If you’re lucky, it’s only once in a while that a difficult client comes along and wreaks havoc on your best-laid plans. Your best course of action? Being prepared. When you’re armed with knowledge, skill, and patience, any conflict can be turned around quickly and positively.
Choose the Right Clients
You’ve heard it before, but selecting the ideal clients for your business is always the very first step. If you’re a newborn photographer who’s just decided to accept a job shooting a wedding in a dark barn in a town you’ve never visited with 450 guests in attendance, you’re setting yourself up for failure from the get-go. Similarly, if your prices are in the tens of thousands and you shoot film, working with a family that wants digital files for $20 is likely also going to cause problems. Know who your ideal client is and know that it’s best for your business (and your sanity) to be sure your clients fit that description, even if it means turning down a potential job or two.
Put it in Writing
Even though that client seems like the nicest person in the world, you’re still representing a business, and you must make sure you’re covered in case that sweet attitude turns surly. Always, always, always use a contract or agreement to document the expectations both from you and the client, and if you don’t purchase one drafted by a lawyer, be sure to have it looked over by one to be sure you’re protected legally. Set expectations from the beginning so all parties know what they’re expected to do in each part of the job, from planning, to shooting, to ordering. When a question (or demand, or concern) comes up, refer back to the documentation.
Know Your Stuff
The in-person ordering session is not the place for you to be Googling the difference between deep matte and lustre paper. Would you buy a car from someone who didn’t know about the safety features, or order a laptop from a company who couldn’t tell you what the storage space was? When you know your facts, there’s very little ability for others to argue meaningfully.
Go into every client meeting and begin every client conversation with in-depth knowledge of your products offered, the benefits to each, and their prices. Bring samples and let the visuals (and physicals) do the talking. Be able to explain aspect ratio when Mom wants that closely-cropped shot as an 8×10, and even earlier on in the relationship, come armed with facts about light and shadow when Dad wants the session to take place at the beach at noon in the dead of summer. Provide intelligent explanations and be the expert you are, and let your clients know that you are a trusted authority.
Take a Deep Breath
Sometimes, no matter what precautions you’ve taken, you’re still going to have some sort of disagreement from a client. Instead of screaming and losing your temper, take a deep breath and walk away for a break. If you’re responding to an email or a scathing Facebook post, write the response but don’t send it; give it two hours, and then come back and see if your newly-leveled head wants to edit what you’ve written. We all know it’s harder to think like an adult when you’re angry or frustrated!
Standing in front of your angry clients and can’t exactly leave the room? Use the tried-and-true technique of breathing slowly, and counting backwards in your head from five to give yourself some time to think rationally before speaking. The more you practice being calm in a sticky situation, the better you’ll become at it.
Remember that once you’ve been thoughtful about your response, be sure to respond in a timely manner. A long delay in your reply can fuel the fire and make the situation worse, so pick up the phone and give your clients a call; sometimes words come across harsher in writing than you meant for them to sound! Often, simply treating your clients as human beings can be the way to ease tensions quickly.
Offer a Solution
Identify the client’s problem, and show some compassion. Statements like, “I understand why you want those digital files; they’re important to you and your family,” can go a long way when someone is feeling unheard. Then, offer some kind of solution. Note that offering a solution doesn’t mean “giving in” or going against your business policies; it simply means that you should find a way to make everyone happy: “The digital files aren’t included in the package you ordered, but I’m happy to work out the prices for them a la carte, and we can even look at moving you up to the next package if that works out to be a better deal financially.” Learn how to say no while saying yes, and meet your clients’ needs while educating them.
The Feel, Felt, Found technique has long been used in sales to acknowledge customers’ points of view. Try it the next time a client gives you pushback: say that you empathize with him or her, mention that others have felt the same way, and explain how the solution you’re suggesting worked for them. (For example, “I understand how you feel about the digital files. I’ve had other clients who have felt the same way, but they found that the quality of prints they got through me and my professional lab was far superior to anything they could print on their own.”)
It’s equally as important to be honest with yourself: Was it your screw up? Then make it right. Think of how you’d want to be treated as a customer, and act accordingly. Remember that people who are unhappy with your business will share those opinions more readily than those who are happy will, so do your best to fix the situation and satisfy the client in the end, especially if it was a misunderstanding or miscommunication that you (honestly) should take ownership of.
Improve Your Tactics
After a particularly hairy situation has been resolved, be sure to do some serious reflection to figure out where everything went wrong. Did you forget to give the client the price list at (or before) booking? Were your packages unclear? Did you make a mistake when you described a product? Did you listen to the client’s demands instead of sticking to what you knew to be right when choosing a location or time? If it was something that can (or should) be fixed, take the time to do it.
Be open to reviews from ALL of the people you work with. Ask your clients about their experience when it’s all said and done, and be willing to receive both positive and negative feedback to help you grow as a professional. Prevention is key to minimizing conflict!
What is one difficult situation you’ve encountered with a client? Share below!
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