When this post is published I will be on my way to Moscow, Russia somewhere above the North Atlantic Ocean. I have a couple of shoots booked with my regular clients there, and my relationships with those clients are so great and long-lasting that they inspired me to write this article.
I visit my family in Russia every year and I usually book some client shoots while I'm there. One time I booked and shot 15 shoots in 21 days, and only got to spend a little time with family and friends briefly in between those shoots. My rates were very low, and I was booking just about anyone who wanted to shoot with me. Some of those clients were great, and some of them were demanding an unreasonable amount of my time and resources before, during and after the shoots.
Most of my memories about those short rare trips, which were supposed to be all about the family, are blighted by the hassles of serving clients who not only compensated my time with little pay, but also managed to suck all the pleasure out of what I normally love doing - shooting with people.
I promised myself to intentionally work towards transforming my business so that I can shoot less often, and only with people I enjoy working with while increasing my income, or at least keeping it on the same level. Sure enough, there are many things that go into it: your skill level, your experience, your portfolio, your marketing and communication skills. But there's something else that you have to keep in mind - it's the quality of your clients. No matter how much you have to offer, it won't do you any good if you offer it to the wrong people.
I had to learn it the hard way over the years, and even though I thought I figured it all out, I still sometimes find myself wasting time on clients I should be avoiding. But I definitely minimized those occasions.
And while I don't have a shortcut for you as to how you personally can find your best clients, keeping this information in mind will help you to make right decisions. Yes, it is possible to run a business where you deal with happy clients, you are paid better, and have more time to spend with your family.
Offer Your Services To Those Who Will Appreciate Them
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. Anyone who runs such a business needs to know and recognize the following 5 types of clients:
1. Low maintenance / High profit - those who pay well and ask for little. They love your work, they appreciate your time and they can afford it. It's your #1 most favorite and most desirable type of client. If we could only have such clients, we would all be happy photographers running successful businesses.
My current Moscow clients are exactly that: they love my work and they are happy to pay what I believe I am worth. Thanks to these wonderful clients instead of running around and shooting a dozen of cheap client shoots, I can book only two and spend the rest of my time with my family and friends. Needless to say, I will go to great lengths to keep them happy.
2. High maintenance / High profit - those who pay well, but make you jump through hoops. Depending on your current financial situation, you might be okay with constantly pleasing them. If you need more income, they are probably still your favorite type of client. If you've got a lot of work coming your way, or are too tired of wasting your time on never-ending requests or complaints - you probably don't love them all that much any more, and who can blame you?! They are taking up the time you could spend on serving your more appreciative and low maintenance clients.
3. Low maintenance / Low profit - those who pay little, but ask very little as well. They are not spoiled, they like what you do and can afford some of your services. Some of us may find ourselves working for this type of client quite often. They are not bad at all, they help you build a steady income flow. But replacing some of them with the Type 1 clients every chance you get would sure serve you better in the long run.
In the real world it means that when you can devote your time to a client who pays more, than you might want to say "no" to a client who wants cheaper services. Spend the free time on turning your better paying client into your regular - meaning over-deliver, please them, make them love you!
4. High maintenance / Low profit - it is in your best interest to be able to recognize this type of client and stay away from them as much as possible. They will waste your time, and they will have unreasonable expectations of you and your company. They will make you feel bad about yourself and your work, they will easily ruin your day by their passive-aggressive emails and text messages, and at the end of the day they will pay you very little. Very often, these clients will not be happy with the work you do for them no matter how well it is done. That's why it's important to recognize the red flags (keep reading) before you commit to such a client.
5. Time-wasters - these are not your clients, they only put on the guise of becoming one in the future. They will waste your time, send you millions of emails and text messages, ask you millions of questions, and make you invest time into planning their photo shoot. They may even ask you to book a makeup artist and hairstylist for the day, and then cancel on you a couple of days before the shoot. Needless to say, you should steer clear from this type of pseudo-client as soon as you recognize the signs.
Having your clients book and pre-pay in advance is a good way to protect yourself from resource-sucking time-wasters, but I realize that it's easier said than done in some areas of visual arts, and even so in some types of photography such as wedding and bridal. But my point is when you are mindful of this, you can figure out ways to avoid being abused by such "clients" and wasting your time on fruitless relationships. It happened to me too many times to ignore.
Recognize High Maintenance Clients Early
Here are some signs of a high maintenance client and potential problems that you can catch early and act accordingly:
1. Asking way too many questions than your average client, making you believe that they are really interested, but they just want to know all the details before they commit.
To protect yourself from falling for this, put up as much pre-sale information about your services as possible on your website. Send them kindly to that page and if they come back to you with post-sale questions (such as "what looks should we do during the shoot", "what makeup and clothing do you envision me in for beautiful pictures", etc.) explain that you will together clarify and take care of all the details after the photo shoot is booked. Don't waste your time on something that may never happen.
Again, I understand that it may not work in some types of photography, but it has been working for me with Beauty, Fashion, Family, Senior, and Boudoir photography clients after I figured it out, and I hope it helps you out in some way as well.
2. After-hour calls and text messages. This may mean nothing, but in my personal experience if a client calls or texts you in the middle of the night or unacceptably early in the morning - they do not respect you or your time, and they don't take you seriously. Most likely, there will be more problems that you will have to deal with should you commit to this client.
3. Trying to negotiate you down on the price or ask for more services that they didn't initially quote. This used to be a tough one for me, but I now realize that I was in the mindset "if I insist on my initial quote they will leave me." That's a suicidal mindset for a full-time creative professional.
Remember, if they want YOUR services, they will pay you what you deserve. If they want whatever services and want them cheap - let them go, you don't want them either. Respect yourself, your time, and think what's good for your business and for your own self-esteem. It's very easy to spiral down serving people who don't care for you and don't appreciate your talents, and when you hit the ground you may want to quit photography altogether.
4. Unrealistic response times and unpunctuality. They get back to your emails or calls once a week, or make you wait for them running significantly late for your meetings. They may send you a dozen of messages with ridiculous excuses, or may not even bother to let you know they are running late. Either way, they do not respect your time and don't take you seriously - expect more problems.
5. Aggressive (passive-aggressive) correspondence and lack of trust. This is a huge red flag. They may pay you well, but if your sanity is important to you, stay away from doing business with bullies and paranoiacs.
6. Too many special requests, too many emails, calls, revisions, complaints. If you are already working with them, just suck it up and finish the job with the best possible results you can deliver, but make sure to never get involved in this or a similar relationship again.
And, unfortunately, you will figure out other red flags and tendencies from your personal experiences. The main point is to learn from them and not allow unpleasant business situations and relationships happen to you again.
More Helpful Tips
"Some people are just high maintenance. You are never going to please them, only deplete yourself trying" says one of my favorite intentional leadership authors Michael Hyatt in his Three Reasons You Can’t Afford That High Maintenance Client. Michael also suggests that high maintenance clients are a distraction and they keep you from serving others. You're better off saying "no" and spend the time searching for low maintenance clients: "I have learned that these are clients that you simply cannot afford to have, no matter how great the opportunity appears to be."
Of course you will find other types of advice on how to increase your income by letting customers have it their way. Some will recommend pleasing your clients no matter what, and that's totally your choice. At the end of the day, you will choose how to run your own business based on your personal beliefs and philosophies. I personally don't like seeing fellow artists being pushed over and abused, and that's the reason why I am sharing what I've learned from smart business people and my own experiences in this article.
"The unfortunate reality is that there are only so many clients out there, and some of those clients aren't worth dealing with… The decision to keep working with them is yours. Your fate is in your own hands, as is your sanity" says Jack Wallen in his Five tips for dealing with high maintenance clients article.
Listen to Michael Hyatt's podcast where he talks about dealing with high maintenance clients:
And lastly, make sure to check out Speculative Work, What It Is and Why You Should Wary - a great guest post by New York Film Academy on my blog. It is especially recommended to those of you who are just starting out as a full-time photographer or planning to become one soon.
If you have more tips on how to recognize and deal with high maintenance clients, please feel free to share them in the comments below, so we can learn too!