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When a Client Can’t Afford Your Rates for Photo or Video Work, What Do You Do?

When a Client Can’t Afford Your Rates for Photo or Video Work, What Do You Do?

If you work in a competitive area for your photo or video work, chances are that you’ve experienced losing a client at some point. Whether there were creative differences, budget issues, or you weren’t available, there are some things that you can do to alleviate some of the sting from breaking up with a client, and perhaps put you in a better position to work with them in the future, even if the root cause is simply that they couldn't afford your rates.

This all stems from a recent experience I had with a client. To set the scene, let me give you some background. A prospective client that I had been trying very hard to develop a relationship with decided to hire my business for a small photography project. Great! To me, this was the first step towards getting more business from them down the road, specifically higher budget video work.

Sure enough, two months later they wanted a couple of videos made. I asked some questions to understand the scope of their needs, and then developed a proposal and estimate for the two videos. They quickly replied that this was way beyond the scope of their budget, and suggested that they were expecting the cost to be a fraction of what I had quoted them. I sent over a counter offer with a lower cost that included scaling back on a few aspects of the production (without compromising my standard of quality) but it just wasn’t going to come in at a price they could afford.

Rather than just writing them off, getting all pissy and leaving things in kind of an awkward place, here are a few things I did instead, which ultimately led to the client agreeing to the counter offer and us working together. (I have to thank my time working in retail for these techniques, as they come from a customer service approach.)

Thank Them for their Time

This is a simple one for any good business owner, but even if your customer wants to go elsewhere, be courteous and appreciative in your correspondence. A follow up email or visit depending on the client type could be in order as well. There’s no need to be callous, no matter how frustrating the situation might be. It's just business, and it is in your best interest to be professional at all times.

Go the Extra Mile

Sure, you might not be able to provide your service to them, but what can you do? In my case, I didn’t want the client to be left with nothing, but I also wasn’t going to offer my services for a song. By offering to consult with them, make suggestions on the scope of the project, or ask if they needed recommendation of another creative, I was able to continue the conversation with them.

Suggest an Alternative Project or Approach

If the project you both had in mind isn’t possible at the current budget or cost, then get creative. Perhaps you could instead offer to hire an intern to do the filming and you do the edit, or vice versa? Maybe spend a day taking candid still photos and use a stock motion graphics template to create a short video piece that is made up of stills? Whatever they are willing to do that allows you to work with them, that still gets you a fair rate, do it!

Some might scoff at this idea, and I’ll admit to doing that occasionally myself, but the point here to be seen as a solution provider and to continue a working relationship. If this client never has any intention of working on larger-scale projects like the ones you’re trying to eventually get to, and won't come close to paying you a fair rate for any sort of work, then sure, you can walk away and let them go. But don’t forget that in this business it's not always a direct path to big-budget work; you might have to do a few small projects first to earn a clients trust and show them how awesome you are to work with.

Recommend Others

In my case, I didn’t suggest any alternative projects, but rather I decided help them find someone who could get them a video that would meet their goals, and would also be able to stay within their budget. I was able to easily select a few local filmmakers (who are also people I’ve worked with before) that might be able to do the project with a different approach, and therefore different budget expectations.

I figured one of two things would happen here; either someone would be able to produce the videos as requested, or the client would again find themselves unable to afford the services. In the latter case, the client would potentially realize that they weren’t ready financially to make these videos at all. For me, either scenario would be a win.

What Goes Around Comes Around

I’ve been trying to build my network of photographers and filmmakers in Lexington, Kentucky, since I’ve only been here for about a year. In that short time I’ve met and worked with a handful of skilled folks. By passing on work to an associate, I feel that in a karmic way, it will likely come back to me in the form of a job down the road from one of these same creatives.

Be A Solution Provider

In one of my last emails to the client, after I made the counter offer which was still above their budget, I left them with this:

“This might still be more than what you're looking to spend but I'd like to think that I offer a high level of experience and quality, which makes it worth the additional cost to the clients I typically work with.

If you still want to get bids from other production companies, I'd be happy to make some recommendations– regardless of whether or not we work together on this I'd like to be sure you get a quality production.”

I think that last line explains it the best, and that it shows that I value the needs of my client. Perception is a big thing, and at the end of the day I want to be seen as a solution provider and a helpful resource, not as a bottom-dollar video production company. Yes, I came down on my original price by scaling down my scope of work, but I held firm when that still wasn’t low enough.

I’m not sure what happened with the folks I recommended, but two weeks later the client came back to me and said that they had decided that I was indeed worth the extra cost for the experience and quality I would bring. A few weeks later I was finishing up their edits, which they are totally stoked for, and we are in talks for bigger projects down the road.

Have you ever had to walk away from a project, but retain the client and work with them in the future? Any tips or tricks you learned along the way? These techniques might not apply to everyone's industry or niche, but it does for some. Share your experiences in the comments below.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Mike Wilkinson is an award-winning video director with his company Wilkinson Visual, currently based out of Lexington, Kentucky. Mike has been working in production for over 10 years as a shooter, editor, and producer. His passion lies in outdoor adventures, documentary filmmaking, photography, and locally-sourced food and beer.

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Slam the door on their face (possibly figurative door).

Great article.

To me that's the right approach too. I had similar cases and I can confirm it's just business and good relationships with people. Eventually some of those clients come back realizing what it really costs.

In both cases you either finish on a good note or win a solid client who values your work.

Great article! Typically at first I try to work within their budget and see where I can cut corners to get the gig like hiring a smaller crew and/or offer not as much equipment: I have separate rates for my RED/PL lenses then Sony cameras/Nikkor lenses.
So if that fails then I'd refer them to people I know with lower rates and part with a friendly gesture thanking them for their time/wish them luck-you never know if you'd cross paths with them in the future which has happened. You just might get the next gig with them with a larger budget.

Having an intern do the filming and you edit is questionable advice. This could actually take you longer in the edit having to work around their technical inexperience and interview inexperience. Many don't realise how difficult in can be to get soundbites that work and enough content for a complete piece.

Very true! It could be disastrous if you bring on someone to help out who is inept. That won't be ideal for every case, but for the right project and an intern you're confident in, I think it's still a possible solution.

I agree with most of this article except the "help them find another person" bit. It's one thing if you're not available (I've sub-contracted jobs and straight up passed it along to another photographer). It's another if they want someone that does the same style/quality of work but charges less. I've had several clients ask me if I know someone whose work is like mine but much cheaper. To me, that's a little insulting especially considering my rates are pretty much industry standard.

In years past when I taught schools about this very thing, I spent many hours explaining your experience and expertise to the client, that by short cutting the quality of an advertising or commercial campaign may be cheaper for you initially, it can cost you much more lost revenue. I had this situation with a small upscale women's clothing boutique I was bidding on for a large holiday promotion. They saw the work of several other photographers (this was a combo video and photography advertising campaign) that didn't have the video production experience my team could provide. They thought by taking short cuts and making a basic video (in store ad running on monitors) they would save a ton. I explained that by saving a few thousand on a so-so production and only getting a small growth of sales, spending that extra money on a quality package, they would be able to boost sales tremendously and use our media to use on future internet branding and promotions. They tried to use the other photographers with disastrous results, having to now pay again for us to redo the whole project. I do try to use interns and local photography students on assignments when possible, but only in non-strategic rolls until they learn our teams techniques and style.

Hello there fellow Kentuckian. I deal with the same issues on a regular basis. Here in Bowling Green a lot of the clients I deal with have unrealistic expectations, but you are right. Staying cordial and professional does help with potential future work. If you ever want to meet up I would love to hear about the struggles, successes you deal with in the Kentucky market. Great article and thanks for sharing.