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A Neat Trick For Getting Clients To Follow Rules

A Neat Trick For Getting Clients To Follow Rules

My college dining hall was a glorious, all-you-can-eat buffet.  Weekend brunches were a particular highlight, when pancakes and quiche and platters of bacon appeared, alongside a row of Belgian waffle makers and a bottomless supply of batter.  I was particularly fond of the waffle makers because they created a giant Yale “Y” in the middle of your waffle – stamping a little school spirit into your breakfast.

One Saturday, I was in a different dining hall than usual.  I spied a sign above a bank of waffle makers:  “DO NOT PUT CHOCOLATE CHIPS IN THE WAFFLE MAKER.”

Zzzzish – my brain connected the dots in a flash.  There was only one possible explanation for this aberrant, unexpected sign:  Students who ate in this dining hall regularly must have gotten in the widespread habit of snitching chocolate chips from the ice cream bar to bake them into their waffles.  This probably made a mess of the waffle makers, hence the sign.  But I couldn’t help but admire the resourceful geniuses who did it.  I wished I’d thought of it first.

And every Saturday for the rest of the semester, I was tempted to put chocolate chips in my waffles in my own dining hall.

You’ll notice that this sign had the opposite effect of what was intended: 

Instead of discouraging me from adding chocolate chips in my waffles, it planted the idea.  Other people were getting creative with their brunch, why shouldn’t I?

I started pondering other potential add-ins:  What about chocolate sprinkles?  Or strawberries?  Blueberries?  Of course, this would have just sparked an arms race between me and the kitchen staff – me adding stuff to waffles, them lengthening the list of prohibited items.  So I didn’t bother.  But I’m sure someone who came after me did.

You have to be careful about how you present a rule.

Because rules don’t just tell you what’s bad – they tell you what’s bad that a lot of other people have been doing.

And if you recall the principle of social proof, we tend to do what we see other people doing.

If you walk down the street and see a group of people is staring at the sky, you’ll probably stop and stare at the sky, too.

If you’re in the grocery store and you see everyone rushing to the back, you’ll probably start running there too.

If other people are doing it, it’s probably a good thing for you to do.

So if you implement a rule in a way that makes it clear that lots of people have been doing it, social proof can make that rule backfire.

Example:  When the IRS announced it was increasing penalties for tax evasion because so many people were cheating on their tax returns, tax fraud went up the following year.  Instead of being deterred by the penalties, people thought hey – clearly everyone else is doing it, I should jump on that train!

Social scientists noticed this too.  When the Petrified Forest National Park was having problems with people stealing petrified wood, some researchers decided to do a little test.  They put up two kinds of signs:  One set showing silhouettes of several thieves all taking petrified wood (illustrating it as a widespread problem), the other set showing just one lone thief taking wood.

People who passed the signs showing multiple thieves were twice as likely to steal petrified wood.  Because although those signs were saying thievery was bad, they also showed that everyone is doing it.

And if everyone is doing it, people assume it’s a good thing to do.

In sum:  If you present a rule in a way that suggests a lot of people have been doing Thing X, be mindful that you might actually see an increase in people doing Thing X. 

Let’s say you’re a newborn photographer who has been having a problem with some clients waiting until after the baby is born to book, instead of booking while they’re still pregnant.

Posting a frustrated post on Facebook saying “People keep booking me after the baby is born and it’s too short of notice!  Call me as soon as you know you’re pregnant!” might actually worsen the problem, because you’re demonstrating that socially, people normally wait.

Instead, don’t make the annoying behavior seem common (it probably isn’t anyway).  Try showing the norm you want:

Most clients book me as soon as they know they’re pregnant – that way they’re much more likely to secure their preferred session date.”

Now they not only what normally happens, but they also see how that benefits them.  A one-two punch that makes your life easier.  Yes!!

What about our pet peeve violation – posting scanned or un-watermarked images on Facebook? 

Consider the social proof results for posting a policy that says:

“Do NOT post images online without a watermark”


“All clients receive a set of watermarked images that they’re welcome to share on Facebook.  The watermark helps ensure their privacy by discouraging thieves from using the images without their permission.”

Framing desired behavior as the norm will probably go a lot farther in ensuring compliance.

Of course, there will always be rule-breakers.  People will steal petrified wood, cheat on their taxes, add chocolate chips to waffles, and post un-watermarked images.  That’s why in business, you have a signed contract and friendly reminders at the ready.

But since the words you use can worsen or lessen the problem, choose them wisely.


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  1. Stella Reynoso on April 18, 2013 at 12:51 am

    Reminds me of what my favorite PoliSci instructor told us in her class one day: “Don’t think of an elephant!” Because you immediately and undoubtedly think of an elephant. 😉

  2. msn on April 18, 2013 at 1:32 am

    Great insights, as always. Will have to mull this over and consider how to apply the lesson. 🙂

  3. Allison on April 18, 2013 at 1:46 am

    Genius! It also makes you seem way less annoyed and passive aggressive when you tell people what you want instead of what you don’t want.

  4. Caroline Maryan on April 18, 2013 at 10:48 am

    I love this insight! It’s actually making customers see that there’s something in it for them, if they book ahead, and it’s gently leading them to the behavior you want. And the part about watermarks is fantastic. I’ve recently been seeing just the opposite on Facebook-watermarks that actually state a list of rules. You could write an entire book about this! In a similar vein, when I want to complain about service(internet provider, airline, you name it…), I always try to offer the solution that I want as part of the conversation. And I do keep it a conversation. They don’t even know I’m complaining. It works wonders. Thanks for the post!

    • Jenika on April 18, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      Thanks! That’s interesting – watermarks that state rules. I wonder if that’d make someone more likely to crop it out just because it’s so busy, haha. Social psychology is complex and there are always multiple forces at work, I don’t blame people for wanting to be shrill about it. But I’ve had the same experience as you – when I frame it in terms of a conversation, and frame reminders that way (keeping them solution-focused), I haven’t had any problems.

  5. Misha on April 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    This is so smart. And now I’m off to put chocolate in some waffles…

    • Jenika on April 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm

      hahahaha 🙂 awesome!

  6. Natalie Kita on April 18, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Great post! Thank you for sharing, makes a lot of sense!

  7. Jenn Canfield on April 18, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    How smart and cleaver is that? LOVE this idea….

  8. Jesse on April 18, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    I have just stumbled across this site and I have to say your content is amazing! As an amateur photographer learning to use my Rebel T3i, as well as an entrepreneur building startups and consulting in the nonprofit sector, this advices is excellent. I find it is applicable not only with photography clients, but clients and people in general. Well done! Looking forward to diving into your other posts and any future ones to come!

  9. Layne on April 18, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    This makes so much sense! Once again something practical I can put to use. TY!

  10. Dwayne on April 20, 2013 at 7:26 pm

    OMG, its all in the way you “frame” things. Thank you so much for this insight.

  11. Jack on April 22, 2013 at 5:32 am

    Great advice – would you change the actual wording on your contract though, or just use this when posting ‘friendly reminders?’

    • Jenika on April 22, 2013 at 11:18 pm

      Just friendly reminders – contract language is totally separate. But when you’re going over and explaining the contract, you can use this framing strategy if you want. 🙂

  12. Madeline on April 22, 2013 at 10:21 am

    I find a similar thing happens with my son, but for a different reason! If I ask him NOT to do something he’ll often do it, as if he doesn’t hear the word ‘don’t’ and just hears the end of the sentence! So ‘Don’t walk there’ becomes ‘walk there’ to him. I have to remember to tell him what I DO want him to do instead!

  13. Jennifer Stein on April 23, 2013 at 2:42 am

    We put chocolate chips in our waffles, pancakes, muffins, oh yes! Cookies too.

    This is a great post and good reminder. I use the same idea with my kids all the time – telling them what to do instead of what not to do.

    Your example is great because we’d all do that – not only think about putting other, messier things in. Like bananas…

  14. Nathaniel on April 23, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    You can’t argue with a concept that has been used for centuries. Reminds me of the reverse psychology my parents used on me growing up. Now to figure out how best to use it for my business. Great post.

  15. Amanda on April 27, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    I am loving this website! It’s thoughtful and consistent. I find the information her very useful, and I’m not even a photographer. It’s nice how these posts can apply to people involved in any kind of art career. Truly great stuff!

    • Jenika on April 27, 2013 at 11:07 pm

      Thank you Amanda! I’m glad it’s helpful to you, and we love having people outside the photography industry drop in! Come again soon!!

  16. April Maura on August 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

    This is a great tip on rephrasing business announcements as the social norm.

  17. kate on November 4, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Great lesson. Thanks

  18. Andrea on January 6, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Interesting article. I wonder how this can be applied to my photography business. Thinking of the waffle example. Options can be given of ingredients to add to the waffle mix. Rather than excluding the possibility of adding things. Ideas could be gathered from all the different client request received over the years. And turning those into photo options. By the way chocolate chips in the waffle mix sounds like a great idea!

  19. Anthony Rampersad on November 19, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    I totally agree with you on this. The behaviour is almost universal and totally appeals to the latent “herd” nature inside of us. There is a somewhat contradictory type of behaviour I’m curious about. The nature of humans to also want to stand out and be noticed as different from the “herd”. Or does this only apply to SOME persons. Example: you go to a car dealership to purchase a brand new SUV. All the colour options are available and you’re a bit indecisive. The sporty red version (colour is the only differentiator) is a tad bit pricier. The salesman, hoping to sway you in the direction of the red, says “The black is very common on the streets, lots of folks have this colour. not many folks have the red though” (or something to that extent). The customer chooses the red (even at a higher price) because he/she wants to be different and stand out from the crowd.Would these such instances be considered aberrations from the normal expected behaviour or is the desire to be “more unique” rationalized and governed by another behavioural theory altogether?

  20. Brett McNally on February 3, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    Fantastic post, love it. Now I need to think of some reverse psychology ideas to use to promote my wedding photography.

  21. Tabitha Rhea Photography on March 18, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    LOVE it! Thanks for the helpful tips – I already want to go add the Facebook blurb (re watermarked images) on my site. And congrats on the new little one – he’s beautiful!!

  22. Kevin Beer on March 19, 2015 at 12:13 am

    Congrats, beauty baby!

  23. msn on March 19, 2015 at 2:02 am


  24. Michelle on March 19, 2015 at 3:05 am

    Great article, Jenika!!

  25. Kelsey Goodwin on March 19, 2015 at 6:25 am

    Excellent post, thanks for sharing!
    I can tell this is not a tidbit I will soon forget.

  26. Tammy on March 19, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    This is great.. I have already implemented some of your past tips into my business and they work like a bomb. Thank you!

  27. claudia c on March 20, 2015 at 6:18 am

    Really helpful! Thank you and have a wonderful day

  28. Rome Photographer on March 23, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you very much for this tips! I will definitely use it form now on!

  29. msn on March 25, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    Hi Jenika,

    Though it is not photography related, I had to share this with you. I belong to a volunteer-based sailing club that hosts two big regattas every year. Before the event, the regatta chair holds a planning meeting which has been attended by maybe three or four people since I joined the club three years ago. This spring, I was tasked with sending out a club-wide email to announce the meeting and recruit volunteers. I was thinking about your advice when I crafted the email, so rather than simply plead for volunteers, I lead with this: “It’s almost time for our flagship regatta! We had a bunch of rock star volunteers the last several years and we can’t wait to see everyone back for the 2015 Cup….” And I closed with this: “Thank you for your volunteerism. It’s the bedrock of our club.”

    Last night’s planning meeting was attended by over 30 eager members, quite a dramatic increase. No doubt, there were other things that influenced the attendance, but I cannot help but wonder if the tone of the email helped reframe people’s perceptions.

    Either way, thanks for the thought provoking lesson and congratulations again on your latest endeavor, motherhood. You will rock it!!


  30. Jennifer on April 8, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks for sharing!

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