Breaking the Silence on Difficult Clients ~ Wisconsin Photographer

Oh it's about to get ALL taboo up in here. 

I've had this particular blog post bouncing around in my misshapen noggin for quite some time now. I've always been afraid to cover this particular topic because it is the ultimate taboo, I feel, in service orientated businesses. Especially the WEDDING industry. 

Because ALL of your clients are amazing.

All of your locations are incredible. All of your weddings are EPIC.
Every work day is just THE BEST and you never come up against difficult situations that may make you want to toss your camera at the nearest wall, chuck it all, and become a hermit. 

Bridezillas? Pshaw! That's fictionalized TV fodder. Crabby parents and kids that are absolute nightmares? No....folks...we are ALL the baby whisperer. 
And if you admit to running across a difficult client situation?

Well....you just suck at customer service, apparently, and you best start reevaluating your entire life. 

Because, remember, the customer is ALWAYS right. (More on this myth in a bit)

Let's talk about this. Let's fling open those tightly locked doors and talk HONESTLY about difficult clients. 

Because I'm here to tell you....nearly a decade into this game....that it happens to EVERYONE. Even the perfect photographers....the best florists....the most in-demand planners. Everyone. Because people are people.....and some people be cray. Some service providers are TERRIBLE at customer service. And thus the perfect storm is created. 

1. The Customer is NOT Always Right
Let's just clear up this little bit of bull-dookie-ness right now. I've worked in customer service since I was 14 years old. We have this POUNDED into our heads as burger-flipping underlings and cashiers and waitresses by sometimes-well-meaning business owners and upper management because they don't want any problems.

Just give 'em what they want. Don't argue with the customer. They're always right.

No. Just NOPE. And I realize that by putting this out there I may be pissing off some potential clients, possibly....but hear me out.

Your customer, if you are a wedding/portrait photographer, has probably NEVER hired a wedding photographer before. They probably SELDOM hire a portrait photographer. YOU are the expert in this situation. Your job is to guide them to sound decisions, thoughtfully and gracefully. Your job is to show your expertise and give them great service.

But, if the customer is demanding something completely impossible....if the customer feels they don't have to abide by the contract you agreed to or pay your fees on time or in the amount agreed to....well, then they're not right, are they? They're pretty much the opposite of right.

The idea that the customer is always right does a great disservice to ANYONE trying to forge a strong client/service provider relationship. 

The customer is always the customer....but sometimes they are wrong. 

2. You're Not Always Right Either
If you participate in online vendor boards, you'll find them to be very supportive when you run into trouble. You can vent about issues and hear back that everything you are doing is correct and that people are just nuts.

But, we are human beings and sometimes we screw up. Big time.
Sometimes we promise something and fail to deliver.
Sometimes people can be rightfully unhappy with us.

I remember last year I made an honest mistake and forgot to write down a changed client shoot date on my calendar. I didn't discover my mistake until I got a phone message from the rightfully peeved client wondering where I was. 

I was MORTIFIED.....devastated.....because when you put everything you are into your job, disappointing people comes at a great cost. I ruminated over my mistake for DAYS....and I did everything in my power to make it right.

I knew I was wrong. I knew the client had absolutely every right to be annoyed with me, even though it was an honest mistake I had made. I could have made every excuse in the book but the truth is, I goofed. 

All you can do, really, is realize that you are flawed too....and try to minimize or eliminate screw-ups by being as organzied as possible and not taking on more than you can handle.

3. Red Flags Are A Thing and We Need to Notice Them
When I first started out, I took any and all jobs offered to me. I didn't care what they were or who they were with because I was desperate to get off the ground and have portfolio fodder.

This landed me in some pretty interesting postions (like the inside of a wind turbine, for one).
I knew people pretty well. I was a Sociology major and had studied things like Abnormal Psych and how people are in group situations, etc. So, I know I ran up against some pretty hefty red flags here or there.

My problem was, I ignored them....because I wanted so badly to WORK. As time went on and I got more comfortable in my role, I realized I would be far happier...and so would my client....if I started directing people I didn't jive with to folks who may work out better for them.

So what are some red flags?
A short list may include: 
- Wanting to change your contract in multiple ways
- Being so picky about the way they look that it may be impossible to please them
- Not understanding what is and is not possible timeline-wise
- They cannot clearly convey what they like about your work, what they want, or what they don't want
- That "gut feeling". This is hard to describe, but sometimes you just get a BAD vibe. Go with that vibe. Trust me. 

We all have our own "red flags" that we may add based on past client interaction.
I call these folks "contract changers". If a client was so difficult that it causes you to add items to your contract to avoid the issues cropping up again, yeah....they're "contract changers". 

4. We Love Dirty Laundry (Sing It With Me Now)
Seriously, since the advent of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatever....it seems pretty standard to see service providers lose their marbles and bitch about clients online. 

They do this for a multitude of reasons, I think.
Most importantly, they want their followers to chime in with "You Go! Tell Them! They SUCK!" 
This validates them. It lets them know they are in the right and the customer is a jerkface. No matter WHAT the situation really was. When the dirty laundry is aired online, you're only getting one side of the story. Typically that side is heavily edited. 

But I'm not really sure what the complaining in a public forum does beyond personal validation. I would think the probable injury to your business would trump any personal validation you may get out of the deal.

Some folks are SO popular that they can completely trash a client in a public forum and it really doesn't seem to matter much to their bottom line. Their power in the industry has risen above the need for online couth.

However, most of us are not those people. Plus, it's just low-brow, in my humble opinion. Even if a client is a complete and utter nightmare, have some tact and keep it off your business pages/Twitter/Instagram/Whatever.

5. We Are In the Business of Happiness
This is TOUGH. Especially in photography. We are in the business of capturing stories....the good, the bad, the ugly. We are in the business of making people feel beautiful. Of getting their "best side"....of making them see themselves as amazing human beings, flaws and all sometimes.

But, humans being humans, there are people who are just not going to be able to tackle their crippling insecurities. People who, no matter what, will put it on you that they hate the way they look....because they believe in the magic of Photoshop or angles. They won't understand that you cannot completely alter the way they look....or they find it far too difficult to be faced with the reality of HOW they look.

Part of being a skilled photographer is knowing how to BEST highlight people. It's tough, and it takes a lot of practice. 

I have a big nose. Even after a septoplasty and a rhinoplasty, it's still pretty sizeable (if not so bumpy anymore). I am COMPLETELY aware of the size of my nose, so when I am photographed I have gotten in the habit of simply saying "yup....that's my nose"....and moving on.

But I am not my client, and not everyone can do that. We have to have some grace with our clients but be honest with them as well. It's a fine line and one of the hardest parts of our job.

6. So, How to Handle the Difficult Client? 

 I don't know about you, but when I run into anyone who is not 100% thrilled with something I do, it REALLY gets to me. I am a people pleaser to the CORE. I want to work tirelessly to make folks over-the-moon about what I present to them.

But, sometimes that's just NOT gonna happen. And that's OKAY. That's life and we build valuable skills by dealing with these situations gracefully (and then retreating to a dark corner of our house to scream into a pillow....right?) 

Here's a quick and dirty list of things we can do to attempt to best diffuse a difficult client situation:

1. LISTEN. This is first and foremost.....we need to hear our clients out. Even if deep down we may strongly disagree with their issue. We cannot address an issue if we don't know what it is.
2. REPEAT IT BACK. The client needs to feel heard. So say "I'm sorry to hear that you don't care for the way your hair looks in your images." Doing this will reassure the client that you know their issue and you are taking it seriously.
3. KNOW YOUR POWER. If you can fix the issue quickly and easily, then DO it. If it's a small issue don't build it up to a big problem. Sometimes it's a quick fix. Do the quick fix if you can.
If it's NOT a quick fix or something you cannot control or do anything about, address that with them the best way you can. Offer alternatives if available. Don't just assume people are complaining just to complain or wanting something for nothing.
4. STAY CALM AND POLITE. You are in Customer SERVICE. This is the important part of the title. Service. How can you serve your client if you get instantly defensive? And I KNOW it's easy....trust me. Like I said, feel free to scream into a pillow if need be.....but respectfully address the issues.
5. KNOW WHEN TO FOLD 'EM. If you and your client have gone round and round, know when to say "I'm sorry, there is nothing more I can do to address this situation". If you can, refer them to someone who CAN help them. Some people just REALLY like to argue. Don't get caught up in that if you can help it.
6. IF THEY GO LOW, YOU GO HIGH. Thanks Michelle Obama. :) Seriously, some folks will take to Yelp and smear your name left and right. I've never had it happen to me, thankfully, but I've seen it happen to others. Clients have a right to leave reviews....they do not have a right to slander your name or lie. Resist the urge to write back online or engage in a tit for tat troll-fight. (Remember.....dirty laundry). Instead, if issues have gone public, stay as neutral as you can and as professional as possible. If it all goes to hell, you have legal recourse (the prospect of which scares the heebie jeebies out of me.....man! Can you imagine???) 

The most important thing to keep in mind is that we CHOSE to be in the service industry. We have chosen brides and grooms and families and kids as our clients. These are the people we have chosen to serve with our skillset. 

But, difficult people exist. They come from all walks of life....they live everywhere....and much like vampires or chupacabra or a Kardashian....they can pop up anywhere and when you least expect it.

The best we can do is have grace with ourselves, our clients, and approach everything the way we would want to be treated. Not because it makes us good business owners, but because it makes us good PEOPLE.