How to recover when project doesn’t go well

Types of clients

I believe there are two types of clients—Educated and uneducated. I am not talking about how smart the client is or how many degrees they might have. I am talking about their experience with working with photographers when it comes to hiring me for example.

Sometimes clients will have naive, impracticable or inappropriate expectations. Most of the time this is with those clients with little experience-hiring photographers.

I generally have little communication problems with those who hire photographers regularly, because they are better at communicating their needs and we establish a solid paper trail together.

The first place the client relationship goes wrong is often in communication. The best thing you can have when a situation arises of dissatisfaction about something from the client is to look at the paper work.

A written contract is best for helping resolve these disputes. Second best to a written contract is written documentation that could be as simple as emails. 

Even with a written contract the one thing that continues to plague client relationships is the lack of planning. The better the planning the better the results and satisfaction for all involved.

Without having the ability to scout a location and walking through the assignment it is impossible to anticipate all the needs that might arise.

How do you know you have a problem?

Your client must tell you about a problem for you to fix it. Sadly I have found in my career many people will never tell you there’s a problem. They just don’t hire you again.

If no one ever tells you, there is a good chance your personality turns him or her off and they don’t want to fix the situation. My advice is to seek counseling; it will be worth every penny you spend to know how to stop certain behaviors that are undermining your career.

If you are lucky and get a customer complaint then this is actually good for you.  Often this means people think you need to know so you can both correct this and continue to work with them or they think you need to know so you can avoid this in the future. Either way you now no of a problem that needs to be addressed.

How to handle the conflict

Listen—the best tool you have is the ability to listen. Listening is not just being quite. Good listening requires you to respond appropriately to the comments.

Apologize—A true apology lets the customer understand that they have been heard and understood. This should be carefully worded. If you don’t feel that you have done anything wrong, then be sure to convey regret for the experience of the other person as a result of what you did. This is assuming it was unintended.  Apologizing for the effect this caused doesn’t mean you will reach a resolution. Be sure you are taking responsibility for the effect you caused or it will not be sincerely taken.

Take Action—After apologizing for what has taken place to cause this problem, move on to letting them know you want to correct the problem. You can say something like, “Obviously what we have done is very upsetting to you and you need to know that I am going to get to the bottom of this.”

Take the emotion out—Now that you have expressed with emotion your concern the next phase is exploration of the facts. This is where you are just getting the facts of the situation.  Often this is where a client may state what is wrong and how this is complicating their ability to solve the problem they brought you on to help. Remember sometimes they have already jumped to a conclusion that this is not fixable and you have wasted their time. The tendency is to quickly fix things, but be sure at this stage you fully understand what they think is wrong.  Once you have all the facts laid out restate this in your own words to them and ask if you have everything correct. The reason for you to put it into your own words will help them know you heard them and understand.

Empathy and not sympathy—Focus on actions and not words. You need to come to the client with ideas and not problems. Remember time is money so don’t waste theirs or yours.

Patience—I think it is best that you stop after getting all the facts and tell them you need just some time to process if it is needed. “Do you mind if I take a few minutes and see what I/we can do? I will call you back with our ideas in the morning,” is one way to give you time to process all that you have discovered.

Deliver on your promise—The true apology that you started with entails a resolution. You need to deliver on this promise to be sincere and complete. Without this you will undermine your reputation and brand as not trust worthy. 

Fire the client

When clients will have naive, impracticable or inappropriate expectations it is time to fire them. Sometimes it is better to end a relationship with a client rather than making your life miserable.

Here are some things I know I have and other photographers have let their clients go:

Slow or no payment—I have had a few clients where the company policy was to be slow paying and then I have had clients that were so ADD they forgot on a regular basis to pass along my invoice to the accounts payable department. Use this paragraph with your invoicing to avoid this problem:

Administrative Fee – We are now building into the invoice the cost to repeatedly follow up with accounts payable departments on past due invoices, and float the cost of payment to our vendors, which require 30 days payment. This fee is approximately 15% of the total invoice. If payment is made within 30 days, you may deduct this amount. A notation to this effect will be made on the invoice.

Lack of boundaries—You have a client that expects to own you 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Sometimes clients do not respect that you have not just other clients but you have a personal life. To avoid this be sure to put in your contract the times you are available.

Difficult to work with—They are just very difficult to work with. Maybe they tell off color jokes. Try to politely, but firmly, say that you don’t appreciate the off-color jokes. You may not get a positive response at first, but you may. And you’ll also get the benefit of speaking your mind, and will at least get the message out there for everyone’s consideration.

Poor Time Management—Client has trouble keeping appointments or is constantly late. This can become a problem when it starts to affect your bottom line. You have trouble getting things from the client that you need to complete a job. Be sure your contract spells out that missing deadlines or whatever you need from them, that there is some penalty. The problem you are trying to address is doing work and delayed payment due to the client dragging out a project. You can put into contract full payment by certain date if the delay is due to the client missing something.

Unwilling to accept price increase—Over time your prices need to go up due to cost of living and other expenses that have increased. When the client is unwilling to adjust their budget you have to let them go, you cannot afford to work for them.