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Responding to Clients Who Kindly Ask You To Violate Your Policies

Clients.  We love them.  We’re constantly thinking about how to get more of them. 

But once we do….we find a whole new set of issues cropping up!  Most of the issues aren’t horror-story-esque, but the subtle difficulties are often the hardest to handle.

One reader sent in a question asking what to do in situations when clients kindly asked her to violate her own policies:

“I know that I could just nicely but firmly state the policy, but I feel like there is a deeper reason behind their request and I would like to be able to use it as an opportunity to provide a better customer experience.

The first situation the bride’s mother is an amateur photographer and asked if there was any way that she could purchase the raw files so that she could play on them in Photoshop.

The second situation a couple is insistent that they would like to see the images before our in person ordering session. I want to call and find out what it is that they are really concerned about, but would love your thoughts as well to help make it a productive conversation.

I know that neither client is trying to get something for nothing or take advantage but at the same time there are reasons that I do not wish to comply with their requests. Any thoughts would be appreciated!  You always seem to really get what the deeper issue is and offer great perspectives. Thank you!” 


A:  First, way to have a two hundred dollar attitude!

I’m so glad you see this as a chance to provide better service rather than a pure annoyance.  

Most of the time, clients aren’t actively trying to mess with you or ruin your business.  They’re just trying to make the experience work for what they want.

And that leads us to how to handle the situations:

1) Figure out exactly what the client is trying to do.

Look past the request and find the goal.  As you said, there’s always something deeper.

In the first situation you described, this is simple.  The bride’s mother is learning Photoshop, and she just wants some material to play with.  She probably loved the photos and wants to see how her skills work on “good” images.  Maybe she’s trying to reverse-engineer professional photos to see how much is photography and how much is processing, but I’d take her at her word that she just wants to play around.

In the second situation, the only way to really find out is to call and ask, but we can make a few guesses.  It’s possible that they just can’t wait to see the photos, but if they’re truly insistent then it probably has something to do with money.

They might be afraid that they’re going to feel pressured into buying something they’ll regret later.  No one likes a high-pressure sales situation!  Maybe one spouse wants to invest more in prints than the other one, or they just generally want to make some tricky financial decisions without a third party present.  They don’t want to be rude to you or embarrass themselves in frankly discussing what they’re going to buy during an ordering session.

They might not explain all this to you even if you call them – people aren’t always up front with money concerns.  In handling the situation, it’s important to sensitively keep financial concerns in mind, even if they don’t bring it up.

2) When explaining any policy, always describe how enforcing the policy still benefits the client.

People prioritize meeting their own needs far, far more than they prioritize meeting your business’s needs.  So if you can explain how your policies in terms of how it benefits them and not just your business, they’re going to respond better.

It’s always okay to talk about legal or other studio reasons for a policy, but in explaining it to them, make sure to highlight what they get out of it.

So, the question to ask yourself is not just: “How can I respond to this bride’s mom?” but more specifically: “How can not providing these files still benefit the mom?”

Or “How can not seeing the photos before the ordering session still benefit this couple, even if they have financial concerns?”

If you can truly answer that, you can handle the situation gracefully and provide a great customer experience.

So let’s figure out how not giving the raw files still benefits the mom.

Think back to what it was like to learn Photoshop (ugh, I know).

David Nightingale said in his creativeLIVE post-production workshop that Photoshop really boils down to three concepts:  Changing the color of a pixel, changing the brightness of a pixel, or changing the contrast between pixels.  In the end, that’s what we use all those fancy tools to do.

So learning Photoshop is really about understanding the relationships between color, brightness, and contrast, and how you want to use them in your image, and how each tool can help you carry out your vision.

The problem with using someone else’s file is that you’re only getting the last chapter of that story.  When you create an image, you look at the existing light and make initial decisions about brightness and contrast when you expose the image.  This affects the range of what you have to work with down the road.  Then you get to finish things off, hopefully as simply as possible, in Photoshop.  Because I know the decisions I made in camera, when I open up Lightroom or Photoshop I already know what needs to be done to polish the image and create what I saw in my head.  I can work a lot faster because I see better what needs to be done based on earlier choices.

At the same time, as I work in LR or PS, I see more about how the choices I made beforehand affected the final image.  This gives me insight that helps as I create the next round of images.  The learning continues.

So although there are some basic skills you just need to play around with in Photoshop, that playtime is the perfect chance to understand more about the entire life cycle of the image.  When you were the one who saw the scene, you know how the light was playing out in the scene, and therefore how to make the most of it in Photoshop.

So my response would start out with restating the policy, then focus on why working with someone else’s raw files is less helpful than she might think:

“Great to hear from you!  I’m flattered that your mother is interested, but unfortunately I don’t offer the raw files to clients.  There are several reasons for doing this, including copyright issues and my desire for my work to only be publicly available in its finished form.  However, those reasons aside, I do remember what it was like to learn Photoshop!”  I would go on to explain exactly what I described above – that the best way to learn Photoshop is understanding relationships between scene, exposure, and processing.  Thus, working on her own images will likely help her more than anything else, because she saw the image beginning to end.

I’d probably finish by sending a couple of links to great Photoshop resources that helped me as a gesture of good will.  (This also provides an alternative way to get to her goal of learning Photoshop that doesn’t involve me violating my policies.)

Now, someone might disagree with my assessment and say that working with someone else’s files IS a good way to learn Photoshop.  That’s fine, we all look at education differently.

The point here is, rather, to find an honest way to show the client how your policies are still helpful to her and not the result of pure stubbornness or selfishness on your part.

I’d apply the same principles in calling the couple who wanted to see the images for the in-person ordering session.  I would do it over the phone so they could hear the sincerity and desire to help in my voice.  I’d start by explaining why seeing the images for the first time with me there is helpful:

“The first time you see the images, totally fresh, there are gut reactions to each image that are the very best guide to what you want to order.  There is no substitute for it.  You will probably like all the images, but there will be some that just make your heart sing – and it will be obvious on your face when that happens.  But by the time you get to the end, it’s really easy to forget those initial gut reactions, and you’ll start to feel overwhelmed by the choices before you.

When you’re in the midst of seeing the images, you don’t want to take the time to step back and analytically say “so how am I reacting to this?”  That’s no fun!  But when I get to see those reactions, I can make quick notes for you so that you can focus entirely on experiencing the images.  We’ll then go through and see what products you need, and what images fill those needs best.” 

That truly is why I like being there in person.  I’ve tried telling people to set aside the ones that they love the most on their own, and they always seem to be so swept away in their initial viewing – so eager to get to the next image and the next – that they don’t record those precious first impressions, and they’re lost.  Then they’re stuck in Overwhelmville because all they see at the end is a slew of images that they “love”!

You’re a professional.  You’ve done this before, you know how it works, you’ve tried more than one thing, and this is the best way to get the most out of the experience.

Then I’d clam up and listen to what they have to say.  Ask her specifically what concerns she’s trying to address, and suggest alternative ways of handling those concerns besides seeing the images beforehand.  Does she know about your payment plans?  Does she know that she can add small prints to her order within 24 hours in case she realizes she forgot about Grandma?

If she brings up finances, I’d also remind them that they have the pricing guide and they can already start discussing what they want in terms of products, and what their budget is.  (Hopefully you’ve already had a few discussions with them about it.)  You can advise her to walk through her home and see some places where she might want to have an image, and start thinking about how she’ll use them.  That, more than seeing the images, will help her order what she will enjoy the most.

What it really comes down to is do they trust you.  Do they trust that you are going to provide them with an amazing experience and not try to rip them off and pressure them into buying thousands of dollars of things they don’t want or need?  I wouldn’t put it to them that way, but I would gently tell them that we do things this way because it really is the best way for them to get what they need.  There will be no pressure involved, and you have their needs at the forefront of their mind.  Plus, it’s more fun to sit in your studio and watch a slideshow while eating cake than crouch over their laptop at home, sans cake.

When handling requests like this, remember:  Look past the request to see what they’re trying to do, and then ask yourself how your policy can still help them achieve that goal.  

I’ve yet to run into a situation where this approach didn’t work with enough digging and plenty of thought.  Best of luck!


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  1. Kelli on July 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    I love how you handle these issues. I’ve noticed that every.single.time i bend my policies for someone invariably something goes wrong down the line and I am reminded that I have my policies set to ultimately help my clients, not just me.

  2. Addie on July 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    great post… when you are a photographer, its hard not to take anything personal b/c, at least for me, my photography is an extension of myself… but you have to remember that clients dont see it that way and often separate the two (and can be pretty hardcore sometimes)…. I loved this article as its a reminder to step back, view it from a different angle and then respond… 🙂

  3. Ali Peterson on July 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    Great post! I’ve broken policies for clients before just to be nice, and regret it every time. I love the detailed responses you suggest for these common situations. Now I know exactly what to say if a client asks to violate one of these policies. Thanks!

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