If you get to a sales session and the client hates all their images, then something went wrong – and it probably wasn’t the photography.
If the photography was truly not consistent with your portfolio, then YOU – the artist – would be first to notice. And you’d probably have called them up the minute you saw the images and worked something out. You wouldn’t have even gotten to the sales session.
So, given that the problem is not the photography, the solution will depend on what exactly went wrong. And clients are typically reluctant to admit the actual problem – they’re more likely to blame it on the photos themselves, since you can’t “argue” with aesthetic taste. Let’s dig for the real issue:
1) Was the client familiar with your work when they booked you?
When a potential client hasn’t spent time looking at my portfolio, twenty big red flags go up. My target client always spends a great deal of time investigating the photographer they’re going to hire, and my best clients tend to have followed me for awhile (or at least fell in love with a specific session). So when someone drops out of the sky, it may indicate that they just need “a photographer,” and assume all photographers are the same, and that I’ll produce whatever ideal images they have in their head. Which isn’t true – I deliver images that look like the ones in my portfolio.
Always make sure people look at your portfolio before a session. Make sure they understand that their images will be similar, and this is your style. If it’s not what they’re looking for, you’re happy to refer them to a reputable alternative.
If the problem is that they don’t like your style, then a re-shoot is probably not going to help anything. Your style is your style. You could offer 20-30 mins of additional session time as a professional courtesy to show that you care about them, and to go the extra mile in customer service. (I doubt they’d accept it.)
In this case, I wouldn’t refund their session fee. If they were my client, then they would have been heavily advised about my style and the type of images they would receive, and they would have signed a contract indicating that the session retainer wasn’t refundable. I would have already spent a great deal of time working on this project, so I would retain the fee as compensation for work completed.
2) Did you prepare them for the photo session?
Maybe Mom hates all the images because she realizes that dressing her kids in contrasting patterns of plaid wasn’t such a good idea. Or maybe she got a bad haircut the day before the session, so she’s jockeying for a re-shoot to give her hair time to grow out. Maybe she is now regretting the choice to have “the family eating ice cream” as the session theme, because now little Suzy’s face is a mess in some images.
As the photographer, you’re the expert in this exchange. Your clients aren’t models or stylists. It’s up to you to prepare them. Listen to them talk about themselves, and select a location accordingly. If they’re city people, then a nature shoot probably won’t feel right to them – even if they think it sounds “nice.” If mom is prim and proper, then a session involving kids and food probably isn’t the greatest idea.
Tell clients plainly what kinds of wardrobe does and doesn’t work for pictures. Advise them not to take drastic measures right before the session (i.e. haircuts, haircoloring, spray tans) unless it’s their regular thing and they’re dead certain they know and love what it will look like.
Don’t be afraid to tell them NO. First-time clients of mine often email photos, or I’ll go to their house and look through their closet, or they’ll bring a bag of clothing to the session. I have no problem enthusiastically telling them what I think will look best, or saying “Well that’s cute, but I think this other one would work best for images.”
I love my clients. If they made a really bad styling choice, I might offer a complimentary 20-30 minute mini-shoot (to take place the same week of the sales session – they don’t get to put it off) to give them some additional image choices. However, in the end, their favorite images will usually be chosen because of the emotion in them, not the styling. I will be sure to point this out.
3) Is the client just generally self-conscious about the way he or she looks?
If so, then there probably would have been hints long before the sales session. Self-consciousness often presents itself in the client being overly-particular about something before or during the session. I had a client once who spent a LONG time going back and forth about the time of the session. It turned out that she was worried about the need to wear a jacket, and she didn’t like how her face could be ‘puffy’ in the mornings sometimes. That has nothing to do with the session time – that is self-consciousness.
We had a very gentle conversation about how the images were really about the love she had for her family. I shared that some things seem important to us because we are experts in how we look and know exactly when we are and aren’t at our ‘peak.’ But when others look at the images, all they are going to see is how happy and in love she looks. She felt calmer, and we had a wonderful session.
You can’t make a client fall in love with images when they hate how they look. You could go through and talk about how you see the images, focusing on the emotions and moments. If we were really at an impasse, and I had truly done my job in creating and culling flattering images, then additional shooting time probably wouldn’t help a whole lot. I might consider 20-30 minutes of additional session time here, but if we’re going to do that, we would have to get really specific about what the client didn’t like about how they looked in the images. And a sales session might not be the best time to do that – especially if the person’s spouse or family are around. I would need to know the exact areas of concern so that I could shoot some additional images that addressed them.
4) Is the client in sticker shock?
My money would be on this one as the REAL problem. Sticker shock masquerading as “I hate all my images” is most likely to happen when a client hasn’t spent their time researching you, and/or you haven’t prepared them by sending a price list before the session.
However, even if they knew what it would cost and you did your job preparing them, sometimes things change. Someone lost a job. A kid broke their arm yesterday. The basement flooded and they’re having to install a sump pump. Whatever. Life is fickle, and money problems are embarrassing to admit. But something will probably feel “off” about their objections, and gentle follow-up will usually uncover the real issue.
Additional session time is not going to help them in this situation, and again, I would not refund the session retainer / session fee. They benefited from your time, the work has been done. At this point, I would focus on meeting their needs. Can we set up a payment plan with delayed delivery? How would they feel about a smaller album? Have they considered wall prints instead of canvas wraps? I would try to compassionately meet their needs in the least expensive way possible, and be very creative and positive in making sure they still got something they wanted.
Be very careful about words like “re-shoot” and “refund.”
The word “re-shoot” implies to me that there was something wrong with the shoot the first time, and there probably wasn’t. “Re-shoot” lays blame at the photographer’s doorstep, when it was probably a joint problem at best. I would call it “additional session time” to be clear that you’re going above and beyond to try to meet their needs.
And “refund” also implies that you did something wrong in providing service. If you did (e.g. you were a half an hour late, you had the stomach flu and really couldn’t do your job, one of your memory cards was corrupted and you lost half their images), then own up to it.
But if you truly did your job and you prepared them, then you weren’t at fault. No matter what the client’s opinion is, you still had to spend time prepping, communicating, scouting, packing, checking, driving, shooting, culling, editing, etc. That was time away from your family, and money in gas. If you did nothing wrong, you should still be compensated for time spent, and this should be built into the contract. You’re providing service, not a product – they can’t just “try you on” without substantial cost to you, and they should understand that before they book you. It’s critical that you’re a good fit for each other. This isn’t volunteer work. You deserve to be paid for your time.
And Shannon my dear?
Since you’re asking this question and the situation hasn’t actually happened yet – you’re probably worrying too much. I’ve never had this situation happen. It’s unlikely to happen, especially if you do your job managing expectations. Make sure you shoot consistently, then stand behind your work. If the worst case scenario does happen, handle the situation gracefully, generously, compassionately, and keep a two-hundred dollar attitude at all times. Make sure it’s fair to both of you. Good luck with your business!
P.S. Attention all personnel: Tomorrow (Friday June 8th) is the LAST day to grab Sales Without Shame at launch price.
If you’re jumping on the Sales Without Shame Train, be sure to use this link and forward me your receipt for an invite to an exclusive Q&A with me + Kristen.