Managing Extra Cost, Special Requests and Difficult Photography Customers

Difficult customers are inevitable. Sniff them out early in the sales process. Make your agreement terms clear and understood. Service the customer well or don’t take on the job.

As a commercial product photographer, I like to offer my customers a satisfaction guarantee.  I cannot do that if I have misaligned my service with the client’s expectations.

The best way to manage a customer fight is to avoid it.  You cannot win a fight with a customer.  This is because before the sales process, your customer had a vision on the project’s net result; it was your job to understand that vision and to deliver on it.  If you can’t, better to walk away or develop the resources to do service the customer.

If you want to keep the customer happy, you need to deliver your service smoothly and competitively.  Anticipate where things can go wrong in your photography service process and pre-emptively mitigate to avoid those problems.

Here are three types of issues that typically arise from most problematic photography projects.

  • Service Creep
    When the customer asks for extra things were not included in the original quote

  • Misalignment of the project scope
    When the customer has a different understanding on what you are committing to deliver

  • Low balling
    When the customer changes the terms of the agreement after the agreement was made.

The Best Defense- A Good Clear Quote and Contract
A good clear contract saves many problems.  Make sure both parties clearly understand the scope of the photography project in written form.  Include terms in the agreement.  Terms help the customer understand the rules of the project.  The terms should be in simple English and I like to review my terms often to make sure they are clear, practical and enforceable.  It is smart to get a legal mind to review your terms.  Tell your customers to read the terms, as it will help avoid problems; especially do this with potentially “high-maintenance” customers.

Include terms regarding the project scope.  For example, if the project mandate drastically changes (such as volume), you should reserve the right to revise the contract.  Allowing yourself the opportunity to revise the quote if the customer changes the project’s direction is a fair and reasonable clause.  For example, if you gave the client a price for1000 product photographs and she shrinks it down to 20, obviously you should renegotiate your pricing.

To simplify the agreement process, I put my terms on my quote.  Should the Client accept my offer, the quote acts as the binding contract.

Get a good idea of what the Client wants.  Spends lots of time asking many questions.  If the Client comes off as very nit-picky, ask more questions to make sure they get what they want.  If the customer is unwilling to be clear, and there is a risk of dissatisfaction, better to walk away.  It can be frustrating and impossible to make a high-maintenance customer happy if they are demanding and elusive with their respective needs.

If the customer is unhappy, and you collected a deposit, it may secure the work you did, but they can still bite back with a bad online review.  Make sure you can give the customer what they want or don’t take their money.
I am quick to tell a potentially difficult customer that I may not be a suitable photographer for them if they come off as hostile, cheap or ambiguous.  I am ok with ambiguous if the Client pays up front and is clearly willing to accepts my creative approach and the final deliverable.

Service Creep
Service creep is when the customer keeps asking for ever more outside the original agreed offer.  Service creep if not managed can erode the profitability of a project.

For example, the customer gives you horrific merchandises to photograph and they expect you to Photoshop out all the imperfection at no extra cost.  I don’t mind offering a little extra work on any given assignment, but if it is excessive, you need to put the brakes on that project.   It is best to advise the client verbally and on your terms that any extra work outside the project scope is subject to additional cost.

Stand your ground, this is important.  A good photography sales cycle should be mutually rewarding to your photography business and your customers.  Indeed, little extras are nice to provide the Client if it helps customer acquisition or retention, but generally, it is not fair to you to work for free.

Lawyers, accountants and other professionals do not work for free, so why should you?  They charge by the hour.  If new significant aspects are added to the agreed project’s scope, I will offer to service the additional work by the hour.

In the interest of transparency, always advise the Client and seek permission before you start to charge the extra expenses.  Better still, get it in writing; people tend to have fussy memory when it comes to extra costs.
Relative to the paragraph above, I like to send a simple email to the customer as an addendum to my quote:

Dear Customer,
Per our conversation, I will be adding a cleaning fee to your project cost.  This is to make your product photographs presentable for publishing.  The rate will be $50 per hour.  I estimate it will take me 3 hours; therefore, the estimated surcharge (more or less) will be $150 plus tax.  I will advise you if more time is required.

If you must advise to the client that the project will cost more money, be brave; this is not always easy to do as the customer may freak out or ask you to include this service in your price.  Be ready for that.  Be ready to respond to that reaction.

Be honest; most extra jobs are more complex than you might think- so price the extra work conservatively.

Be detached; the customer may tell you to abort the job.  That maybe the best option, as the job may not be feasible and or the extra work is not worth doing at no charge.

Sometimes, I need extra things for a special photography job; sometimes I purchase these at my own expense.  I justify that as a cost of doing business.  If the client request is specific, I tell the customer they need to pay for that.  If I have to buy the item on my own time, I charge the shopping cost at my shop rate of $100 (CAD) per hour.  If I can get an assistant to do the work, I may half the rate at $50 per hour.  It is a good idea to get payment for that item from the Client in advance; if you don’t, proceed at your own risk.  They may not pay you.

My contract has this ever-evolving term to cover extra costs:
Projects requiring additional services or expenses not described in this quotation may be subject a surcharge(s). Additional services may include courier costs, parking, props, file delivery, complex staging, product cleaning, major studio cleanup, garbage removal, managing product reflections, significant Photoshop editing, rush fees, graphic design services, stock video, stock graphics, stock music or fonts, steaming, USB keys, etc. Should the Client request or expect additional services exceeding what is described in this document, Jules Design reserves the right, free of any penalty to revise this quote, hold or cancel this project. Additional services are billable at $100 + HST per hour in addition to any other purchased items required for this project.

The end goal of a business is to sustain itself while making a profit.   To do so, price to cover your expense and profit margins.  As a rule, you should not work for free; regrettably many photographers eager to earn business do.  This is not a sustainable business model even if you are learning or trying to carve your space out in a market.

Take the time to figure out what your customers want; if you cannot give them that, be comfortable to walk away.  Angry customers can hurt your business.