the other). It all depends on what your problem is and how you’re equipped to deal with it.

If a commercial client is unhappy with photos of their business premises, then a re-shoot may be possible but if they agree to that, think about throwing in something a little extra too—maybe a small film of the building too if that’s something you’re able to do. Giving something more as you’re trying to resolve the original issue can really help regrow trust between you and your client.

Sometimes There is No Resolution

Unfortunately with some people, there will be no resolution and you have to learn when to walk away. I once had a client who wanted a headshot for a website and had recently had one done that she was using but wasn’t happy with. There was nothing wrong with the photo so I offered to re-edit it for her rather than her shelling out for another shoot but she insisted on a new one so we booked it in. 

When I arrived she had a makeup artist there to do her makeup which rang a few alarm bells, as this was just a simple shot for a website. We took a variety of poses in two different outfits (I’d suggested she bring a change of clothes) and before we left I asked if there was anything else she’d like that we hadn’t covered, to which the answer was no. 

The photos were edited and finished and sent over to her at which point she complained she didn’t like them. Long story short she had no reason she could pinpoint for not liking them, refused a re-shoot, didn’t want a refund and had decided to still use them on her website. At this point I felt I'd done all I could do.

You’ve heard the saying ‘The customer is always right’? Well, while that may not be true, you need to weigh up whether fighting your point will get you anywhere, or just damage your reputation. People are much more likely to talk about a bad experience than a good one and it only takes one person telling their friends and family and writing a few online reviews, to put a serious dent in your hard earned reputation. Even if you don’t consider the complainant to be right, you should still try your best to make sure they go away with a positive feeling about your company. 

If you’ve offered several solutions that they’re unhappy with, try asking them what they feel would resolve the issue and then consider their response. Some people just like a good argument or fish for a freebie, so if you think that’s the case and you’re against continuing any further with them, try and end the conversation as politely but firmly as you can.

Nailing Expectations

nailing expectations
Communication and understanding between you and your client, is vital [photo via Picjumbo].

Use the complaint or feedback to improve your service, rather than letting it get you down. Think about what you could change in your business model that would prevent the same issue cropping up again. Something always worth looking at is client expectation. As a photographer, this is easily achieved as we’re often booked way in advance for things.

I think the biggest cause of disappointment when it comes to expectations results from a lack of communication or miscommunication. Rob Lim

As a wedding photographer, meeting up with the bride and groom (often more than once) before the big day is essential to chat about what style of photos they like (formal or more quirky) and find out a bit about them so that the photos, although keeping the photographer's style, are more tailored to suit the clients' particular needs and wants.

If you’re a commercial photographer, it’s great to nail down some key points before your shoot. What will the pictures be used for? Is there a message the company is trying to get across? Are they a really formal, professional looking outfit or more your ‘chat over coffee’ type of business? It’s good to have a regular brief form that you keep for occasions such as this and either meet up beforehand and make notes, or send the brief over to the client and have them fill it in. Keep it short though, you don’t want to annoy the client before you even start! Bryan Caporicci has a good blog: Setting Client Expectations in Your Photography Business which can help you get started in knowing what to ask and what information to find out prior to a shoot.

If similar complaints keep cropping up then it might be you have a problem. As I mentioned, look back at your business model and try to make positive changes. One thing you might want to do is actually request feedback on a more regular basis so that you can really nail down the issues. If you didn’t want to do this publically, you could ask someone objective to take a look at the areas where you think there are problems and get some advice about changes. Independent portfolio reviews are great but cost quite a lot. Think about contacting your local business advice centre to see if they can put you in touch with a mentor.

How to Choose Clients

In a service-oriented business the degree of happiness of your clients after they received what they paid you for, not only affects your bottom line, but also can make or break it. - Julia Kuzmenko McKim  

In her article, 'Choose Your Clients Wisely', Julia discusses the balance between client maintenance and profit.

The clients you  choose can be a big part of preventing complaints before they arise. Decide what kind of photographer you are. If you’re a wedding photographer just starting out, don’t decide you’re suddenly in competition with the top photographer of your area and start charging thousands for a wedding. If you get the customers in the first place, you’re likely to hit disappointment when you can’t deliver.  

We have a company in the UK called Max Spielmann who have photo studios/shops on most of the high streets. They do incredibly cheaply priced family portraits including prints and they’re very popular with a large group of parents. I don’t do family portraits now but I used to when I started out and if I’d tried to compete with Spielmann I’d have failed miserably. Their customers were just not my customers even though the nature of the businesses were similar. Don’t base your business model on someone else’s or try to follow popular trends. Do your own market research and chose your offering and prices on what you know will sell to your customers… not someone else’s.

Conclusion

Getting complaints can hurt, no doubt about it. Generally we pride ourselves on our standard of service but at some stage, someone being unhappy is inevitable and all we can do is deal with it in the best, most professional way we can. Here’s a summary of things to remember from the article:

  • Listen and identify the problem.
  • Don’t take it personally.
  • Think about how you communicate—face to face, phone or written?
  • Offer a solution.
  • Learn from the experience.
  • Nail client expectations.
  • Choose your clients wisely.

Trying to avoid complaints entirely is obviously the best way forwards, so put a lot of thought and research into how you choose your customers in the first instance. We might think a customer chooses us but in reality, that will only be if what you put out there appeals to them, so target yourself appropriately. Once you have that initial contact with a client, meeting and chatting about their expectations, wants and needs is essential. That way, everyone knows where they stand and what is expected. 

It's unlikely you'll go through life without a single complaint though, so when the worst happens, remember to remain calm, polite and helpful. Don't make excuses or be defensive, just try to offer solutions and resolutions and hopefully you’ll turn your unhappy customer into a happy, loyal and repeat customer.

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