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Dealing with bad clients

2016 was a funny year for work, mainly because I ignored my gut instinct on several occasions. My instinct for when a job is likely to be troublesome, or possibly even not worth doing is pretty well developed after all this time, and yet sometimes I just override that instinct. Put it down to greed, put it down to having a quiet month, put it down to not wanting to let people down – whatever the reason for doing jobs my gut tells me I shouldn’t, I really should trust it more, as it knows bad clients when it smells them.

When I talk about “Bad Clients”, I’m referring to people who, for whatever reason, make life far more difficult than it needs to be. They either haggle endlessly over costs, make countless revisions to the brief before, during, and after the shoot, withhold or delay payment, and are generally impossible to work with right the way through the process. All of this is to be avoided, even if they eventually end up paying you a fortune.

I’ve never actually taken anyone to court, not even over late payment, but have obviously had my fair share of bad client experiences. Of course, when things have gone wrong, sometimes it’s actually my fault (no, really, I know that’s hard to believe!) There have been times when the client has undoubtedly been in the wrong, and sometimes the whole experience had turned very sour. Having never actually sued anyone, I can’t offer any advice on that front, other than “Stop saying or doing anything until you get a lawyer, quick!”. What I’ve done once the “bad job” in question is done and dusted, is simply resolve never to work with that client again. Better yet, I’ve tried to draw out what went wrong in order to avoid it happening again. From my experience the problems with bad clients seem to stem from 2 main causes – communication, and education. There is some overlap, but let me deal with them in turn.

Storm approaching down the Sound of Mull - Bad Clients
For reasons that should be obvious, I won’t be showing any images from “Bad Client” shoots. Here’s a symbolic storm image instead!

Communication

Clear, concise communication is something of a business cliche, but like most cliches, it exists for a reason. So many potential problems can be ironed out simply through clearly explaining what’s going to happen, what each party is responsible for, when they’ll deliver it, how much they’re paying, along with all the basic nuts and bolts that go with producing a shoot. Hand on heart I can say that the biggest problems I’ve ever had professionally have come about through either bad communication, or a total lack of it.

Perhaps the most important thing to clarify is the client’s expectations – which should be contained within their initial brief. Don’t just take this at face value, but drill right down to specifics. How many shots? How much time do we have? What usage will the images be put to? What style/mood? What location? What subjects/models? And so on, and so forth. A brief of “Some images for a brochure” is just a starting point, and at the earliest opportunity you should draw out as much detail as possible, and at all stages make sure yourself and the client are on the same page. Beyond the concrete details of who, what, where etc, ensure that when the client uses abstract, vague terms like “moody”, or “sporty” that you both understand what they’re referring to. Wherever possible, create mood boards, pinterest boards, or simply get them to attach a load of images to an email with notes like “this sort of lighting”, “model needs to look a bit like this” and the like. One person’s “moody” is someone else’s “dramatic”, and this is one area where I’ve seen shoots come crashing off the rails.

Try and keep your communication organised – I’m a huge fan of email for this, as it leaves a nice paper trail in case of any disputes in future. As the email chain starts to get quite long and complicated, make sure you’re dealing with the right person. Just because you’ve been having a conversation with one party, doesn’t mean that everyone involved is up to speed. By the same token, make sure that you’re always communicating through the same channels. It’s very common to have an agency of some sort between yourself and the final client, and if this is where communication started, then that’s where it should stay. It’s not a good idea to have one conversation going on between yourself and the agency, and a different one with the client. Noses can get seriously put out of joint this way!

Wherever possible, expand on emails with actual documents – estimates, shot lists, call sheets – all of the general paperwork that surrounds a production will help you to keep things organised, and reduce the risk of cock-ups down the line.

Snowstorm - Bad Clients
Another stormy, gloomy image. Not long after this was taken I abandoned my attempt on the summit, as I wasn’t properly equipped.

Education

The need to educate clients about how professional photography works is usually much more common with people who hardly ever commission photography. I’ll be honest and admit that I try and avoid these situations like the plague, but they still crop up from time to time. I would far rather work with someone who is familiar with the whole process of creating a brief, knows what sort of thing is possible with the time and money available, and understands concepts like usage, than someone with big pockets but no clue!

The main problems I tend to encounter are related to what can be done with the time and money available, along with what will be delivered, and then a general ignorance when it comes to the entire concept of intellectual property and usage. Both of these can usually be resolved with some careful education. Try and avoid being patronising, of course, but you may need to reduce things down to very simple examples.

You can’t really expect someone who hardly ever commissions photographers to have an idea of what can be achieved with the time and money available. To them, we’re the experts, and we weave magic with our cameras and lights. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached by a client, clutching an image they love, which I then look at closely, and inform them that it probably had a budget of 5 times what they’re prepared to spend. I’d always advise doing this, by the way – never say yes to something that you know you simply can’t deliver with the time, money, and resources available.

Explain quite clearly what the client can expect from a shoot with the budget and time frame that’s on the table. Don’t over-promise – you’re probably heading for a fall if you do. Be specific as well about exactly what you’ll deliver, and how much work you’re prepared to do after the shoot. Not every client will be able to handle high res files – they might need you to create a whole series of low-res, or web/social ready images, or they might need you to do stacks of retouching. As long as both parties are clear on this going into the shoot, you should be fine, but I’ve had several headaches in recent years with clients who expected much more than I usually deliver on this front. I dealt with this by doing all the work needed, at my cost, and resolving to not leave this side of things open ended in future!

Getting across the concept of usage as it relates to fees can be challenging, and I’ve already covered it a little here, and here. The best online resource is still copyright 4 clients by the AoP, and if that still doesn’t work, try explaining to the client that the same image could be used by a local shop for a flyer with a print run of 2000 copies, and by Coca-Cola for a worldwide advertising campaign. The latter would obviously have a much higher price tag, despite the image being identical.

Hopefully, with decent communication and a bit of education, you should be able to minimise the damage bad clients can do. Bad behaviour on the part of photographers is a topic for another time…….

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