While my hope is that you will never have a bad client relationship, odds are you will at some point in your career as a wedding photographer. After having a recent wedding client relationship go bad, very quickly, I reflected back on how and why things went sour. We’ve all heard stories of “client” nightmares but, at the root of almost ALL of them, the core issue is a misalignment of work, personality or pricing and the client expectations, or some combination of them. After 11 years in business, I thought I “had it right” but as you will see below, something “broke” and ended up with an unhappy client. As most photographers are small businesses, its very easy to want to book “every” client you can but, on the other side of that desire is the very real issue of having an unhappy client which can, and has, cost far more then the money you would of received in forms of stress, lawsuits and clients who try and libel/slander you.
So for the backstory, I had a client who’s Mom insisted on being on the contract when we met. Legally speaking, this means Mom is now your client, even if a request directly conflicts with a request from your couple. At the time, it seemed like an ok request and I even stated to her that the bride & groom were my clients. Fast forward to 2 months before the wedding, the relationship became strained as I was unable to take a specific photo requested at a portrait session (because the time of the shoot had been changed to midday, in full sun, and the location was teeming with people). We had even discussed thus prior to the shoot but it didn’t matter to the client. Fast forward to 3 weeks prior to the wedding, after having been subjected to numerous insults, accusations of contract switching and a complete breakdown of any constructive conversation while trying to work out the concerns, I had to face the difficult decision that the money I was owed was simply not worth the abuse I had already faced and was going to inevitably affect my performance on the wedding day. So, I made the decision to let the client go to simply stop the bleeding.
The reason I am writing this is now that I didn’t shoot the wedding, I can honestly say it was the absolute BEST decision for both my business and me personally. The loss of income stings (especially as I had turned away numerous other inquiries for that date) but the realization that no matter what I did, the client (specifically the clients mom) would not of been happy, makes the decision the right one. Hopefully some of what I learned from this experience will help others find the right clients for their business. There are times when even though you are doing what is best for the client and the photos, the personality clash between you and your clients will simply overshadow any work you produce.
- While many clients may not be paying for their own wedding, make sure and have a contract stipulation notating who the client is, regardless of who is paying.
- Have frank discussions about what the client is expecting and, if possible, get those in writing.
- Listen to your gut. It’s better to turn away a potential client who isn’t a good fit with your business then to try and force a bad relationship.
- Have a contract stipulation that relieves you of responsibility for any particular photograph – given that its both subjective in nature and we are at the mercy of lighting and weather conditions.
- Have a contract stipulation regarding abusive behavior.
- Remember that it’s not over after the wedding, you may be working with the client for up to a year or longer after their big day.
- Use a tiered payment system so that your liquidated damages line up with the chances you won’t rebook the date as you get closer should the relationship go bad.
- Remain professional, no matter what. The temptation to become defensive when attacked is very high but remaining calm should be your #1 priority. While its emotional for your client you are still a business.
- If you decide to end a client relationship early, make sure its done in writing with a very clear roadmap for any future interactions (if there are any).
- If a lawsuit is ever mentioned, immediately refer the client to your lawyer and cease all direct communications.
The wedding photography business is a very interesting dynamic. There are lots of emotions involved and we are selling what is essentially an intangible product. Having a clear set of expectations and documented remedies should something go wrong will go a long way towards keeping your sanity, and your business healthy.