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As a rule, people will do whatever they want unless there is a consequence they don’t like.
Kids will throw food at will unless they know they’ll have a time out or won’t be able to join the family for dessert. They’ll do what seems fun unless something makes it not fun.
Frankly, we’re not much different as adults. We’d forget to return library books unless there were fines. We wouldn’t pay our taxes on time unless we knew the IRS would come knocking. We’re highly motivated to shape our world to serve our own convenience, and so there must be consequences when our personal convenience makes things inconvenient for everyone else. After all, while it might be convenient for you to keep a library book on your shelf until you found time to read it, that would mean that no one else could read The Hunger Games until you got around to it. Enter: Consequence.
Clients are just like us. They want things to be convenient for them. And so it comes as no surprise that they often want to reschedule their sessions. If you let them, they’ll change the session several times to suit their whims while you scramble to rearrange your calendar every time. There’s no use in getting mad at them for it – they’re not thinking about you, they’re thinking about them. We all do this. However, you can’t possibly keep a professional calendar if you don’t know when things are actually happening, which means that you can’t have people rescheduling willy-nilly.
Consequences are not spiteful, they are necessary to make things fair to you and to your other clients. Consequences are also not ‘punishments,’ they are merely the natural result of someone’s decision. I’m happy to have clients reschedule as long as they’re aware of the consequences for doing so. Consequences require them to weigh their convenience against mine.
Here are a few ways to use consequences to discourage frequent rescheduling:
1) Don’t reserve their session date until you have their payment and their contract in your hot little hand.
It’s one thing to say “Oh yeah, I think I’m free that day,” but quite another to hand over a check for $200 and commit to a date. If they haven’t paid you yet, they have no reason not to change their minds a hundred times. You will make yourself crazy if you try to accommodate people who haven’t paid you yet, and I suggest you don’t try.
My life became instantly easier when I started saying “Your contract and retainer are required to reserve your date. Let me know when you’re ready to schedule!” If they know they’re not actually on your calendar until they’ve paid you money, they’re going to have to sit down, think it through, and arrange their schedule to create an appointment. They can change their minds all they want until they’ve made an actual decision, and in the meantime they don’t play ping pong with your schedule while they’re figuring it out whether they should move Susie’s piano lesson or cancel Johnny’s trombone lesson. People take things much more seriously when their money is involved.
Requiring a payment to reserve a date also creates a sense of urgency – if they want a specific date, they can’t wait to book you because the consequence is that the date might be gone. Your time is a limited resource – treat it like one. Not holding dates until a payment is made creates a sense of scarcity in the client’s mind – there is only one May 11th, and if they want that date, it’s up to them – not you – to make sure it happens.
2) Have a financial consequence for changing the date.
People will be less compelled to let Jimmy’s soccer practice interfere with your shoot if they’ll lose money because of it. One common way to create a financial consequence is to have clients pay a retainer to reserve the date. This means that they are paying you to keep that date open, turning away any other business so you are available to photograph them. If they want to change the date, they lose the retainer and have to pay a new one. Retainers ensure that you’re compensated if someone decides not to use their prime Saturday evening session time. Retainers should not be outrageous, but they should deter rescheduling and soften the stress when it does happen.
I am not a lawyer, but there are some important things to know about retainers: In the USA, having someone pay you to keep a date open is known as a “true retainer” and is considered ‘earned’ the moment you receive it. That means it is not refundable as long as you hold your end of the bargain and keep that date open for them. However, a true retainer is not – I repeat, NOT the same as a payment for services. A true retainer only ensures your availability, it does not pay for the performance of any services. Your session fee is not a retainer – it is a payment for service. Services can be paid for in advance, but that payment must be refunded if the service is not actually performed. Retainers must be itemized in contracts as retainers, not just lumped in with session fees. (For further reading on the subject, check out this short n’ sweet article from Photo Attorney.)
If you call your session fee a retainer, then in a sense you’re actually doing the shoot for ‘free’ – they’re paying you to keep the date open, not to actually do the photography. As I understand it, if a small claims court decided that it was actually a payment for a service rather than a true retainer, then that amount could be considered refundable. Be careful about your wording.
If you don’t want to use a true retainer separate from your session fee, ask your lawyer about including a ‘liquidated damages’ clause in your contract. If a client decides not to go through with their session, you may incur some damages because you turned away other business or booked travel plans to do their shoot. Liquidated damages are an agreed-upon amount that the client will pay to cover the costs you incurred if they decide to back out of the contract. You could, for example, specify that the session fee amount is what the liquidated damages will be.
Check with your lawyer about all of the above to be sure you comply with your local laws.
3) Have a “convenience consequence” for changing the date.
Although a financial consequence is usually enough to deter repeat reschedulers, there may be rare cases in which that strategy won’t work. Perhaps you’re doing a free session for some reason, so the person doesn’t have a financial incentive not to change the date. (By the way: Free sessions are not recommended overall, but they happen – and you should still use a contract when they do).
In these cases, there still needs to be a consequence that makes it inconvenient for them to reschedule. The details are up to you. Maybe if they originally scheduled you on a weekend date, the rescheduled shoot must take place on a weekday – they can’t reschedule for another weekend. This is fair because weekends tend to fill up first, and you have a higher chance of having to turn another paying client away on a Saturday evening than, say, a Tuesday evening. If a person would have to drastically rearrange their schedule to accommodate a weekday shoot (I know most of my clients would), they’d probably rather stick with the original weekend.
People are also more likely to reschedule if they feel that they have free reign over when the shoot happens. As I’ve written before, treat your schedule like a hairstylist treats theirs. If the client needs to change the date, don’t hand them a blank check and say “okay, when do you want to do it?” Keep control over your schedule. “Okay, you can’t make Tuesday at 7pm? My next available appointments are Thursday at 6pm or Monday at 5pm. Which works for you?” Offer concrete options and clear openings, and don’t be afraid to say no if something doesn’t work for you. If you have to cancel something important to make it to their shoot, you may start to resent doing the shoot – and resentment has no place in dealing with clients!
4) Keep a $200 attitude.
Emergencies happen. Kids get sick. People lose their jobs suddenly. If a client comes to you with a legitimate problem, listen compassionately and treat them the way you would want to be treated in the same situation. There is a difference between a kid with pneumonia and a mom who finds out she can’t get her hair cut like she wanted. Act accordingly.
Whenever a consequence comes up, be sure to be cheerful about it. You’re not their mother, you’re a service provider who they’re paying to do something fun and fabulous. So when they say “Can I reschedule my session?” just sit secure on your signed contract, smile, and say “YES, and by our contract, that would be $___. I am available on date X and Y – which works for you?”
At that point it’s their decision – and if you’ve set good consequences, you’ll either get paid to deal with the inconvenience of change (thank you, retainer/liquidated damages) or stick with the original date (hooray!). It’s up to them!