Let's be partners and collaborate creatively on a photo project
"The customer is always right" is a motto or slogan which exhorts service staff to give a high priority to customer satisfaction. This motto dates to 1900 and was coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field. It is one of the most prominent beliefs of customer service and one that still directs the way we do things.
While highlighting the importance of the client experience, this motto ignores the fact that customers can be dishonest, have unrealistic expectations or try to misuse the service in ways that void the original agreement.
Most photographers have been in a conundrum pertaining to this idea at least once in their careers. Should I agree to a longer session without asking for compensation? Is it ok to provide a service that wasn't on the agreement? We agreed to a start time but the client arrived an hour later, should I go home? I was asked to perform a session under false pretenses, what should I do?
It is very hard to define a clear line between what is fair and what is unfair. For most of us, our clients are everything. We want them happy and satisfied, we develop a relationship with them, care about them, and would do anything to surpass their expectations. Clients are key to our livelihood, we need them and want to please them at all costs. But this path of seeking perpetual approval can lead to exhaustion, being overworked, and feeling like someone is taking advantage of us. What do we do?
I remember one time a client I used to work with a lot, asked me to photograph her kid's party. I gave her a "friends and family" discount, arrived an hour earlier at no extra cost to capture decor, commuted over 4 hours to her event, and paid for all my traveling fees. By the time our service ended she asked me if I could stay longer. During her event, she was super nice, offered me food, and treated me like one of the family. I felt rude not to stay, she had hired me a lot in the past and recommended me to others. So I stayed for what turned out to be two whole extra hours. She didn't offer to pay for the extra time and I felt ashamed to ask.
When I got home that night I felt so frustrated, I felt she had used our friendship to get me to work for free. I felt bad for feeling this way because she had been so nice to me. Was I being greedy and ungrateful? Was she taking advantage of me?
That wasn't the only time I felt uncomfortable with a client. It started to happen over and over in different ways until I realized that my approach had to change. I had to set clear boundaries from the beginning, define expectations, and if something felt off decline jobs. Creating healthy business relationships while remaining cordial and approachable had to start with me. Scroll down to find out what to do.
Create a written agreement and send an invoice
A written agreement is key. In this agreement, you will go into full detail with the service description. Every single aspect of it, so it is fully clear and the expectations of what you will receive, when will you receive and how much it would cost are defined.
I personally ask clients to take some time to read the agreement and ask all the questions before signing. That way we can truly be sure we are both on the same page. The agreement should also state what happens if we have to reschedule, or if it rains. What happens if the service is canceled for any reason, what's the cost for extra hours, the copyright status, etc.
No matter how big or small a session is, you must have an agreement. Once the agreement is signed it is important to send an invoice with a payment schedule. A retainer is required to secure a date and seal the commitment.
In my experience, I learned to never book an event without a retainer. It doesn't matter how close the client is, how much you trust them, or how nice they are, never lock your agenda without a retainer. When doing business, we must protect ourselves and that's ok.
I must say, despite taking all previsions, some people will still try to take advantage or scam. It's unfortunate but something we have to learn to deal with.
Transactional relationships are not to be confused with friendships
Real friends will never ask you to work for free, they will never put you in such a difficult situation to prove your friendship. Unless you offer to perform a service for free because you are building a portfolio, you don't need to feel pressured to take on a project without asking for compensation.
It is important to understand how much of a relationship with a client is a true friendship and how much is a transactional relationship. A transactional relationship is one that is based on reciprocity and needs. In a transactional relationship, both parties expect to receive something in return for their investment. These relationships are not based on the idea that you should give without expecting anything in return.
Transactional relationships can be satisfying, long-lasting, and professional without being cold.
But one thing is important here. Self-containment. We have this urge to be liked which can be a toxic trait. We have to learn to control our emotional responses and stop acting on impulse. Resisting the urge to use photography as a bribe or a gift is crucial. When we start offering our photography service as a free gift we eliminate all value from it. Instead of a free extra hour or a free mini session, offer a thank you card or a 10% discount. Send your client a thoughtful gift, and write them a heartfelt letter. But do not use your service as a currency for approval.
It is ok to say no
If something feels off, it is ok to decline a job. You don't have to take all clients. You can choose who to work with.
Money is so important and most of us are trying to make a living, so we have this need and this fear inside. But saying yes to the right people is the most important.
When you take on a client you shouldn't, your entire experience will be dreadful. You will be stressed from the minute you book them. This will affect your performance and most likely the client won't have the best experience either. This could lead to more issues or could risk your reputation.
No amount of money is worth working with someone you don't click with. It is best to refer that person to a colleague and politely decline the job.
This is why having a conversation over the phone before booking is so important.
Working with awesome clients makes everything better, you feel happy to see them, you want to help them as much as possible, you are proud of the result, and you are excited to see them come back. We choose who we work with, and that's the key to success.
An honest perspective from a Professional Photographer
I hope this rant resonated with you.
Feel free to reach out as I love to support clients and emerging photographers alike.
And if you find this information helpful, please share! With love, Pau.
New York, NY