Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Aside: Coping with unreasonable client requests

They say adversity is the building blocks of character. As my photography business continues to pick up steam, I keep having to cope with some of the more difficult aspects of studio management that will hopefully help me grow a more successful company.

Lately, I've been trying to address specific client concerns that deal with customizing more affordable photography packages based on their individual needs. For example, when a potential client called to say she needed more wallet sizes than was included in her package, I saw no problem with trading out some unwanted 5x7s for a couple more pages of the wallets she wanted. Another client wanted to have all of their images from an event, both edited and unedited, while yet another wanted to trim their budget, cutting out the photo album in exchange for a lower session charge.

Usually I don't have any issues working with the client to deliver the best services possible. But I'm sure we've all been there when a customer tries to overstep boundaries that are (hopefully) clearly defined in a contract or service agreement. Because I know times are tough, I often find myself wanting to cave to requests that other photographers wouldn't even consider. And sometimes I throw in a few freebies as well, say for example, some unedited snapshots I took during the wedding rehearsal which wasn't included in my coverage, but was something I attended anyway as a fact-finding mission. If you are like me, it's just hard to say no. But I found this video that may be helpful to all of us:

While humorous and outrageous, I think I need to work harder at taking these steps shared by wedding photographer Sean Cayton to stand firm as a professional:

1. Just say no. “No” is a word that when used appropriately, draws boundaries that otherwise might not be apparent to the client. Being mealy-mouthed when you should just say no is an invitation to a negotiation.

2. Offer an unconsidered option. Customers are often single-minded when it comes to telling you what they want. But if you understand the reason behind their demands (e.g., they have a limited budget), you may be able to offer an alternative that works for you and still makes them happy.

3. Pre-qualify your clients. In my initial phone calls or e-mail correspondence with prospective clients, I ask them almost as many questions as they ask me. I want to find out if the couple places a priority on their wedding photography. I want to understand their budget. If they value photography and have a workable budget, I’m in. If not, I refer them to another photographer who might be a better fit. Pre-qualifying your customers saves everyone a lot of wasted time and effort.

To add to this, one of the things I've been doing is to have my clients explain to me what kind of services they want instead of concentrating on the price. This helps both professional and client prioritize what's important instead of getting paralyzed by the fear of cost. Once those desires are all laid out, then we can come up with a package that fits their needs.

4. Create a set of policies and include it in your contract. Sometimes problems arise after you’ve already taken on the client. The best way to combat this is to create a list of policies and include them in your contract. Our company’s standard contract is a direct reflection of our previous client experiences. Clients who waited years before fulfilling album orders, for instance, generated a new policy: a time limit of one year from the wedding date. Every time I get the client to sign off on a policy beforehand, it helps me to avoid future problems.

In this vein, new procedures I'm going to be instituting include having all payments made before each session (a deposit and then the balance due before the shoot begins) to avoid having to be a debt collector in the future. Galleries on my website will only be up for a specific amount of time before they are taken down and only reuploaded at additional fees. And clients will only be receiving edited photos, trusting in my education, ability and professionalism to capture their treasured events.

5. Maintain your professionalism. When working with a client who is being unreasonable, stay professional. Some customers think that the harder they push, the more they will squeeze out of us. While it can be frustrating to work with this type of client, you should never take things personally. Simply stand firm. Patience and professionalism are the best response when clients overstep their boundaries.

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