6 Tips for Dealing With Unhappy Clients

If you are a photographer, I can guarantee you that somewhere along the line, you will have a client who is unhappy with your work. In fact, I’m sorry to say that there will be more than one, especially if you have a thriving business. When the dreaded “I’m not happy with my photos” email arrives, it can easily suck the joy out of your entire day. But not all is lost, and in this article and accompanying video, I present six tips for dealing with unhappy clients.

1. Don’t Respond Based on Your Initial Emotional Reaction

One of the worst things we can do when dealing with conflict in life is to react immediately based on our initial emotions. This is also true when we have a conflict with one of our clients. If you respond too quickly, chances are, you will say or do something rash that you will end up regretting later. And, to be clear, I’m not just referring to an angry or defensive response. An equally bad response can be to take full blame or offer a full refund before taking enough time to absorb the facts of the particular issue.

The other reason not to instantly react or reply to an email is because when you read it in a heightened emotional state, chances are you are not fully understanding the problem being addressed. A much better plan of action is to read the email and then take a few minutes (or an hour) to digest it and find your emotional center before responding. You can use this time to plan a response that is well thought out and factors in all sides of the issue being presented to you.

Of course, this is much harder to do if a client calls you to complain. But even in this situation, it’s important to gather the information and not respond without thoughtfully considering where the client is coming from. Early on in my journey as a portrait photographer, I had one such client who called me to complain about a pricing issue that was unclear in their mind. In hindsight, I should have been much more firm with this person before capitulating to their demands, because they were just a bully trying to get me to give away my work based on the fact that they felt entitled to it. If I had taken the time to digest the situation, I would have responded very differently to this particular person.

My goal is that all of my clients are happy from the beginning to the end of our interaction together.

2. Don’t Put Off Fixing the Problem

My first piece of advice should not be construed to mean that we ought to avoid resolving a conflict with a client. In fact, once the issue has been addressed in a thoughtful and balanced manner, the next step is to resolve it as soon as possible. This is not only best for your business but also best for your own mental health. When I have photos that a client is not happy with, I fix the issue as soon as I can, because otherwise, it’s going to be a distraction and weigh on my mind until I get it done. Plus, my goal is to transform the unhappy client into an enthusiastically happy client by the end of our interaction. I also suggest going above and beyond when attempting to fix an issue. Let me give you an example.

I had a client about a year ago who came to me for headshots. Everything went well, and she was happy at the session, but after delivering the final images, she told me that she was unhappy with them. As I already had a casual working relationship with this person and her family, I immediately offered her a reshoot and told her my goal was that she was happy with the photos. Unfortunately, she never responded to my email. I sent a few more emails over the next few weeks, and she didn’t respond to those either. At this point, I could have easily given up because chances are she wasn’t coming back for a reshoot. But, I chanced upon her husband in the local deli and asked him if she had told him about the photos. He wasn’t aware of the situation, so I told him to let her know that I wanted her to come in for a reshoot and again that my goal was for her to be happy with the results. I’m glad that I persisted because she finally came back, and we tried a completely different lighting setup, which she loved. Not only did she purchase additional photos and leave incredibly happy, but she also recommended her friend who came in and also had a great experience. I’m not saying that this will always be the case, but it should serve as a reminder that going the extra mile can pay off.

A happy client is always my goal.

3. Avoid Potential Conflicts Before They Happen

Sometimes, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict the future. In fact, anticipating what clients will be unhappy about will help you avoid most potential conflicts, which should be your goal. For example, if your pricing policy is not clearly displayed on your website and clearly reiterated by you to your potential clients, eventually, someone will be upset about a fee. I’ve noticed that many creatives avoid talking about money or look at it as an afterthought, choosing instead to talk about the more creative part of the process. Detailing your process and why you are the best person for the job is definitely important, but being extremely clear about your price structure is equally important and will certainly avoid having customers who are confused or upset about the price.

In addition to being clear on price, you must also be clear on how your process works. Early on, I would tell my clients something like “retouching is included in my image fee.” The problem with this statement is that most people think Photoshop is a magic wand that cures all ills. Additionally, since my statement was so open-ended, it was easily misconstrued to mean that endless edits are included (and yes, I had a few clients who thought this was the case before I learned my lesson).

Just as with your price, your policies need to be clearly spelled out both on your website and then told to the client while booking. If they know, for example, that you include (or don’t include) basic retouching or that you charge (or don’t charge) for a proof gallery before they book the session, you are guaranteed to avoid potential conflicts and the dreaded unhappy customer. Whether by phone, email, or text, I try to be as detailed as possible when discussing my services and fees.

4. Be Compassionate

I spoke recently with Chicago portrait photographer Michael Schacht about this very subject, and he offered this simple but often overlooked piece of advice. When dealing with an unhappy client, especially for those of us who are headshot and portrait photographers, it’s crucial to remember to be compassionate and approach them with empathy. One thing I have learned is that the way I see someone’s face is not at all how they see it. Each person has their own perceived flaws, whether real or imagined, and this has a huge impact on how they view their own face, regardless of how you see it. Sadly, many people have deeply ingrained body issues which can stem from how they were treated as a child. I even had a client tell me once that her entire family makes fun of how she smiles, which was heartbreaking to hear, but also helped me to empathize with her and make sure that I worked as hard as possible to help create photos that she felt good about, addressing her particular concerns. Needless to say, this particular person had one of the best smiles. She just needed an empathetic and patient photographer to help her realize it.

One point I would like to be clear on is that compassion does not mean avoiding a potential issue at the time of a shoot. For instance, if I have a client with a noticeable eye difference, instead of avoiding or ignoring it, I tactfully address it in order to understand how the client wants to address the perceived flaw. I have found that people appreciate honesty and candor, and as I mentioned in tip three, this is another way to avoid a potential problem before it develops. There is a balance in this approach to be sure, as you don’t want to inadvertently offend your client.

A happy client will tell five friends about your business, but an unhappy one will tell ten.

5. Learn from Your Mistakes and Move On

I would love to tell you that by utilizing the tips in this article, you can avoid all conflict, but that is certainly not the case. There will be times in your professional life where you do your best, go the extra mile (or ten), and still wind up with a client who is not happy. Sometimes, it’s just unavoidable. I know firsthand how tough it can be to do this. We creatives pour our hearts and souls into our work, and the thought of our photos not being loved can feel overwhelming and disappointing. Ironically, we learn much more from our mistakes than from our successes, so my next piece of advice is to embrace conflict, learn from the experience, and then move on. If you learn from a negative experience, you can avoid making the same mistake in the future. This thought should make the sting of conflict that much less painful. Whatever situation confronts you in your business, whether good or bad, embrace it and use it to grow.

6. Play the Long Game

If you are a new entrepreneur and currently establishing a photography business, the most important piece of advice I can give you is to think long-term. The way you interact with each individual client will have a cumulative effect on your business, whether it's good or bad. This means that sometimes, you will need to take a financial hit in order to create a happy client, even if you did everything right. You must remember that every single client you work with will help establish your reputation in the community, and an unhappy client will tell friends and family about their experience much more often than a happy one will. I've seen many photographers who refuse to reshoot clients without charging their full fee or charge fees if a client cancels and reschedules last minute. None of us like these situations, but if you build the foundation of your business on these principles, eventually, your reputation will precede you, and not in a good way.

In my conversation with Michael Schacht, he also offered this sage wisdom, which I think sums up how we should play the long game as photographers and businesspeople:

You can never know what someone’s going through when they call or message you to postpone a session, and honestly, the reason doesn’t matter. If someone walks into my studio with a situational negative energy, it’s going to negatively impact the shoot and negatively impact the sale. A little bit of grace can have a lot of upside in the long run, and while it’s something I try not to take advantage of as a consumer, it’s ultimately how I would want to be treated.

When I first started my previous business (which is now in its 16th successful year), I had a partner who had zero empathy for anyone. This person only cared about money. It wasn't long at all before clients, acquaintances, friends, and even family members began to notice and tell me that their interactions with this person were terrible. It was obvious to them that his priority was not serving their needs and that he had absolutely zero passion for the business we were in. It was amazing how fast his reputation, and mine, spread among the community. Since my goal was to provide a valuable service in an industry I was passionate about, clients gravitated towards me and avoided him. In hindsight, the fact that I interacted directly with clients more than my former partner is what made the business successful, and if he had been on his own, I am sure the business would have failed within the first few years as he continually turned off one person after another. 

To sum up, challenging clients are part of running any successful business. But when we deal with them patiently and empathetically and think about the long-term goals we have for our businesses and lives, we put ourselves on a winning path as entrepreneurs.

Pete Coco's picture

Pete Coco is a portrait photographer and musician based in New York. When not performing as a jazz bassist, Pete can be found in his studio working with a wide range of clients, although is passion is creating unique portraits of other musicians and artists.

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Underrated article! It becomes increasingly obvious as one ventures into the world of "paid gigs" and photography as a business that photos and gear are a small province in the grand scheme of things. In much the same way that your work doesn't really speak for itself, that your public persona, reputation and consistency are as much a part of your brand and the perceived value of your work as the images you create, leaving your clients with a lasting impression of competence, caring, and respect will go a long way towards building a successful career and a happy life.

Thanks, Gary! Excellent points.

I really enjoyed this article, Pete! You never hear photographers talking about times that everything didn't go perfectly, and you have some great advice. I definitely resonate with not replying immediately and allowing yourself space to assess what's a fair accusation/criticism but also where you can stand your ground.

I had to laugh....one of my very first paid shoots was a couple's 60th wedding anniversary party. I hadn't even started, was walking up to the house when their overly loving dog jumped on me with its dirty paws. So I walked into the shoot with smudges all over my black trousers. Beyond that, it was supposed to be shot inside, but someone decided to do outside shots. This is in SE Louisiana in the dead of Summer. After that, my shirt looked like someone tied me down during a squirt gun fight. But, the photos were fine and I was paid.

Great story, David. Sometimes we have days like that haha but I'm glad it all turned out well in the end!

It was fortunate that the family was terrific. And, they not only paid me for the shoot, they decided to go with me for the prints.

Thanks, Helena! It took me a while to learn not to respond right away, especially if I'm feeling upset!

Pete, you are so well spoken I could listen to you talk about anything haha. Awesome tips and something people do not talk about enough

Haha thanks so much Patrick! I appreciate it very much.

I'll offer an unpopular piece of advice: fire your prospective client. You can sometimes sense that the person will be a royal pain to deal with - so don't. Give the person a reasonable, polite and plausible explanation for not taking the job - and back away gracefully. You may still get some grief - but it likely won't be anything compared to the grief you'll get from having to deal with them if you take the job. The best way to get out of trouble is not to get into it in the first place.

I didn't touch upon this in the article but you are completely right. Sometimes you do need to cut them loose. I had a situation like this about a year ago where the dude who booked me for an on-site corporate session was a huge pain from the first phone call, and also complaining about price, asking for extra photos for himself for his side gig as a realtor, etc., so I made detailed notes about our conversation and after many annoying phone calls and emails booked the gig (I was hoping he would not call back lol). I send him the deposit invoice, which he immediately paid, and then 2 minutes *after* paying it he emails me to complain and say that I overcharged him by X and that he will deduct it from the balance due. At that point I was done with him so I immediately refunded him and emailed him back telling him that I wasn't the photographer for him. Well, this guy sent me so many emails BEGGING me to keep the date, and I just kept saying no. Then he had other people from the company reach out to me and try to get me back there but I just refused. I think the guy may have gotten in trouble with his boss because of it but he should have acted like a courteous professional and not lied and been such a terrible person to deal with. Anyway, great point!