Unhappy Clients and Photographers: How to Stop the Fall and Take Responsibility

Unhappy Clients and Photographers: How to Stop the Fall and Take Responsibility

Despite a photographer’s best efforts, there will come a time when a client is unhappy with some part of their experience, whether it’s customer service or the finished images. Since it’s bound to happen, how should a photographer handle unhappy customers? The answer is: catch them before they can be disappointed.

Being in business means dealing with customers, and that means forming relationships. Relationships that are built on transparency and formed with empathy have a much better chance of leaving clients with a fulfilling experience and products they’re happy with than if they're treated like walking wallets. This requires that the photographer pay close attention, not just to their own process for creating imagery, but to their clients wants and needs.

Unfortunately, photographers — as artists — often forget that their client isn’t photography-savvy. They haven’t built an eye for reading an image the way a photographer has, and they might not describe what they’re looking for in a way that effectively communicates what they really want. For example, a client might show their photographer a photo of a family outdoors in soft light and say, “I want our family photos to look like this.” So, the photographer replicates the setting and light, but the client is unhappy with the finished images, even though they’re well taken. What happened? What the client wanted was the un-posed, happy, candid feeling of the image they showed the photographer, not necessarily the setting. The client didn’t realize when they hired the photographer that all the work on their website was carefully posed; they just saw well-taken images. They don’t know any better, because it’s not their job to know.

Photograph shared with generous permission of Valerie K Photography

This simple miscommunication can be the difference between a client walking away happy and one who wants a refund. The situation gets worse when the photographer looks at the finished images, which are well taken, well posed, and well lit and becomes resentful. Rather than taking the time to find out where the client’s expectations and their results didn’t meet, they tell the client: “Too bad, these are good photos. I don’t offer refunds on products with no faults,” and then post the photos to Facebook groups for validation of their talent. Now, they have an unhappy customer and potential negative effects on their business.

How do photographers avoid this trap?

  1. Pay attention
  2. Ask questions
  3. Set expectations
  4. Get feedback
  5. Sign contracts
  6. Take responsibility

Date Your Client

It’s an interesting metaphor, but it holds a lot of water. Let me explain. When you go out on a date, the success of the evening and whether you graduate to date number two will depend a lot on whether or not you paid attention to your partner. What did they wear, how did they speak, what did they focus on, what did they emphasize, how did they react and respond to things? There are a million social clues that will let an attentive person learn about their date. The same holds true for the client relationship. While the process might go smoothly most of the time, avoiding and dealing with client conflict will hinge on how much you, as a service provider, paid attention.

As much as it would be great if every client understood photography from conception through finished product, they don’t. You’re going to have to sift through what they tell you and pay close attention, not just to what they say, but to what they don’t. They’ll give you clues through body language, inflection, tone of voice, choice of conversation subject, etc. that will help you connect with them not just as a client but as another human being who is coming to you to fulfill a need or have a problem solved. Remember that people don’t date just to be around another person, they’re looking for a meaningful emotional connection. In the same way, people don’t really buy photographs, they buy the feeling they get from owning and seeing the photograph. It might be status,comfort, or confidence that they’re really looking for, but they aren’t often going to be able to communicate that to you directly. I’m not saying that you need to make assumptions, but you need to use the same human empathy you’d use on a first date to read the signs that would give you the subtext to the verbal conversation. Subtext is incredibly important since more than half of communication takes place nonverbally.

Photograph shared with generous permission of Michael and Nicole Stuart

Ask Questions

If you’re being truly attentive, this should lead you toward asking questions and not just any questions, but questions that probe your client’s motives and help you get to the heart of what they want. When they present the photo of a family outside, instead of looking at it with your photography-tuned brain, ask questions like: “what is it about this photo that you really connect to?” Find out the why behind what they want. If they come in for a “mommy and me” session, find out not just what they want the final images to look like, but why they want them. Their reasoning will be as individual as they are, and if you understand why they want something, it will help you deliver a final product they love, not just because it’s a solid image, but because it fills an emotional need they have that they may not be able to articulate unless you ask the right questions.

Photograph shared with generous permission of Leslie Jennings

Set Expectations

One of the biggest reasons clients aren’t happy with a final image is that the photographer failed to set proper expectations. If someone comes to you looking for candid family portraits and your style is very purposeful and posed, but you still take on the client and shoot them according to your normal process without setting expectations first, you’re going to have an unhappy client. If you take the time to make sure your client understands how the session is going to work from beginning to end, the chance for missed communication or unmet expectations lowers dramatically. That way when a hurdle appears in your path, your clients already understand how that hurdle is going to be jumped, and there are no surprises.

Photograph shared with generous permission of Krystyn Slack

Get Feedback

We should never be so caught up in our process that we forget that we are service providers whose job is to make someone happy. It’s never a bad idea to ask how your client is doing, how they’re feeling about the process, and if they’re happy with how things are going. If you’re in the middle of a session and your client is feeling uneasy, the best time to take care of the problem is in the middle of the session, not afterward, when the photos are already in their hands. If you take a few seconds to check in with your client, you’ve got a better chance of heading off potential problems.

Image shared with generous permission of Valerie K Photography

Sign Contracts

This should go without saying, but chances are that everyone has fallen into this trap at one point or another. A contract is a way to protect yourself, but also a way for a client to feel protected and set at ease knowing that their photographer has made promises to give them the best service possible. It also gives both photographer and client the chance to sit down and set expectations and make sure everyone is on the same page before money and services change hands. Once a contract is understood and signed, each party knows what will happen in the case of a reschedule or if the client is unhappy and wants a refund. Contracts keep consequences understood and official, which gives peace of mind to both sides.

Take Responsibility

As much as we might wish it otherwise, we can’t control what other people do. What we can control is our own reaction to circumstances. If a photographer goes through their career always blaming the client when things turn out badly, they’ll never take the time to look at their own process and find out whether there was anything they could have done to avoid the disaster. Blaming clients takes the responsibility off the photographer, who, let’s remember, is supposed to be the professional in this relationship and places it on the client. Taking responsibility, on the other hand, forces the photographer to look at the process, at their own reactions and choices, and find out how they can change and grow to head off similar disasters in the future.

Yes, the bride and groom might have chosen a less-than-ideal location for their wedding and a time of day that makes flattering photos difficult, but their job isn’t to make things easy on their photographer. The photographers job is to make the most compelling and beautiful photographs possible for their client. The lesson may be to have a lens on hand with a wider aperture, to have additional light sources, to practice clever and creative angles and compositions, to learn better posing, etc., but whatever that lesson is, it’s a lesson for the photographer, not the client.

No matter what you do, sometimes, everything will go wrong. That’s life. Blaming the client doesn't help or change the situation, and castigating yourself until you feel like quitting is nothing more than gratuitous self-flagellation. When a client is unhappy, being empathetic first is the most important thing you can do. Sure, there will be those clients who are determined to be unhappy no matter what you do, but more often than not, your client just wants to be seen and heard. They want to know that their photographer understands and actually cares about how they feel. Whether you offer a re-shoot, a gift product, a refund, or something else all depends on how you've laid out expectations in your contract. But if you take the steps listed above and approach your client with a heart geared toward serving them, you’re much less likely to end up with a disaster and much more likely to have clients who walk away smiling.

Lead Image shared with permission of Matt Ackerman

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Ed Sanford's picture

Good article, but with all due respect, this is not just indigenous to photography. It is customer service in general. In any business sales situation, the provider or vendor should completely understand the client's needs and expectations before consummating the deal. Of most importance, a good provider will also set expectations. That is, he/she should point out to the client that what they (the client) is requesting may not be the best solution. Also, if you are not capable of confidently performing the service, the deal should be turned down. Too often, we follow the clients request, and when it doesn't work out, we give them the "I did exactly what you asked" response which is the most unprofessional "cop-out" from anyone selling a service.

Nicole, spot on. I have had miserable people who's previous corp portraits are embarrassing and then they are angry that I made them look good. It happens. There's people who are used to the phone app filter where they normally make themselves look a lot thinner and crazy distorted, then they're mad at anything that doesn't have the phone app filter. The very best you can do is discuss it a lot before hand. Make a theme board, Tell them what to expect. Show them during the shoot, etc. Annie L's on line course has an ad where she says she doesn't agree that it's the photographer's job to make the subject relaxed. She's not shooting corp portraits of sometimes really ugly subjects who expect the results to be George Clooney. If the CEO isn't relaxed and looks bad they hate the photo. Again, the prep you cover in your piece above is the best practice toward making them happy. Good article.

Isaac Redd's picture

“Overpaying”, “Out of control unwarranted arrogance”, etc. Makes your comment seem a little biased right out of the gate...

Johnny Rico's picture

"overpaying", It's all relative.

Julian Ray's picture

Strong article, Nichole.
Your points are all core to good customer service and ones that seem all to often to be overlooked.
I would ad one more point. And that is... Learn to say no.
As you are meting your prospective client and getting the feel for them, if your gut says NO, then learn to just decline the gig.
All to often I see colleges take a job that turns south because they really did not fit and they knew it but pushed on anyway.
In the end backing away from a "no win" gig will help both your reputation and the customers experience.

Nicole York's picture

Solid point, Julian. Knowing when you aren't a good fit for a client is a great way to save your sanity and point the client in the direction of a photographer that will be a better fit.

Mike Conley's picture

I agree. Strong article Nicole! Julian, you're absolutely correct about learning to say, "No". The contract thing is good to have because I've had the unfortunate experience where I had a client come to Colorado and get hammered and stayed up the entire time for a shoot. I took the full responsibility for the shoot going bad, however I did it because that's customer service. That's what you've gotta do..."man up and eat it" if you want to go further. The truth will come out, if others ask.

I'd like to add to the article... "Take Great Notes": Keep a logbook, or journal to document things that may be going on that are out of your control (i.e. Your clients guzzling down bottles of wine, and champagne before the shoot).