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Saying No To Clients Who Aren’t A Good Fit

There was a time when I woke up every day dreading what I had to do that day. 

This was not just a run-of-the mill “aww, I’d rather stay in bed and read my favorite book” laziness, this was pit-in-my-stomach, please-ma-don’t-make-me, “holy cow how did I get myself into this” wrong-fittedness.

So I walked away.  Toward photography.

And I promised myself, if I was going to pursue this crazy self-employment thing, I HAD to make it my dream job.  I had to do exactly what I wanted to be doing – otherwise I might as well work for someone else.  At least then I’d have a predictable income and someone else to handle the taxes.

But then a funny thing happened.  Within photography, I started feeling pressure to do things that weren’t part of my dream.  Like photograph weddings.  Or newborns wearing cute knit hats.  I so admired the photographers who did those things, and the success they were having, I thought it meant I must need to do that too.

But enjoying a certain kind of image doesn’t always mean you need to dedicate yourself to creating those images.  We need to photograph what fills our souls, not someone else’s.

And yet – it’s terrifying to turn down a client.  The client who wants you to photograph their wedding.  Or their newborn in a cute knit hat.  Yes, you *can* do those things.  You can go and create the exposures and maybe even nail the shots.

But is that why you arrived at photography’s doorstep?  To nail shots? 

Or to feed a passion?

There’s nothing wrong with shooting to pay the bills.  Nothing.  Wrong.  But if you’re feeling pressure to shoot something that is not who you are, or what you are, may I offer a few reasons why telling a client “I don’t believe my services are the best fit for your needs” may actually be your best bet.

Shooting things you don’t love can hurt your business (and your heart) because:

1) It fills your portfolio with stuff you don’t want to shoot, producing images that attract more people who want stuff you don’t want to shoot.

2) It fills your schedule with stuff that doesn’t fill your soul, taking time away from the things that do.

3) A lack of passion can make you drag your feet, which affects client experience, which affects client satisfaction, which affects your reputation and business.

4) The images can suffer.  Sometimes when a photographer posts a photo, you know that the shot made their fingers tingle when they took it.  You know it without even knowing the photographer.  You can feel it.  That doesn’t happen if they didn’t love what was in front of their lens.

One of my mentoring clients recently did something gutsy as heck.  She recognized that she was getting many requests for photos that were absolutely not her style, that were not her passion.  So she posted a link to another local photographer’s work and said “If this is the kind of work that you are looking for, check out this talented artist.”  I was blown away.

Crazy from a marketing perspective?  Maybe.  But what businessperson do you trust more in the end – the person who says “Oh sure I can do anything you want”?  Or the person who knows when they can serve you best, and when to send you to another qualified professional when your request is outside their expertise and passion?

Last summer I was shopping for a specialty item, and I called a store. 

They said they didn’t have the item in stock, but they insisted they were sure that “no one else in town is going to have that either,” and so they tried to sell me on a lower-tier piece they had.

I hung up the phone.  Called three other stores.  One of them had the item I wanted in stock.

Now, if the first store had said “We don’t have it, but you know what – let me make a call and see if I can locate one for you!”  I would have been impressed.  Even if I had to go to another store to buy the item, I would have felt loyal to the store who took the time and care to meet my need rather than meet their sales quota.  I would have trusted the person who knew when they could serve me, and when they needed to send me to someone else, because they would have been putting ME above their desire to close a sale.

Instead, they went for the sale – any sale, whether it was what I needed or not. 

In trying to score a single sale, they lost a customer for a lifetime.

They lost my trust.  How’s that for marketing?

Now here’s the tricky part:  If you refer a client to someone else, make sure that it is out of genuine desire to serve the client, not your own self-doubt about your abilities.  If you’re a portrait photographer, but want to shoot weddings, don’t just duck your head and keep passing on the wedding inquiries – go out there and second shoot until your hands fall off.  LEARN what you want to shoot, and then shoot it.  Become competent at what you love, and when you are, step up and take the inquiries.  There are too many photographers sitting in others’ shadows.  Become so good that the right clients will come to you for doing what you do best.

It may take some time to figure out what you love, that’s okay.  You don’t have to have it all figured out.  And even if you do, it’s okay if that changes.

But if you’ve found what you love?  Own it.  And if a client comes to you and wants something that you’d rather not photograph, have the courage to say, in the right moment, “From what I’ve heard you say, I don’t think my style/services are the best fit for this project.  I want to make sure you’re over-the-moon excited about the results; have you considered {insert recommendation here}?”

 No one ever loses when you shoot what you love, and when you put your clients’ needs first.

Anastasia - A great, great post. Thank you for going into much depth on this issue, I think many of us can relate to it but it is not talked about often enough. The lack of passion translates to your work immediately from the moment you pick up that job you don’t feel too excited about. I absolutely love reading your insights. xxx

Philip Rawson - Thanks for the insightful post Jenika! I’ve had to turn down a few ‘tog jobs and followed a very similar “referral” process. Why burn bridges, right?

Jen - My goodness, you know just what to say. Thank you.

Allison - You make me smile, and more determined than ever. Happy Tuesday!
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Jenika - Thanks Anastasia! :-) I know, people sometimes talk about these things but I wish it came up more often. It’s sometimes scary to post about them just because it feels like I’m mentioning an elephant in the room – so I’m glad it resonated with you and others. :-)

Jenika - Exactly. People respect you more, not less, when you refer someone out. I really believe that because I’ve both seen and experienced it!!

Jenika - :-) Thanks Jen.

Jenika - Thanks Allison! Happy Tuesday to you too!!

Leanne Miller - I recently found your blog and just want to say thanks so much for all the wonderful and truthful posts! I’m a fan :)

Jenika - Thank you Leanne! I appreciate your kind comment. So glad to hear you’re enjoying it – thanks for telling me!

Me - I have a client who has approached me..and Ive heard horror storys about her and her family. She received a free shoot because of her daughters illness and she wants another from me.I honestly do not want to shoot her family..what do I say to her?

Jenika - Another free shoot, or she wants to hire you?

Cindy Collins - Last summer a very close friend of mine asked me to do a head-shot for her website. I was her MOH in her wedding. I had known her for about a decade. Though I had never desired to do head-shots, I agreed since she was a very close friend of mine. I had just started PBing. A few days after coming to her house to do her head-shots, she asked if her images were ready. We had never discussed when they would be ready. I told her I had sessions ahead of hers I had to edit first. She was upset and thought they would be ready ASAP, that I should put her session ahead of others. That she needed by Monday for a news paper article. This was Saturday. This was the first time I had heard any mention about using them for a newspaper article.

She asked me just to send her the unedited images and she will edit them. I told her no way, I dont give anyone unedited images nor let anyone edit my images. She was upset I wasn’t jumping, after all she was doing me “a favor” to help build my portfolio. Really? I never ever once said I wanted to do head-shots for anyone. I was doing her a favor as a friend. I wouldn’t even post them on my site or FB page.

Anyway it got a bit ugly. A few days later I sent her a few images, she got knit-picky and requested something else about the images. I simply didn’t respond. I was done with her and her entitlement attitude.

We have spoken maybe twice since. Now I’m not blaming doing a session you dont want to do on the demise of our friendship, it had been strained for sometime and we are COMPLETELY different. It however was the straw that broke the camels back unfortunately. It was bound to happen at some point I’m sure.

Don’t do a session if you don’t want to, even for close friends. I learned the hard way.

Jenika - Wow. Tough situations.

Another thing to mention on this topic – always use a contract, even for friends. :-) Expectation management is, interestingly, even more important with friends than with clients.

Kathleen Clipper - Wow! Today…I needed to hear this. Thanks for blasting it on the stereo and given me no choice but to listen and think.

Jenika - Thanks Kathleen – and I’m glad to hear it. Wishing you a successful 2012 doing nothing but what you love!!

denise karis - I LOVE this post. Its actually an ongoing conversation I’ve had with a friend of mine for like, years! She says to never betray your style while I believe in expanding your boundaries and learning new techniques always. I loved reading this – thank you so much!

Gregor Menzies - This is a great article, and important from a business and personal viewpoint. I’ve been through this often. I have a style but it’s easy to do something just for the money and in the end it is unsatisfying. What your client did is a great attitude to have but it doesn’t happen often, though I’ve done the same and had work passed to me in a similar fashion.

Gregor

Jenika - :-) Thanks Denise.

Jenika - Thanks Gregor! I’m happy to hear that you had a great experience mutually referring to other people. It’s scary to do! But it can be the most healthy leap of faith you’ll take in your business….even if no one refers people back to you, I think that it shows maturity and will guarantee the clients you DO take a better experience.

ashlee - OOh , this was so up my alley – guess what two things I have no desire to shoot ? Weddings and Newborns – guess what I keep getting asked to do ? :) Although very grateful for the clients even taking the thought to consider me and trust me with their moments, I want to make sure that they are getting the perfect session ! Thanks – and I love the part where you said to be so good that the right client comes to you :) Love this blog!! Cant get enough!

ashlee - Yikes – I dont think our freinds around us truely know what goes into not only a photoshoot , but the after – I once sat down a curious friend who was interested in learning how to edit , and showing her what goes with everything – the sorting , the actual editing , (which I learned to shoot in RAW for much time saving :) – I sometimes think that a photoshoot consists of you and your camera, whatever source of lighting , a few props and then within a matter of hours, the finished product – If only they knew the prep time alone , how your wheels are constantly turning up until the day of the shoot , then the after -:0)-

Amy - Thanks for this great post. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is one topic it never hurts to be reminded about ;)

Sheri - I am just an advanced hobbist.Photography right now is my escape from a job that I used to love.The job has totally changed from what it was but I am going to stick it out as it has some great perks.Could be on eyear could be 10..But my friends see my photography which I post on FB on occasion and assume I want to go pro. Maybe when this job is over .( it is a 24/7 deal)They DO NOT have any idea of the time not to mentio money this hobby can take!! The best remark I got so far was an email from the Pres of a horse breed association I am a member of that said “We didn’t have a photographer for XX show as apparently we are a cheap bunch and it isn’t profitable for the pro photographers.hint, hint” Gee..so do they love me or hate me :-)
I have seen the set ups these pros have at the horse shows..extra help, computers, printers a shooter in the ring, one doing ‘win photos’ with a backdrop, computer tethered so the client can ok the pic right there..not to mention travel, hotel , food..They all spend that to go show their horses,so they should know those expenses..These people see 75% of the work and they STILL do not get it..I also just got asked to shot senior pics for a friend’s daughter because “last year the other daughter cost me an arm and a leg” I have never posted one single posed portrait ..I did a ‘portrait’ session with my 3 cousins when they were around 5-10 yrs old..the oldest is now 35..Reading this blog has helped me see that if the time comes for me to want to take the next step, I had better be sure about what I want and don’t want!!

Liz - I just recently came across this most inspiring page and you have hit a nerve that has been just nagging away at me…first a little history..I am currently the photographer @ a small “mom & pop” owned business in our town..was placed in this position after 2 photogs left (I was doing a little shadowing/2nd shooting/learning)then was kindof tossed into the position and had to continue learning on my own however I could. Recently the town has EXPLODED with mom-tographers/natural light photographers and a couple of particular persons opening “businesses”. I cannot tell you enough how many people that come through our doors say “can you do this for cheaper?” or “why does it cost so much? so & so will do them and give me a cd for $25 and no sitting fee.” As I am not the owner/manager I simply tell them that that is our price and we have a business to run…but all in all the first paragraph of your blog “This was not just a run-of-the mill “aww, I’d rather stay in bed and read my favorite book” laziness, this was pit-in-my-stomach, please-ma-don’t-make-me, “holy cow how did I get myself into this” wrong-fittedness.”
has hit a nerve with what I DON’T want to do anymore….the business is struggling with getting clients and being their photographer I believe I have helped keep the doors open these last 8-10 yrs. I cannot get any new equipment (current equip is over 20 yrs old…backdrops and lighting) owner takes $ out of the register weekly and then tells us we need to make more money by doing more, so on and so forth. My great desire to quit has me HATING photography now and NOT wanting to be there at all when it WAS A GREAT PASSION that I wanted to pursue. I had put in a resignation but then rescinded it due to guilt of putting them/others that work there out of business but with an exception of not doing weddings anymore, but I am at my wits end. I really feel the need to further my education on photography but cannot get there in this current position. What would you do in my place? I do know what I would love to do but it’s not in the cards at the moment…would you stay or would you go if you couldn’t change anything and it was driving you crazy?
Thank you for this wonderful post that has made me think deeper about what I DO want to do and what I DON’T want to do.

Jenika - I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to spend time struggling, it should be in service of something you love. And guilt often exists in our own heads without true grounding in reality. Do you know that resigning would put them out of business – and would that truly be a bad thing? If there’s a team, one person leaving should NEVER make things fold. If that is the case, then the team was unhealthy to begin with, and it’s not your obligation to nurse an unhealthy business. I’m one of those die hard committed types, but I have slowly learned to walk away when my gifts are not being used in a way that brings joy. Creativity and joy feed each other. If you were blessed enough to be given a life with choices, you have an obligation to create goodness in the world that feeds you and others. That’s why I walked away from my miserable situation, and it was the best choice I ever made.

Amy - I received a request by referral for a family session “just like the Kardashian family Christmas card”. I quickly decided that this was not my client. :)

Jenika - HAHAHAHA!!! Thanks for sharing :-)

Debi - Excellent article! I agree saying no is tough – especially when you are first starting out. It’s tough to overcome the need to pay the bill with the need to be true to your passion.

Heather - Awesome article! I am slowly working my way toward my passion and it pleases me to know that I should and can turn down clients that don’t feed that passion
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