I’ve Got an Unhappy Client! What to Do?

Ever had an unhappy client? Maybe they “hate” their engagement photos. Maybe they feel you missed some important shots at the wedding. Perhaps they felt like the lighting for your corporate head shots was unflattering. There’s a million ways for a client to be unhappy and if you’re in business long enough, you’re bound to find out at least a few of them.

Though there are many ways for a client to be unhappy, there’s pretty much one tried and true way to resolve whatever the issue is. No matter what happened to set the client off, your response should be the same. Believe it or not, responding to unhappy clients is a one size fits all solution that consists of five steps:

1. Listen
2. Confirm
3. Validate
4. Respond
5. Agreement

Before we go down the list, there’s another, preliminary, step – which is to pick up the dang phone. Yes, the client probably emailed you. But you should absolutely not email back. I know it’s tempting to respond to their irrational and mistaken email with your reasoned and accurate side of the story. Don’t. Email is great for many things however resolving conflict is not one of them. Unfortunately, the opposite generally happens – when communicating via email, positions become hardened and the situation gets worse instead of better.

In fact, if your goal is to piss your client off, get all riled up and just get rid of them, send them that email.

I know it’s tough to pick up the phone and risk getting into a battle with the client. I know that if you’re like most photographers, you hate confrontation. (Sadly, so many problems that I see are caused by photographers who avoid confrontation to the point that they’re backed into a corner and there’s no way out but either give in or fight. But that’s another story.) I’m not asking you to confront your client. Just pick up the phone and let your sweet voice do the talking.

Actually, the point of the phone call is actually for you to do as little talking as possible. Your goal in calling is to listen; let your client do all the talking. Ask the client to explain as completely as they can what their issues are. Let them talk through every issue they have without any rebuttal on your part. If you don’t understand something, ask questions so you better understand the source of their anger or frustration. Once they get to the end of their listing of complaints, ask if there’s anything else that they want to share. Your goal here is to wring every last drop of complaint out of them so by the time they finish, they have nothing left to add.

The goal here however isn’t just to let the client get it all out. It’s for you to find out exactly what’s going on. Far too often, we make assumptions – usually wrong – about what the client is thinking. When the client sends that initial email, they’re rarely being completely forthcoming about the problem.

Case in point, I remember a situation on a forum where the photographer got an email from the groom stating that his tech savvy friends didn’t think the images were up to professional standards. There was a lot of name calling of the groom and interpreting of what was going on with the friends. Meanwhile, I asked what the bride thought of all of this since I suspected that this whole story was a cover for her unhappiness. When the photographer finally did call to speak with the groom, he answered by saying, “Here, talk to my wife” – since it was she who really did have the issues. All this debate about the groom proved to be completely worthless. Bottom line: Get the story directly from the client’s mouth.

As the client is talking away, you should be taking notes through it all. Write down the specifics of their complaints so that you can recite their litany of unhappiness back to the client. Once the client stops talking, you’ll say, “I just want to make sure that I understand you. You’re unhappy for the following reasons (insert reasons here).” Once you’ve finished, you’ll ask, “Did I get all of that right? Did I miss anything?”

This next part can be tough to get right, but it’s important. You’ve listened patiently as the client has shared their side. You have made no attempt to respond nor rebut any of their claims. Despite the fact that you may disagree completely (even vehemently) with everything he or she has said, you’ve patiently and cooperatively sat by. Now you’re going to let the client know that they’re not crazy. You’re going to validate their feelings and let them know that you understand how they’re feeling.

“Thanks for letting me know about the situation. If I felt that the photos from my wedding made me look bad (or whatever the issue may be), I’d be upset too.” You are not admitting that there is actually a problem. You’re just saying that you understand why the client feels the way they do. You get it.

How many times have you had a problem with something and when you complain about it, the person on the other side says, “Well, you’re the first person to complain about that.” (Nikon and Canon do this every time they have any sort of bug. Of course it’s usually a bug that’s been documented by hundreds of people on the internet.) What you really hear is someone telling you that you’re crazy. No one likes to be told that! All it does is piss us off! By listening to the client and letting them know that they make sense, we’re letting the client know that they’re not crazy and that we want to resolve the problem.

Once you get through listening, confirming and validating, odds are you’re pretty close to resolving the issue. Most importantly, you’ve completely diffused the client’s anger. More than anything else in the world, people want to be heard. How many times have you been frustrated when you’ve shared a problem with a coworker or significant other and right away they begin to offer solutions to your problem? It’s frustrating. Sometimes you just want to vent and share your frustration and just receive some support. By actively listening to the client and letting them know that they’ve been heard, you’re giving them what they really want – which is to receive support and know that you care about their concerns.

Because you’ve actively listened to the client’s concerns, they can now put their boxing gloves down. They’re able to listen more calmly and rationally to whatever solutions you may have to their problem. Because you’ve listened and taken notes, you can now respond to each criticism in turn. Obviously, your response here is going to depend on the situation.

As you respond to their issues, be sure to do so in the context of their complaints. Unless they’re necessary to resolve the issue, offer solutions, not excuses or explanations. If a problem can be resolved by spending some money, do it. Having an unhappy client, regardless of who’s at fault, is not worth hanging to the often times small amounts of money it might take to make the client happy.

For example, I had a client’s mom who placed a print order following an engagement session. After receiving the prints, she called to express her disappointment with the color of the prints and said she wanted her money back. We asked her to bring in the prints so that we could discuss. I had her explain her unhappiness in detail and without interuption. Straight away, I let her know she could have her money back or that we’d reprint the images. Then I explained how the prints were printed to make the groom’s reddish skin look good and that if we colored the prints like she wanted, the groom’s skin would suffer.

Because I listened to the exact nature of her complaints and took away any opportunity for her to continue to be angry, she was open to my response. In the end, she decided that she’d stick with the prints she’d received and walked out with a relieved smile on her face and renewed confidence in our abilities.

The goal here is to reach some sort of resolution to the issues. Hopefully it’s a resolution that allows both client and photographer to be happy with the end result. That’s not always possible however. Sometimes, the client wants more than you’re willing to offer.

I once had a groom who insisted that they should receive the digital files to their engagement shoot at no charge. I listened patiently. Validated their feelings on the matter. But didn’t give an inch. This groom was a Wall Street type used to getting his way. Because I listened respectfully, I diffused his anger and we finished the conversation on agreeable terms. Agreement sometimes meaning agreeing to disagree. As long as there’s no anger, the relationship can continue -which is especially important if the job has not yet been completed.

Final Thoughts
Just because something has gone wrong in a relationship, doesn’t mean that the relationship itself is destroyed. How we respond to an issue is often more important than whatever caused the fuss to begin with. Indeed, when a relationship goes through trials and emerges intact, it’s generally the better for it. Great clients are often borne of adversity.

The flip side to this is that there are times when neither mutually agreeable resolution nor even amelioration is possible. Maybe it’s a crazy client who’s just gone too far. (The old saying “You can’t reason with crazy” applies here.) Maybe it’s someone who’s rude or hostile. Fortunately, these client are few and far between. All too often however, desperate situations could have been resolved (and crazy clients kept sane) had the proper steps of listening, confirming etc been followed to begin with. It’s far easier to prevent a mess from happening than it is to clean it up afterward.

All images processed with the Toolkit Brilliant Brush Strokes.

John Mireles

About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
This entry was posted in Knowledge. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to I’ve Got an Unhappy Client! What to Do?

  1. This was a great read! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Jeff Franks says:

    Very well said. I recently had a client that was indeed hostile and irrational over a single missed shot. I now wonder what would have happened if I had not sent my email.

    • johnmireles says:

      Hey Jeff: Sorry that you had problems. Sometimes, you just have to endure the school of hard knocks. The key is to learn from your experience so that you don’t repeat it. Once you’ve actually experienced the effects of working a certain way, you’re more receptive to alternatives. Without the experience, it’s all too easy to just think, “Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna do it my way” – and suffer the consequences. Dealing with a hostile client sucks, but you’ll get ’em next time!


  3. Joe Barnet says:

    Great post John! I especially agree with the part about picking up the phone. I try to “talk” with our clients as much as possible, throughout the process. Especially if there’s a problem, even hearing the tone of their voice is helpful in finding a solution…

  4. Very interesting read and some good, solid advice. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks so much for this! I wish I had this a month ago when I was dealing with a difficult client. Our correspondence was all over email which I later regretted. It’s so scary to talk to an unhappy client on the phone, but I do see how it is so much more likely to end well over the phone and I could probably have saved some headache.

  6. Renee says:

    I recently had a client who seemed to be unhappy with some of the shots that i took of her… after a conversation on the phone with her i realized she was disappointed that she did not get enough sleep the night before and simply wanted a re shoot which she was happy to pay for. After getting sleep and photographing her a second time it went very well. I find that e mail correspondence only goes so far and I agree with your article it is spot on. LIsten, listen, listen then listen some more before you speak.
    Thank you for sharing your articles, always a good reminder.

  7. Julian says:

    Excellent, thanks.

  8. Rachel says:

    Thank you, this is very good advice! I recently had an issue with a client, not a complaint exactly, just a bit of a misunderstanding about how long I would stay. My first reaction was just to send her an email. My husband rightly advised me ‘If there is ever anything in conflict with a client, pick up the phone and talk to them, do not send an email’. I think this is very good advice. So much gets lost in an email!

  9. Pingback: What to Do When a Wedding Client Asks for Money Back | The Photographer's Business Coach

  10. Mary Mae says:

    I am on on the other end of this as being a client and having a issue with our photographer who took our family pictures. We have paid in full, and upon receiving the High Res CD, I noticed that every picture has a VERY white strip down the side of the pictures, most are right through our faces which make the pictures unusable. I have tried reaching out email and VM several times. After 3 weeks , I finally get an email back saying, it’s not her problem, and she isn’t going to spend her time addressing my issues and she will only fix 3 out of 15 photos.

  11. jodie says:

    I am on the other end as well, i had wedding pictures taken, and when we had our meeting with the photographery we asked a number of times while looking at previous work that this photographer has done, that, ” Is this the quality we will get with our pictures?” the photographer said “Yes. ” everytime. We did not sign a contract as such, only paperwork to say how long we have the photographer with us and what products we wanted. I have since received our images on disk (as ordered) and they are not touched up or anything. We had an outside wedding ceremony and my Husband’s face cant even be seen in some pictures due to sun/brightness, my dress had a lot of detail on it and when in the sun you cant even see the details, just a blur of white. So we are not happy that the colour/details/corrections were not what was expected and agreed upon at time of booking. Also some of the shots that the photographer was less than 1.5mtrs away from us the pictures are not clear, but my cousin took pics with a non-professional camera and they have turned out better. This company is a member of AIPP and I am going to send them a copy of the CD we recieved if this photographer does not listen to us this time. We have been down once already and this photographer blamed my lap top screen, and the computer that i am looking at them on for the quality of the pictures we are viewing. I am not sure on how to approach this. I do not want to seem pushy towards this photographer but besides memories in my head – pictures are the only thing to remind us of the best day of our lives. Please help me on how i approach this. Thank you in advance.

  12. morag soszka says:

    I also wish a read that a couple of weeks ago . I do also have a unhappy client . She was a friend of ours and my hasband was bestman, she also asked me pipe for her at no notice so i was juggling afew things on the day . She did,t like her photos and that there was some shots i missed.This was not e-mail though but on facebook inbox, she does not even have a reliable phone contact as she has no house phone only mobile which up here is a hit or a miss.I offer her a refund and her photo when she accepted and i gave her . She claims there are photos missing so i,am redoing her usb.She has now being causing a lot of trouble including slandering my name on a wedding group on facebook in which i,am not a member so can,t even defend myself.

  13. Rachel says:

    Great advice. I too always pick up the hone and call the client. It’s so unexpected these days and it works wonders!

  14. Wow thank you for the helpful information. Really made my life easier.

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