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The #1 Cause of Angry Emails and Client-Photographer Frustration

We all dread it.  Casually opening our inbox one sunshiny day expecting to find a few blog comments and maybe an Amazon ad, but instead there’s a client email with a storm cloud hanging over it.  They’re hopping mad.  They’re upset that you put their photo in an ad you ran in the local school newspaper.  They need their images now, even though the shoot was yesterday.  They want to know why half of their images are black and white – they hate black and white and never requested it.

Or maybe they’re not mad, but pretty soon you’re steaming – because they want you to re-process everything using selective colorization.  Or do a re-shoot because little Maysie refused to take a lollipop out of her mouth that entire evening.  Or you find out they just posted all their images on Facebook without watermarks.

All of these cringeworthy scenarios (and countless more) can be attributed to two little words:

Mismatched expectations.

Your client expected that you would turn around their images in 48 hours like their last photographer.  Or they expected to get all color images unless they specified otherwise.  Their expectations were not met, so they assumed you did something wrong.  Or on the other hand, you expected that you would provide a set of services and be done, so when these expectations are not met (i.e. they make additional requests, demand reshoots), you assume that they’re greedy or trying to make more work for you.

The client is not a horrible person.  You are not a horrible person.  But when you and your client do not have the same expectations about how things will go, people get mad.  And when people get mad, things get ugly right quick.  Both parties start to assume that the other person is being unreasonable, and when that happens – no one wins.

Do me a favor:

Go look at ten photography websites, and tell me – do they all have the exact same policies?  The same prices?  The same image turnaround time?  The same consultations?  The same process for booking?

I’m betting they’re all different, at least by a few degrees.  Which is why your clients have no clue what to expect with you specifically, which is why mismatched expectations are inevitable without serious prevention tactics.

Most of us have policies scattered about our websites, welcome sheets, blogs, and pricing lists.  But clients aren’t photographers, and they can’t read your mind.  They don’t know that you always deliver some images in black and white.  They don’t know that it takes a few days to edit their images and prep them for viewing.

Most importantly, they don’t read your information all at once and they don’t remember what they read yesterday.  Your information blurs together with whatever their last photographer did, and gets swept under the rug of their own assumptions.

This is why clear, mutually-understood policies should be discussed and explicitly agreed to before any money changes hands.

The only way a client knows what to expect is if you lay it out clearly in a single place, and have the client sign that they read and agreed to it.

What is this magical place?  You guessed it.  The contract.

I’ll say it ’till you’re sick of me saying it:  If a camera is involved, a contract should be involved.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a trade with another photographer, a quickie head shot for a friend, or a client who has been with you in the past.  Collecting a signed contract before every shoot saves relationships and prevents more headaches than anything else you could possibly do.  Your contract is your business’s best friend.

Using a contract does NOT mean that you are stuffy, overly formal, or untrusting.

Using a contract simply says to the client “I care enough about your experience and our relationship to make sure there are no misunderstandings or hurt feelings along the way.”

Yes, there are some important legal matters to take care of.  But a contract should be more than just a model release shrouded in stiff warnings about copyright infringement.  Those things are critical, and a contract should be built for worst case scenarios, but it should help your everyday clients, too.  It’s a golden chance to lay out a clear explanation of how you’re going to work.  It provides a set of assurances that the client knows what rights both of you maintain, and clearly delineates what you are and are not responsible for.  Best of all, it gives you a chance to have an honest conversation and air any potential problems before booking.  If someone’s going to say “no thanks” on account of a policy, it’s better if they do so before any money is at stake.

I have worked without contracts before (out of pure laziness), and have always regretted it.  Not because the person always turned around and jabbed me in the eye with a sharp stick, but because it sets the stage for miscommunication, which is not professional.  A contract is as much a part of the service experience as pretty packaging or consultations.

Here are four suggestions for incorporating a contract into your client cycle more effectively:

1) Start with a thorough contract.

Walk through your entire client’s experience, beginning to end.  Make a list of every aspect – booking, shooting, editing, proofing, delivery, payments – absolutely everything.  What are your policies for each aspect?  Make sure they’re included in the contract.  If you only deliver 30 images per client, say so.  If you charge for extra retouching, say so.  If you have a rescheduling fee, say so.  Leave no stone unturned.  If the contract moves chronologically through the client’s experience, the client will have an easier time following it.

Now think back on prior experiences – has anything gone wrong with prior shoots?  Have there been misunderstandings or frustrations?  Did you just read a nightmarish story on a forum yesterday that you never want to have happen to you?  Articulate to yourself what exactly the situation was, and what you would need to tell your next client to ensure that it would not happen.  Add that to your contract.

Finally, do some research in the industry and see what else should be included.  Most people start with this step, but it’s useful to think through your own client experience first so that you have a clearer idea of what you’re looking for.  Learn about model releases and understand how to explain copyrights and what constitutes copyright infringement.

It’s important that the contract is thorough, but recognize that many people will not read a big monolith of text.  My contract has bold topic headers that act as landmarks for the eyes.  If the client is going to skim, they’ll at least stop on every topic heading, and their eyes will probably be caught by any topics that may be hot button issues for them.

Important note:  Involve a lawyer.  Either hire them to create the contract, or do your own research and have them review what you come up with.  Yes, you can create an entirely homegrown contract, but it’s kind of like trying to eat soup with a fork.  It takes longer, and you’ll probably miss some important stuff.  Peace of mind and staying out of small claims court are more important than that cute album template you have had your eye on; this is an important investment for your business.

2) Introduce the contract to a client as though you are introducing a new mutual friend.

Your contract is your business’s best friend, so treat it like one.  Don’t just send it over and say “I need you to sign this.”  Take some time to introduce what it is and why it’s important.  Cheerfully tell them that you’re giving them a contract that explains how you work so that they know what to expect every step of the way.  Tell them that it contains information about how their images will be created and important terms that they will agree to.  You might use a little gentle humor and say that although you know contracts aren’t their favorite reading material, it’s important enough that they need to set aside a few minutes to read it through and let you know if they have any questions before they sign it.

Some people will ignore you anyway.  We can’t really blame them.  When was the last time you read every word in the “Terms of Service” on a piece of software or an iTunes update?  Yeah, thought so.  Often, we don’t really pay much attention when we generally trust that the person or institution is not trying to steal our firstborns.  However, the fact that someone didn’t pay attention will not prevent them from getting angry and raising a ruckus later when they find out about a part of the contract they didn’t expect to be there – even one that they signed and agreed to.  By taking the time to deliberately talk about it, framing it as something that helps them, and by inviting questions, you’re indicating that you expect them to read what they sign.

Don’t put all that hard work into creating a wonderful, genuinely useful contract only to let it go to waste because the client blew past it.  Highlight it and show how it will help.

3) Refer to the contract in answering client questions.

Down the road and even after the shoot, people often email with questions.  Because my contract clearly lays out policies, it’s a little like a mini FAQ in and of itself.  In answering their questions, I always refer back to the contract.  For example, if they say “can I put the images up on Facebook?”  I’ll give them a plain-English answer (“As we agreed in our contract, you’re welcome to put images on facebook as long as ____ and ___”), and I might even paste the relevant paragraph into my reply for their easy reference.  This is not to shove my policies in their face, but to gently remind them that the contract is not to be signed and forgotten – it is a living document that I work by, and outlines all the policies they need to know.

4) Update the contract.

The contract is not a dead, boring, legal document.  It exists to help you make your clients happy.  If your clients have been made unhappy by something, update your contract to make sure the next client knows what to expect. For example, if your current client got mad that their images were not edited, ordered, printed, and shipped to arrive in time for their family reunion, be sure to update your contract to include a realistic time frame.  Client problems aren’t just a headache for you – they’re a headache for your clients.  Let them know what to expect so that they can hire you for what they need, and there are no ugly surprises along the way.

One final note:

The worst biology professor I ever had held a Nobel Prize in biology.

He was awesome and brilliant, but he knew the stuff too well to put himself into the shoes of someone who was just hearing it for the first time.   Likewise, even when we think we’re being clear with our websites and emails, we’re usually not.  We know too much about what we’re talking about to be able to explain it thoroughly to a novice.  (And sometimes we forget to mention things – usually the one thing that will make the client go berzerk later.)  We can’t simply count on the fact that clients will understand everything and know what to expect.   Get your policies in a written contract, have some non-photographer friends look through it to make sure it’s clear to them, and have a lawyer review it.

Then have each client sign it – every time.  You will be grateful.

Noelle B - I feel like a nerd being first to post again, but you are brilliant, and amazingly generous to be so patient and explain things so freaking well. I used your previous blog post tonight, and am sure I will be utilizing this post within the next 24 hours.

Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

Allyson Ilardi - I’m in the business building stage. Contracts are one that I have been having a hard time putting together in words. Great advice and a good way to start.
If we have a lawyer write the contract we should give them our specifications, right?

Thanks again!!
allyson

Sarah Wamuhiu - I totally agree that a contract is a photographers best friend. I also think it is very important to think through your policies…based on previous experiences and then lay them out clearly in the contract. We have always been a “client friendly” business but we’re starting to move towards a “contract friendly” business.” Money is good but if we can’t agree on the terms…please find a different photographer :) I”ll even give a referral!

Yukon Binoculars - Great piece of advice. Thanks.

Lisa - Great info! :)

Britt Anderson - I am a big believer in contracts, but you know what….I need help with #2! You are so right, I bet they are more inclined to actually READ it if I presented it in a much better and friendlier way. I am one who says…hey, I need you to sign these forms. Thanks for the reminder!
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Lea - Awesome information! Contracts are confusing. Will any attorney do or is there something specific to look for? I want my clients to be able to understand my contract, not have it written out in such thick legal language that they need an interpreter!

Susan - I’ve seen that there are some businesses that offer photographer contract forms with all the wording (that are editable). Do you recommend going that route or starting from scratch?
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Jenika - High five Noelle! Glad to hear it! :-D I love your comments, they make me happy.

Jenika - Thanks Britt! :-) I wrote this post in part because I saw someone say that they thought a contract was “too formal” and I almost choked….I don’t see it that way at all, I think they’re important and helpful to clients at the same time! Glad you enjoyed the post!

Jenika - Thanks Lisa!!

Jenika - :-)

Jenika - I’m firmly in the camp that contracts help clients – so I think you can be client- and contract-friendly at the same time! :-) I know what you mean though, and I’m with you, I have referred clients elsewhere when they had an issue with a policy. Better to have that clarified and taken care of up front!! I think referring them to someone else when you’re not a good fit is also a service, I like that attitude.

Jenika - I didn’t have a lawyer do one from scratch, but if I did I would imagine that I would give him a list of things that it needed to include, yes. And make sure s/he knows that it needs to be user friendly :-)

Jenika - I would look for someone who is a small business lawyer and/or who specializes in business contracts. I wonder if you could ask local photographers and/or PPA for a recommendation. Many towns also have small business associations – you could call them and ask for a recommendation.

Jenika - I can’t speak specifically because I never really looked into it, but before buying a contract I’d want to know exactly who wrote it (a lawyer or just an enterprising photographer?), and I’d still have a lawyer review it to make sure it complied with the laws of my state. Especially if I had edited it in any way. I just think it’s not worth the risk, personally. There’s no secret to contract writing, I’m sure there is standard language that is okay to use, it’s just that I wouldn’t want to leave anything to chance when it comes to the legal stuff. I also think that if I bought a contract, I might read through it and say “oh yeah this looks thorough” but actually miss some stuff that’s relevant to my business, so if you go that route I’d still recommend making a list of things you want to include before you look at the contract language, just so nothing falls through the cracks. So in short, I might buy and edit one to make it specific to my business practices, but I’d probably still have someone review it. Good luck Susan!

Jamie - I love this post, so timely and soo true! I love the idea of going through the contract as a way to help your client! great article, thanks!

Melanie - Along with clarifying expectations, a contract is important if you want to maintain the copyright for your work. When starting my business and researching the issue, I found that my assumption that the photographer owns the rights automatically was woefully wrong. In Canada, if someone hires me to take their portraits it is considered a “commission” and therefore the final photos are the property of the commissioner: the client owns the copyright. That means legally, I can charge for my service but cannot use their pictures for my own use or sell them back to them as they own the copyright. In my contract I have established that the copyright belongs to me so I can use the pictures as I please and sell them back to them in disk form. As a courtesy, I have a model release included so there are no surprises when they see their photos on my website or facebook or published elsewhere.

Jamie - I love this post, so timely and soo true! I love the idea of going through the contract as a way to help your client! great article, thanks!

Jenika - Good to clarify, thanks Melanie. In the USA, any creative expression fixed in a tangible form is automatically copyrighted to a creator, however, if it’s considered a “work for hire” then the person who hired the photographer owns the copyright. Usually the contract would have to specify that it is indeed a work for hire, however, you should never leave anything to chance! Every country and even state has different rules….research is critical, huh!!!

Jenika - Thanks Jamie!!

Rachel - This was incredibly helpful! Thank you!!!

Jenika - My pleasure! :-) Thanks for telling me!

Kelley Bruso - Thank you for writing such a great article about the importance of contracts. This post really opened my eyes to how to fully use my contracts to help my clients have the best experience possible with my studio. Thanks for the inspiration with a subject that doesn’t usually inspire. :)

Noelle B - Oh – well then, I shall carry on!

**ahem**

You rock, and I get disproportionately excited when I see a new post on my newsfeed from you pop up, as compared to a compliment from my spouse.

Noelle B - Also – if there’s a larger university near you, some law or business schools also have programs to help with the nitty-gritty stuff like this. :)

Jan - Communicate, communicate communicate.
A client’s happiness = expectations/reality.
(for you math nuts)

Jenika - LOL you’re welcome! Indeed, contracts aren’t the upbeat-est of topics. Glad you enjoyed the article, thanks for letting me know!

Michelle J.N. - I’ve been stalking your blog for a few months now and I LOVE all your posts. It has been my New Years resolution to have a contract for every session. I’m finding it cumbersome and maybe you could recommend how to better handle a contract.
1) What is the best way to get the contract to the client and back, signed, before the session date? Emailing, printing, signing, scanning and then emailing back seems too much to ask.
2) Is there an App or online service you would recommend that can get the signature of the client?
So far I have been sending clients a generic contract to read that would exactly match the contract terms that would be signed a few minutes before the session started. I’m just concerned that there could be a better way. Any insight or recommendations would be much appreciated!

Jenika - Hey Michelle! Thanks for the kind words. Usually I email the contract to the client (so that they retain an electronic copy) and I either pick it up at a consultation or ask them to mail it to me. Sometimes I mail them stuff beforehand anyway, and if so I send a paper copy of the contract and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. I always make sure they have an email copy. I don’t do online signatures – I haven’t looked into the legalities of it and just haven’t set it up that way. Your way of having them sign it right before sounds fine, although I personally avoid doing contract stuff on the day of the session only because I prefer to keep the “business” part out of the session. I want that to be all fun and relaxation. Hope that helps!

Jamie Swanson - Preach it!
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Andrea - Jan – don’t you mean this?:
A client’s happiness=reality/expectations (ergo, the bigger the reality or the smaller the expectations, the happier)

Jenika – thanks for the practical enlightenment.

Mikaela - Thank you so much for taking the time to write this and also explaining HOW to broach the subject with clients in a friendly yet firm way. I am going to sign up to your site as this is incredibly useful stuff :-)
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EvaImage - Amazing post! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and informed suggestions with those of us who need them the most. I am at the very beginning of my photography career, but I have already faced more than I could handle. Going to reread and edit all of my contracts right away to at least limit the number of potential client-photographer frustrations.

Lots of Love,
-Eva.

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