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Short Winter Task: Create Happier Clients

Business is an awful lot like gardening.

(We’ve talked about this before, in fact.)

Few things happen immediately.  And if you want corn in the fall, you have to plant it in the spring.  Right now is the slow season for many of you – you’re not in the middle of the “harvesting” of serving peak season clients.  So now is the time to start planting stuff you want to reap later.

We’re going to start today by planting seeds to create happier clients.

Because NOTHING turns a sunny fall day into a stormy nightmare like an angry client email, right?  Right.

First.  There’s something you should know.  

Imagine you’re sitting down to a gorgeous breakfast.  Granola, yogurt, oatmeal, pancakes are laid out before you.  You relax into your chair and pull out the newspaper.

A waiter comes by and asks what else she can bring you.  You say “milk.”

You start in on the newspaper crossword, and are lost in thought.  You hear the waiter bring something by.  After a few minutes, you reach over to grab the glass, take a sip, and –

start spluttering immediately.

You look down.  It’s orange.  The waiter accidentally brought you orange juice, and you just took a giant swig.

How would it feel to expect milk and get orange juice?  To be ready for smooth, cool and creamy, and then suddenly you taste acidic, flake-ridden sourness?

For most people, it would be gross.  Startling.  Disconcerting.  Even if you normally enjoy orange juice!

Here’s why I bring this up:

Most anger against businesses starts with negative surprise.

We don’t like expecting one thing and getting another out of the blue.  Bad surprises, even when not that severe, spark upset feelings.

If you told a client that album delivery will take three weeks, and it takes six?  Their mouth goes sour.  They get mad.

But but but – what if the client only thinks it’ll take three weeks because that’s how long their last photographer took, and your albums are higher quality and take longer to manufacture?

Yeah, they’re still going to get mad.

The anger is not always about what is happening.  It’s about the negative surprise.  They THOUGHT one thing and GOT another.  For the purposes of preventing anger, that mismatch is all that matters. 

So our task is simple:  We don’t give someone orange juice when they’re expecting milk.

Make sure they know they’re going to get orange juice.  Spend more time than you think is strictly necessary telling them all about the freshly hand-squeezed orange juice and tell them it’ll take 10 minutes from the time they order it.  Then they’ll happily wait and anticipate it.

Here’s your short winter task for preventing negative surprises – planting a few seeds, if you will:

Give your clients an easy-to-read overview, preferably in visual form.

Why?  Most of the time, people don’t look around for instructions, or search that hard for information.  We tend to look at something and make a best guess based on experience.  We have to – it’s faster.

To make our guesses, we rely on what psychologists call a “schema” – a mental map of sorts that tells us how we need to behave.  We have a schema that tells us how to act at a fine restaurant, and another one that tells us what to do when walking into a fast food restaurant.  You don’t have to have gone to a Taco Bell before to know that you don’t sit down at a table and look for a waiter and your linen napkin.  Your “fast food” schema tells you “oh, I go to the counter, look at the menu – probably on the wall behind the registers – and order.”

Here’s the problem:  Your client’s schema for working with you might be wrong.  Slightly, or majorly wrong.

Schemas come from experience.  So maybe the experience that formed their “photography” schema was 1990s portrait studios.  Or maybe they hired a few independent contractors to do graphic design, and think “well how different can a photographer be?”


Even if they’ve worked with professional photographers before, everyone has slightly different procedures.  (Heck, I talk to photographers all the time and it still takes me a few minutes on their site to figure out how each person is doing their thing – and I know exactly what I’m looking for!)  And the variation from person to person is enough to set up surprises that can be nasty depending on what the person wants and needs.

With all this variation and schema mismatch – you’re just setting glasses of orange juice along their path.

So take charge.

Make a simple timeline, perhaps with clean 1-2-3-4 buttons.

Next to each point, have a bolded header, and underneath 2-3 explanatory sentences.


1: Book your date!
Just send in your session fee, and you’ve retained the date.  No one can get it but you – hooray!

2:  Don’t call me – I’ll call you.  When you book you’ll let me know a good time to call.  I’ll give you a ring, and you’ll tell me exactly what you hope to have happen.  We’ll also go over wardrobe ideas, because I don’t want you stressing the night before that someone outgrew their only blue pants.  I’ll give you my secret spots for affordable, fast style.


5:  Wait 4 weeks – and your gorgeous images arrive at your door ready to hang!


Then just plonk your little happy map of expectations everywhere it makes sense:  On an info page, attached to client emails, as the cover sheet for a welcome pack, whatever works.  Try to think of more than one spot.

Will some people ignore this STILL?  Absolutely – BUT:

When people skim, they look for things like numbers and headers.  So if you number it and have bolded headers, they will probably at least absorb that information.  (If you find that people routinely miss something, just pop it in the header.)

You can also number it in reverse order, 5-4-3-2-1, so they feel compelled to keep reading to find out what #1 is.  (This is what U.S. News does when they have “America’s Top 100 Colleges” or whatever – people tend to click to the end!)

Folding in these tricks dramatically increases the likelihood that they’ll absorb the gist of how YOU do things – and it’ll plant seeds in their minds for when a surprise does come up.  They’re more likely to think “oh wait, I think she said something about this….” and it tamps down that initial angry reaction.

To be clear:  You should still have a separate signed contract that outlines everything in greater detail.

Contracts are vital tools.  And if you’ve encouraged them to read the contract and given them at least two chances to ask questions, many people will feel sheepish later knowing at least that they signed something and had explicit chances to ask questions.

Importantly, contracts help you deal with negative surprises by giving you a clear pre-signed agreement to refer to.

Still, many people skip over the finer points, so contracts aren’t the best way to TEACH fresh information.  That’s why your happy little map will help.

(By the way:  If you need help getting a contract set up, you could consider starting with a contract from The Law Tog (I’m an affiliate) and having a local lawyer look things over.  The Law Tog stuff is solid and faster than having a lawyer draft something from scratch; a local lawyer may have additional input based on your specific location’s laws.)

Once you’ve got your map and your contract, you’ve already dodged a hail of potential angry client missives.  Hooray!

Remember, all we’re doing here is planting seeds.

It takes many seeds to make a harvest, so come back next time and we’ll plant a few more, looking forward to a happy busy season ahead!  You’ll be so glad you did.


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  1. Jessica S on January 26, 2017 at 12:21 am

    Absolutely! I recently took this approach when I gave my client their gallery link after their reveal session. No matter how many times I told them AND showed them, they still had questions. When I changed over to short and sweet and numbered, less questions. I’m seeing more countdowns in my future.

    As a side question, how many times does it take the “average” person to hear and see something before they really understand it?

    • Taryn on January 28, 2017 at 9:05 am

      I’ve heard the secret number is 3 🙂

    • Jenika on January 31, 2017 at 6:50 pm

      Interesting question! Unfortunately it’s impossible to answer, because it depends on the complexity of what they’re trying to understand, whether the thing they’re trying to understand is social, numerical, abstract, tangible, complex, etc. Usually the problem you’re up against is not whether they will understand it, but whether they will take the time to figure it out. Extremely few things in the average service business are hard to understand and could be understood on the first try if someone pays attention. The risk is that they’re not paying attention or, possibly, that they did not commit it to memory and so the concept is “stored” with similar ideas and that’s where the confusion arises. So making things quick and concrete the first time is your best bet, followed by explaining the same thing in a couple different ways (verbally when you meet or over the phone, graphically, in words, etc) to cover different learners and remind people. Hope that helps.

  2. Nathan T on January 26, 2017 at 1:44 am

    This makes so much sense! Thanks for this simple and sensible information !

    • Jenika on January 31, 2017 at 6:51 pm

      My pleasure Nathan! 😀 Thanks for your note.

  3. Steph on February 4, 2017 at 5:02 am

    Brilliant! Clearly that age-old saying, “less is more”, stands true! (At least to get that initial connection and glance)
    I used to work at my local newspaper as a graphic designer. Oh my goodness how we VERY OFTEN tried to get the stick-in-the-mud clients that proclaimed, “I’ve ALWAYS done it this way and I want ppl to see EVERYTHING I sell” to realize they don’t have to put EVERYTHING carried in their store on their tiny 1″x2″ advertisement in the paper. People just DONT like to read. So I know what I’m doing on my website this week!
    I’m loving these emails. These particularly are really hitting home.
    Thanks jenika!

  4. Joseph on February 7, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    Lots of great advice. I’ve learned the hard way on a few occasions. And having a contract really does help, but I like the idea of sowing seeds even before signing a contract and in addition to a contract. Thanks! 🙂

    • Jenika on February 8, 2017 at 12:04 am

      Thanks Joseph! I agree – contracts are vital, but nice to have added things that make everything easier. Hope you enjoy your week!

  5. Simon Dewey on February 23, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Such great advice – so much of our work is managing client expectations – and even if you do it in person, information gets lost along the way.

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