5 Tips for Turning Difficult Clients into Happy Ones with Michael Anthony
Anybody who has been in business long enough will run into a customer service problem eventually. I always laugh, internally, when I am teaching a group of photographers and I ask them to raise their hand if they have ever had an upset client. The reason why it amuses me is that usually, two-thirds of the room does not raise their hand. After nearly eight years of operating a professional photography business, I know that running your business without having any client issues whatsoever is nearly impossible. You are not perfect, and neither is your business.
If a photographer has never experienced a client who did not like their photos, had unrealistic demands, or was just not a very nice person, then that photographer has not been in business long enough. The reasons why customer service issues tend to happen in our industry are numerous, but the one thing that they can always be traced back to is not managing client expectations properly.
In growing our studio from $17,000 in sales in 2011 to almost $1.1 million in 2018, I can tell you that we have had our share of difficult-to-deal-with clients. Some of them happened as a result of our growing pains, but there are some people in retail that you just cannot make happy whether you are in the right or the wrong.
There are a number of reasons why this can happen—your studio may grow too fast, as ours did in 2015 and 2016; like me, you may not be trained in customer service; or you may even have an unrealistic understanding about consumer psychology.
What I can say is that in 2018 and 2019, we have the happiest clientele that we have ever had, and our business operates with a higher number of referrals than ever before. It wasn’t until I realized how to manage my clients’ expectations and put their experience first that we accomplished this.
Re-read this twice: no amount of posting on social media will bring you new client referrals if you don’t learn how to operate from a client-experience-focused mindset first.
Today, I’m going to go over how you can build a customer-first business, which will ultimately be the difference between your success or your failure over time. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, of the over 60 articles that I have written for Shutter magazine, this is going to be one of the most important for you to read from start to finish.
Before we get into the tips, however, let’s go over why customer service is so important. For those of you who have never heard me speak or never read my articles, the one thing that I mention every single time I have the opportunity to talk to photographers in our industry is that the difference between success and failure comes down to the experience that you leave your customers with. As subjective as our deliverables are, you may be surprised to find out that a customer’s perception of their imagery is directly tied to their experience before your shoot, during your shoot, and directly afterward.
There is a reason that the majority of brides who were surveyed by The Knot stated that they wished they had spent more money on photography than any other part of their wedding. In my opinion, this wasn’t directly tied to the quality of imagery as much as it was to the experience that many of these brides received in working with their photographers.
Tip #1: Put Yourself in Their Shoes
This is the first thing that you need to do mentally to be in the right mindset to deal with any client situation. A variety of different factors may influence our clients’ thoughts about an issue, and if we do not put ourselves in their mindset, then we won’t ever have the opportunity to correctly deal with their concerns.
Once you put yourself in their shoes, however, you can look at things without rose-colored glasses and make a proper assessment of the correct course of action moving forward. For instance, you may have a client who tells you that they don’t like the way they look in their photos. It would be easy to assume that the client is crazy not to like your work, but in reality, with this complaint, there is almost always something to learn from. It could be that you emphasized one of their insecurities with your choice of camera angle, lens, or lighting. It could be that you just didn’t deliver up to the standard they were holding you to. There’s almost always something you could have done better.
The truth is, you will never know what the issue is until you understand it from their perspective. People are not always willing to tell you the real issue, but if you can mentally put yourself where they are, and empathize with them, you will be in a better place to deal with it.
Tip #2: Resolve the Issues Over the Phone, or
In-Person if Possible
Step two is to find a solution for your clients, acknowledge their concerns, and then work toward a solution, but you will likely run off the road if you try to respond to a client complaint in writing.
Here is the common argument you will see in Facebook groups: If you respond in writing to an upset client, you will have written documentation for court if it comes to that.
Let me pump the brakes on that for a second. First, 99.9 percent of the time, these things will never end up in court. In order to CYA, though, everything you discuss with an unhappy client can still be written to them after the conversation.
Here is the problem with e-mail—it’s like trying to defuse a bomb without tools. People can often come across as upset when you read an email, when in reality, they are just voicing concerns. And if you try to fire off a response e-mail immediately, the same thing can happen when they read yours.
Put a stop to it and pick up the phone. I promise, you will almost always find the customer to be cooler and more collected than how you originally interpreted their e-mail.
Tip #3: Offer a Solution or Alternative
Once you understand the client’s concerns from their perspective, identify the things you could have done to avoid them. Then, you can figure out a way to offer a solution or alternative. This can be anything from an apology to a refund, but it has to be appropriate to satisfy their concerns—you are not going to give a free metal print to someone who complained that you took too long to answer e-mails—that would just be encouraging them to continue being difficult.
Instead, work out something that makes you both happy. This could be a credit toward a print order, free prints, an extra hour of coverage, an extended photoshoot, or a reduced rate on future services.
Tip #4 Be Willing to Let Them Go
At the end of the day, you are running a business, and you want people to be happy about your business. If you are doing everything you can to make a difficult client happy, and you just can’t get there, then it’s time to let them go. Sometimes, that’s the best option.
Let me tell you a story that will really ring home for many of you. In 2014, we photographed a family/maternity session. The family came in to see their photos, and the expectant mother was upset about our pricing—she stated it was too high and that nobody in their right mind would pay that much for family photos. Even after we offered a discount, she was not happy. Nothing except for giving her the photos for free was an appropriate solution in her mind at the time.
So I offered her a refund for her session fee and sent her on her way. She thanked me profusely for doing so and left happy with the outcome, but without her family photos.
In 2016, we got a family referral from her. That client spent $2,200 on their family portrait session.
In 2017, the original client booked us for her wedding, apologized to me for the way she’d acted in 2015, and ended up spending over $18,000 with us for her extravagant wedding and related shoots like a boudoir session.
In 2015, had I held my ground and kept her $300 session fee, we would have likely lost out on $20,000 in income, and possibly more if we get more referrals in the future from her.
Will this happen all the time? Definitely not, but even so, if you hold onto a deposit for a couple who was unhappy with the way their photos turned out and decided to go elsewhere, then you are seriously setting yourself up for client issues down the line. Even if those clients don’t refer you, if they convince one of their friends not to consider you, then you lose that money anyway. Therefore, we always err on the side of letting bad clients go when we need to.
Does this mean we return deposits for everyone? Definitely not, but when they have a reasonable complaint that we agree with after following step one, it’s something that we will consider, and I believe you should too if you want longevity in this business.
Tip #5: Ego
Remember, this one thing will cause you more customer service issues than anything. It’s your ego. Our industry is full of egos. Your pride will cause you to become defensive just about any time a client so much as mutters any disappointment in your work. But folks, let me be the first to tell you that everyone will run into a difficult client. That doesn’t mean they don’t like their photos, or you for that matter, but until you put aside that ego, you will likely have trouble navigating the rare occasions where a client voices their opinion. So, as I have said in the past, remember to check your ego every time you walk inside your office, and your business will continue to grow, year after year.