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When Gift Certificates Go Sour…

Q:  I had a client who contacted me saying she wanted to purchase photos of her infant niece as a gift to her sister (the niece’s mom). I explained to her what would be involved, how much it would cost, and that the DVD of images could be purchased later for X amount. The shoot went great, and everyone loved the resulting photos. I posted everything to my proofing site, and sent my client and her sister an invitation. Time ticked by, the proofing site expired, and no one bought anything.

I then received an email from the baby’s mother asking if she was going to get her DVD of images. I deducted that there must have been a miscommunication between the sisters about what would be included. I had a really hard time responding to this email. I wanted to sound professional, apologetic for the confusion, but stand strong about my prices and products without hurting feelings. What should I have said to smooth over the situation?

-Miss K.

A:  Yowch!  So sorry that happened.  I’m about ready to start calling gift certificates “miscommunication certificates” because I hear so many stories like this one!

Handling the situation:

I would call the client on the phone rather than emailing so that there is no chance of her misreading the words.  The first thing to do is clarify what happened WITHOUT laying blame on the sister – it will only provoke a defensive reaction.  Second, explain what benefits your clients receive from you offering the session and products separately.  When you frame something as a benefit that helps them rather than a policy that restrains them, you’ll get a better reaction.  The third thing I would do is take responsibility for the miscommunication, because ultimately you are the one responsible for communicating your policies and making sure they’re understood – that’s not your client’s job.  (Bonus: A client can’t get mad at you when you are taking the blame anyway.)  Finally, offer some middle ground to make up for it.

If it were me, the conversation might go something like this:

“I just got your email, and I’m so sorry, it seems there has been a miscommunication!  Let me just explain briefly how this normally works – the session gift certificate covers the actual session, and all images are purchased separately from the session.  The reason for this is that some people want prints, some want a DVD of digital images, and some want both.  I don’t bundle image products in with the session because I want people to choose exactly what products they want once they see their images.  This method allows for flexibility so everyone gets precisely what they want, and no one is ‘forced’ into buying anything in particular along with their session.

Your sister purchased a gift certificate for the session only, leaving you free to order whatever products you wanted – and that’s why I sent the gallery over for your review.  I’m so sorry that this was not communicated clearly!  I take responsibility for it – even though I had a conversation with your sister, I should have double checked with you to make sure that you were aware of how things worked.  That’s my fault, and I am SO sorry about that!”

Then stop and listen to what she has to say.  At some point thereafter, by way of making amends, I would add:

I would like to offer you a $___ (conciliatory amount) credit toward the product of your choice.”

By offering to give her something, she won’t feel like you’re trying to “hold her images hostage.”  It doesn’t have to be much – perhaps enough to get a couple of gift prints.  You’re not giving away the shoot, you’re showing that you acted in good faith and want to make sure she’s happy with her experience.

Why taking responsibility for miscommunication isn’t “caving in”:

Clients should never be responsible for communicating policies to other clients – that responsibility lies with you alone.  Asking clients to relay information to someone else just makes for a nasty game of telephone in which information will get distorted as it goes down the chain.

In gift certificate situations, you really have two clients:  The one buying and the one receiving the certificate.  Both should clearly understand what they are getting out of the deal – and you are the information checkpoint for both.  You should make sure the buyer clearly understands what they are purchasing for their friend, but it doesn’t stop there.  Verbally explain to the gift recipient exactly what they have been given, and have them sign a contract that goes over all your usual policies.

People who buy gift certificates just want to give pretty gifts – don’t make them the bearer of policies as well. 

This aunt was probably bubbly and excited about getting her sister a beautiful gift, and there’s no way she was going to sit down and go over all the fine print with her.  (An awkward conversation to have at a baby shower, don’t you think?;)“Hey sis, here’s a photo session, now you get to buy your own prints.  By the way, it costs a few hundred dollars….”). No one wants to give a gift with strings attached, so it’s unsurprising that she wasn’t explicit about everything.

In the future, I’d bundle the session with at least one product.  Give the aunt a break and let her be able to say “Here’s a photo session with my favorite photographer, and you’ll get to pick your favorite image from the session and get a 16×24 of it!”  It makes it easier to understand what they’re getting, and easier to explain that they’re welcome to order more if they choose.  The process of narrowing it down to decide which image to use for their one product will usually inspire them to order more, anyway.

Any client interaction is a chance to start the spread of word of mouth – for better or for worse. 

People are more likely to spread negative word of mouth than positive word of mouth, so it’s critical that you don’t sacrifice the client relationship for the sake of “standing your ground.”  Even if you get her to purchase the DVD, you risk losing thousands of dollars from her potential friends who she’ll call and complain to.  Negative word of mouth does serious damage, and takes a long time to recover from – even if you were “right” all along.  It’s crucial that the person comes away feeling that they have been dealt with generously and professionally – and you can do this without giving away the farm.

Final note:

Alicia Caine offered a rather compelling case for not offering gift certificates at all in this post.  I tend to agree that gift certificates are more trouble than they are worth, simply because the person you photograph didn’t actually hire you, so you haven’t had the same chance to build a relationship with them.  They didn’t take the time to research you before booking, so they don’t know what to expect in terms of pricing or other policies (such as turnaround time, editing style, number of images, etc).  They’ve also gotten something for free, which changes their price anchors and expectations for how things will go.

Because of this, gift certificates virtually set you up for mismatched expectations and miscommunication.  Thus, it’s doubly, triply, quadruply important that you spend extra time communicating directly with the gift certificate recipient without relying on any third parties.  (‘quadruply’?….I guess you know I’m serious when I start making up words to emphasize the point.)

If you decide you want to offer gift certificates in the future, proceed with caution and over-communicate with all involved.  Good luck!


April - Wow – This site is full of such good info. I just updated my gift certificate page to be more clear to clients. I offered a print with the gift certificate and will make it clear on the printed certificates what is included (and not included), as well. Thank you again!

Maria - I had a situation where I donate a Maternity session and the winner asked me if she can change it to newborn session, because she does not look good pregnant . What should I answer?

Jenika - Thanks April! Good call, always good to err on the side of being overly-informative. :-D Glad you enjoyed the article!! Thanks for your comment.

Jenika - Well, it’s totally up to you and what your gut reaction is. If there was a reason you donated a maternity session (i.e. so you could upsell them to a newborn session, so you could get extra experience with maternity, because maternity is your thing and you love it the most), then you can explain that it’s just for that purpose. Personally, I’d say something like “All images become even more meaningful and valuable with time – particularly when they are taken at special moments, such as awaiting the arrival of a child. I personally would love to have a photo of my own mother while she was pregnant with me – what a sweet period of time, and what excitement and love she must have had in her eyes – all things that I will never get to see! I believe pregnancy is unbelievably special, and although all of my maternity clients tend to express self-consciousness, I know how to make you feel beautiful in the session, and how to use my camera to highlight it. That is why I became a photographer. I believe that you will love your experience, and be glad to have the photos in the end. And they are sure to be priceless treasures to your son/daughter.”
I think women are gorgeous pregnant. The things that tend to bother them are not things that people usually notice – they only see it because they are living with it. I wouldn’t let her let this special time slip by undocumented – especially if it’s a free session!!!

Rayleigh Leavitt - This story is a little bit similar to my current dilemma. I offered a daily deal on Livingsocial.com and the deal covered the session fee and professional hair and makeup. But it didn’t include the photos. Livingsocial worded the ad for me and I guess they figured that since they didn’t say that photos would be included, that people would know they weren’t. But about half the people who purchased my deal thought that photos would be included and were surprised and upset that photos were not included. I typically offer a disc of all the images for $500. But for those people I offered them a disc of half the images for $250. Most of them were okay with that offer. Also, prints can be purchased individually starting at $25 which isn’t horribly expensive. But a couple of the customers were still upset. One of them cancelled her shoot all together and is forfeiting the money she paid because she doesn’t want to pay any additional money. Overall, Livingsocial was a good move for me and I have gotten a lot more customers than I would normally get, including referrals. But it was also a bit messy and frustrating for those who assumed incorrectly. ***sigh***

Kim Larsen - Couldn’t a lot of confusion be avoided by simply selling gift certificates for specific dollar amounts, rather than for a “session”? Rather than giving a gc for a session, and having to explain that everything else is separate, if you just sold a gc for the dollar amount of the session (or more if the buyer wishes to invest more), then the recipient would understand that they are only getting $X worth of your time (and products if the amount is more than the session fee), and anything beyond that needs to be purchased.

Jenika - That’s definitely one option – Alicia mentioned it in that post I linked to. If you go that route, you have to be absolutely certain that you comply with state laws. I think some people avoid selling for dollar amounts simply because it looks nicer to say it’s a certificate for a specific thing (I’d rather give someone a certificate for “an hour long massage” than “$100 toward the purchase of anything at Happy Spa”, for example). But you’re absolutely right that it’d clear up confusion to do it that way.

Carrie - Always so many great articles on your blog! Thank you!

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