The Blog Library

Profitably Responding To (Annoying?) Client Requests

Profitably Responding To (Annoying?) Client Requests

Earlier today I sat in a tiny conference room to watch a terrifying academic ritual.

A friend of mine was defending her dissertation.

If you’re not familiar with this perfunctory yet dreadful academic rite of passage, a PhD candidate essentially has to give a presentation about their research and conclusions, then endure an hour or more of grueling, nitpicking questioning from a stern committee.

The committee then sends them out of the room and decides whether or not the candidate can actually get the degree they’ve spent a decade or so of their life pursuing.

You know, no big deal. 

Anyway, I arrived quite early and sat near the door of the small room.  My friend asked me to save a seat for an expected latecomer, so I set my bag and coat on the neighboring chair.

But the latecomer never came.

And as others entered, I felt like everyone was looking at me askance for taking up two seats when space was at such a premium.  It felt like I could read their thoughts:

“Why is she putting her stuff on that chair when we’re all elbow-to-elbow?  Doesn’t she know that there aren’t enough seats in here and that’s a prime spot?  Why can’t she just put that stuff under her chair like everyone else?”

I wanted to yell “I swear, it’s for a real person!  The candidate asked me to do this!”

But I didn’t yell.  I just sat there feeling silently guilted, like one of those obnoxious people on a Southwest flight who throws all their junk across two seats to get the row to themselves.

It’s possible this was all just in my head, of course.

Maybe they passed by without a second thought.

But it FELT awful, and frankly, I had a good reason for my suspicions.  Because:


People are, by and large, more likely to make assumptions about a person’s character rather than consider the external situation.

In plain English?  People are faster to assume that you’re a space-hogging hoggy hog than assume “oh, someone must have asked her to save that seat.”

People are faster to assume you have mustard on your shirt because you were sloppy than because you threw down your hot dog to save a kitten from an oncoming bus.

Or that you’re late to a critical meeting with new people because you’re a tardy lazypants, not because you hit terrible traffic and had an unforseeable delay.

Psychologists call this the “fundamental attribution error.”  We tend to quickly assume that when someone does something (especially an unfamiliar someone), it’s because of who they are, not what the circumstances are. 

The fundamental attribution error is a bit understandable.  After all, people’s behavior is all we really have to discern their character from.  And we make most of our evaluations of people without intentionally thinking about it.

It takes more effort to stop, generate circumstantial alternatives, and give someone the benefit of the doubt.

I’m coming around to why this is important for business, but first:  There’s something else that makes the fundamental attribution error even more potent:


When we are deciding something, we don’t always look at all the available information and make a reasoned decision.

Rather, we often simply ask “how do I feel about it?” and let our emotions guide our judgment.  (Psychologists call this “affect as information” – ‘affect’ essentially referring to emotions or feelings.)

Of course, asking “how do I feel about this?” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Feelings can result from experience and information just below the surface, stuff that we can’t always readily describe – but that is still important to consider.

But “affect as information” is also one reason why companies use positive music in commercials – they’re hoping that your resulting upbeat, positive mood will transfer onto your opinion of their company, because you’ll mistake your good mood as being about the product rather than the music.  And it works.

Additionally, if people feel grumpy because they think I am taking an extra seat, that grumpiness only further solidifies their judgment of me.

They aren’t necessarily going to go to great lengths to look for alternative explanations.  They may take their feelings as evidence in making their decision.

Now that you’ve been briefed on the fundamental attribution error (assuming behavior is due to the person’s character and not their situation), and “affect as information” (where your own emotions become a piece of information you judge the world by – for good and for bad)….

….let’s pretend you open your inbox one morning and find the following email from a client:

“Hi, thanks for a great session last night!  I need these images this week.  Can you send them over?”

How do you react? 

And is it the most profitable way to react?


Well, it probably depends.

First, let’s acknowledge that yes, there are real jerks in this world.

People who demand everything for nothing, whine constantly, irritate everyone, and wonder why their images aren’t done 0.28 seconds after they’re snapped.

It is difficult to serve these people, but thankfully, they tend to be in the minority.  When you do have the misfortune of encountering one, there are usually multiple red flags that give you a sense for it before you get to this post-session email.

Sometimes people drop the crazy out of the clear blue sky, yeah, but most people are simply more clueless than crazy.

So let’s proceed under the assumption that this was a client who was pretty normal, but they just sent this semi-annoying email.

You may react with irritation:  “Can you believe the nerve of these people?  Our contract states 4 weeks, and it’s been 24 hours!  So ridiculous and rude!  Sigh.  I guess I need to email back.”

The next time you receive an email like this, consider the fundamental attribution error and affect as information. 

And even if it’s just for show, I suggest you take thirty seconds and generate three alternative scenarios why that email could have been sent other than “they’re ridiculous and rude.”

For example:

1.  Maybe they typed that email with one finger while breastfeeding an infant while trying to tell their four-year-old to stop smearing peanut butter on the window while trying to plan out their Christmas card order, and they didn’t really think through how the email would come across.

2.  Maybe they just got off the phone with their mother-in-law and have some really complicated family situation (that frankly you don’t want to hear the details of), but they desparately do need the images, like, an hour ago.

3.  Maybe they really meant “Can you send them over?” as a question and not a demand – meaning, they’re just a little lost and they want to know if this is possible.  Sometimes people can come off as curt when they’re just confused.

Take a few deep breaths and consider – what might have happened so that they made this request?


When you consider these alternatives, even if they’re made up, you’ll often feel your stomach start to un-knot.

Your fingers unclench the chair arms.

Your blood pressure drops a few points.

Sure, maybe they’re being rude and demanding – but maybe they’re not.

Emails, texts, and even phone calls are completely stripped of all kinds of cues we use for real communication.  Body language, eye gaze, facial expressions, mood, context – all gone.  Thus, the same sentences can be read multiple ways to begin with.

By imagining alternative reasons other than “they’re a jerk” – you’re also combating the fundamental attribution error and being wary of taking your own reaction as fact, and you’re also more able to reply with a level business head.

And even if they are genuinely being rude – keep in mind that you’re dealing with email.  People are known to become disinhibited online – they often say things they don’t really mean, simply because they’re disconnected from the cues and consequences of face to face interaction.

Even when someone writes angrily, I’ve found it productive to mentally dial their words back a few notches.

Because they probably have what I amuse myself by calling Web Headphone Syndrome.

You know how people talk more loudly when they’ve got headphones on, because they can’t hear themselves?  Without the feedback of their own voice they can’t hear how loud they are.

When they’re ‘talking’ to a screen, they can’t see my face.  They’re cut off from the cues that indicate that their message is already getting across, so sometimes they unwittingly ramp up the snark/anger/sarcasm to be sure they’re being heard.  I just picture them looking as silly as someone yelling with headphones on, and it helps me keep a level head when responding.

They probably wouldn’t be like that if they could hear themselves.

But back to those alternative scenarios we generated earlier.  After considering a few of those, and taking some deep breaths, here is how I would respond:


“Hey Client!  Thanks for your note, I loved the session, too!  Yes, it is possible to get the images this week, but we’ll run into rush charges since this week is sooner than our original X week delivery agreement.  We can avoid the rush charges by sticking with the original date, or I can deliver them within X business days for $xxx.  Let me know!  I can’t wait to send them over!”

First, you are telling them “yes” to their request (which they want to hear). 

Then instead of slapping an open palm in front of them and demanding money, you’re saying “but we’ll run into rush charges” (my friend John Harrington gave me that little wording gem, and I find it brilliant).  Not only does it put you on the same team with “we,” it introduces the idea of a rush fee as a non-intimidating eventuality that they already agreed to.

Finally you reframe the original delivery date as “avoiding” rush charges – and people generally like the idea of not losing money.


I mean, you could respond, “Tough luck, chuck – go read your contract.”  But –

At the end of the day, there’s usually little to nothing gained by sending cranky, defensive emails back to clients.

Particularly because we’re vulnerable to the fundamental attribution error, and to using our own emotions as information even when we don’t have all the facts.  We have to balance the fact that some people are frustrating with the fact that we’re psychologically vulnerable to taking the words of a non-photographer client to mean something that they might not have intended.

(And even if they were intended, we have the chance to reply with a kind $200 attitude and good business sense.)

So the next time one of these frustrating requests lands in your inbox,

try generating a few plausible reasons why they might be writing this way, and see if it isn’t easier to respond like the awesome businessperson you are.

Let me know how it goes!


Keep reading:


  1. Annie on December 13, 2013 at 3:17 am

    Excellent post. I’ve been getting better and better at doing this, and I think reading this will certainly reinforce it in me. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Cynthi on December 13, 2013 at 3:38 am

    Most of my communication with clients is through emails and texts, and it can be so difficult to judge a person’s feelings and meaning with just their words. On more than one occasion I have too harshly judged a client, then after meeting them I felt like they were the nicest person in the world! I think some people just have a really hard time communicating through email, so I always try to give them the benefit of the doubt. 🙂

    • Jenika on December 13, 2013 at 4:44 am

      Hi Cynthi – it is so hard to communicate well through email, I’ve had experiences like those you described too. I’m definitely a fan of the benefit of the doubt, especially where the Internet is concerned! Thanks for the note.

  3. katie on December 13, 2013 at 4:13 am

    I completely agree with Cynthi…I’ve had clients that have come across as incredibly high maintenance via email and slightly condescending over the phone, but when I met them, I fell in love instantly. I think we all have to take a step back sometimes and just take a deep breath.

    • Jenika on December 13, 2013 at 4:42 am

      Thanks for the note Katie – I’ve had experiences similar to these, too. It’s good to take a breath and give people a chance!

  4. David Johnston on December 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Very helpful post! I’ve had a few of these myself. A couple times is fine but when it occurs over and over I actually find it best to tell them that I cannot work with them anymore.
    There’s a story I read about Southwest. They had a flyer who would send complaints after every flight… and she flew A LOT. Finally her letters were sent to the president of the company. He wrote her a letter that consisted of three words. “We’ll miss you.” Sometimes when it happens multiple times, you just have to cut them lose.

  5. Eric on December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Your suggested approach makes a lot of sense when considering how much time, expense, and effort is required to get the client in the door the first time. A snarky response from you could cause the client to make a fundamental attribution error of their own about you, resulting in the end of a relationship instead of future business. You can control your own response to snarky and rude. But you cannot control your client’s response to what they first read as snarky and rude — even if all you are doing is referring back to the contract.

    • Jenika on December 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm

      EBeck – That’s a great added perspective; YOU can control how you react but not how the client reacts to your reaction!! Worth considering!! And since you’re the one trying to get them to spend money it’s best if you end the cycle of snark. Thanks for the thoughts!

  6. Jenika on December 13, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Hi David – Thanks for the note! Gracious reply from Southwest, ha. Agreed that sometimes you have to cut people loose – this post was more addressing the kinds of emails photographers routinely get and that cause a lot of anguish when (I believe) the photographers are contributing to their own anguish by misreading or misattributing intention. By no means is this all circumstances, but I see it often enough I thought I’d address it here. Cheers!

  7. Wayfaring Wanderer on December 13, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Loved this post! As a libra, I’m usually considering many different perspectives before coming to a conclusion. Although, sometimes, I do take things personally and I need to remind myself that I’m just assuming what I believe to be true, and that what I think is going on might not be the case at all.

    For instance, getting rejected by a client who told me that I was “too professional” felt like a slap in the face, but once I considered what else they could be facing I changed my tune and attitude.

    Thank you for the reminder to give people the benefit of the doubt! 🙂

  8. Allison on December 14, 2013 at 1:15 am

    This is great for anyone reading any kind of email or communicating via social media… so good! Thanks Jenika!

  9. Andrew on December 16, 2013 at 11:24 am

    I love this advice, especially at this time of year when everyone seems to want everything right before Christmas, even though they’ve had weeks or MONTHS to get things sorted.

    I’ll definitely be rewording my reply emails and can see myself becoming attached to the “rush charges” term 🙂

    BTW – what would you do now when someone asks you to mind a seat and you’re receiving those looks from strangers that you referred to?

  10. Sarah C on December 16, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Have to ask. Did your friend make it through and why did she have you save that seat for nobody? : ) Loved the photos too!!

  11. Stephanie - Gatineau Newborn Photographer on December 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Honestly, though I know all this to be true and think about ti all the time, it really helps to read through it. That’s my New Year’s Resolution right there!

  12. Richard on January 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Fantastic article. The reason that we make decisions by emotion and not with statistics or figures is that all incoming information first has to go through a part of our brain that is only used for survival and instinct. It doesn’t have the capacity to digest complicated pieces of information, such as creating a scenario that may have caused someone to react in a certain way. Once it gets through this part of the brain, it can make its way up to the neocortex which IS capable of thinking like this. Great to see a well written article grounded in strong theory.

  13. Tyler on January 8, 2014 at 3:18 am

    This was awesome. I’m going to have to reconsider whether a certain gatekeeper actually hates me or just doesn’t communicate well via email.

    Do you have any writing tips so we don’t cause people to make these judgements about us? Not just in a photographer-client relationship where we’re the boss, but in a photographer-art director relationship, for example.

    Also, does you have an email subscription to posts here? I’m on your “snail mail” email list but since kicking Facebook to the curb I haven’t found a way to subscribe to your posts on the blog.

    Keep being awesome! 🙂

  14. Michelle on March 10, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Thanks so much! These words help a lot when responding to a client request.

  15. Alex on September 23, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Super article!

Leave a Comment