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If there is one group of visual arts freelancers that get treated worse than anyone else in the market, it's photographers. Don't ask why, but there's something about the field that just seems to attract the worst possible clients.
Even the greatest portrait photographers have horror stories involving clients that drove them up the wall. It could be the family that just couldn't sit still, a bridezilla from H-E-double-hockeysticks, or just a corporate client that kept browbeating them for a lower price.
Whatever the reason is, horror stories exist, and bad clients happen to good artists. The question then becomes, how do you deal with a terrible photography client when you meet one in the wild?
Talk to your clients and suss out all the details before you do anything.
Never underestimate the power of a consultation. The biggest way to avoid problems with clients, especially difficult clients with high expectations, is to talk to them. It also gives you an idea of whether or not you want to work with them.
A lot of clients that could be awful without a consult become sweethearts when you ask about their expectations. From there, you can gauge whether it's doable, if you have the ability to make it work, and what you can do for them.
By avoiding shattering expectations, you avoid negative feedback and will have a smoother shoot overall.
Raise your prices if you're the cheapest in town.
Believe it or not, raising your prices tends to get rid of a lot of the worst clients. A study showed that people valued items more if they were sold at a higher price—regardless of quality.
By just raising your price so you're not the cheapest, you will be able to get better rates and reduce your chance of painful patrons. You don't even have to modify your customer service for this!
Watch out for warning signs, and refer them to your competition.
In my opinion, the best way to deal with a terrible photography client is to avoid them altogether. Though some only show their claws after you're hired, many already show red flags during your first consultation with them.
Photographers should be particularly concerned if they notice the following issues with a potential client:
- Talking down to you. A disrespectful initial meeting is always a bad sign. If they are condescending to you now, they might become straight-up abusive after signing the contract.
- Trying to talk down your price after you explain how hard your job is. For some reason, a lot of photography clients think photographers don't need to eat. If they are already trying to haggle with you over price despite your explanation about the pricing, it's best to tell them a firm "no," and send them to a competitor.
- Angry vibes. People who are already filled with rage are going to give you a hard time with shots. Don't risk it.
- Bridezilla/Narcissist behavior. Bridezillas may be willing to pay an arm and a leg for a wedding photographer, but do you really want to deal with the fits that come with it?
- A bad reputation. Some people and companies have a bad reputation amongst creatives because they mistreated so many of them. If one comes knocking, refuse service.
You don't have to tell them that you're not comfortable with working with them. You can just say you're booked.
Lay out a contract that is as airtight as possible.
Contracts are there to protect both parties—not just photographers. They are meant to take out the guesswork that can come from all the grey areas of agreements. Your contract should include the following details of your shoot:
- The price, plus tax. Mention that ordering prints, extra shoot time, extra outfits, and photo rights is an additional fee. You also should have a non-refundable deposit included in your contract as a mandatory part of booking the shoot. Knowing what you should charge for portrait photography ahead of time can save you a huge headache later.
- The date, time, location, and number of outfits you will shoot. You may also want to mention the number of hours of work.
- Whether or not you will Photoshop the shots. You should also clarify if editing is available as an added fee.
- A cancellation clause. What happens if they cancel the shoot, or if you do? Talk about if the deposit is refundable, what grounds can be reason for terminating the contract, and any other issues that you feel are necessary.
- A "walk-away" clause. If a client threatens to leave without paying, behaves in an inappropriate manner, causes damage to equipment, or otherwise harms business, you should maintain the right to unilaterally cancel the shoot. This is your walk-away clause.
The more legally enforceable and succinct your contract is, the less leeway clients have to harm you.
Keep your boundaries up when you notice them stepping out of line.
Much like dealing with a bully, dealing with unhappy clients means you have to stand up for yourself. Now that you have a contract with a walk-away clause, you have the right to say that the relationship isn't working out.
Usually, bad clients can be corralled with certain phrases. These phrases include:
- "We've already established what I am willing and not willing to do in the contract. Do you want to add on an extra hour? That's okay but I can't do that for free."
- "Can we please keep this professional?"
- "Please do not speak to me in this manner."
If your nightmare client has decided to berate you or launch into a full tirade, you can use these phrases:
- "I think we should talk about this when you are more composed."
- "I am sorry you feel that way."
- "If you can't address me in a respectful manner, I don't think this project will work out."
- "If you would prefer, I think I can refer you to someone else to do this project. You don't have to work with me."
Price your clients appropriately.
Let's say that you're in a financial bind and really, truly need the money. You kind of *have* to take a bad client on because you won't be able to eat otherwise.
If you have a bad client you have to take on, make sure you price them accordingly. It's okay to charge a higher fee with problem clients, because being forced to deal with a terrible photography client means more added-on work in most cases.
A lot of people in the freelancing world call this the "Asshole Tax" or the "Fuck Off Fee." It's a price where you're willing to put up with bad behavior because it pays the bills.
Your photography business is your bread and butter. Your camera and the best accessories every photographer needs, should these things get damaged, will mean the death of your business—at least temporarily.
Part of being able to handle bad clients is dealing with the fallout that can happen during a shoot gone horribly wrong. A good business insurance policy can help you recover costs.
Emphasize positive reviews on social media and professionally address negative feedback online.
The most damaging thing a bad client can do is leave bad remarks on your reviews. Thankfully, if you urge your clients to leave positive reviews, you will be able to outweigh the nightmare client's complaints with good reviews.
In some cases, you may be able to take reviews off—especially if it's from a site like Yelp. All you have to do is contact the site staff and explain the situation.
If the person left bad reviews in hopes of extorting a refund, try to find evidence that they actually enjoyed your services. If you don't have any written evidence, your best bet is to explain in a public and polite manner what the situation really is.
It's worth pointing out that there's a difference between a regular unhappy client and an extortionist. If they have reason to be upset, try to have a chat with them to see what you can do to ameliorate it.
On the other hand, if they are lying outright about your services, you may be able to pursue legal action. It's up to you to decide whether or not it's worth it.
Offer to coach clients that have trouble posing.
Sometimes, your clients don't suck because of their attitudes. It's actually possible to have a bad client who's terrible because they just don't pose well. There's a number of reasons why your photoshoot might not look good, and a good way to get better shots (and reviews) is to offer to coach them as they pose.
You'd be shocked at how well this can make things work in your favor.
Finally, take care of yourself.
Trying to deal with a terrible photography client can grate on even the most patient person's nerves. It can actually make it hard to shoot with other clients, if you're really worn down.
When struggling with a bad client, take care of yourself. Go to the gym. Eat well. Meditate. After your contract is up, you'll be able to continue work as usual.