Ever had an unhappy client? Maybe they "hate" their engagement photos. Maybe they feel you missed some important shots at the wedding. Perhaps they felt like the lighting for your corporate head shots was unflattering. There's a million ways for a client to be unhappy and if you're in business long enough, you're bound to find out at least a few of them.

Though there are many ways for a client to be unhappy, there's pretty much one tried and true way to resolve whatever the issue is. No matter what happened to set the client off, your response should be the same. Believe it or not, responding to unhappy clients is a one size fits all solution that consists of five steps:

1. Listen
2. Confirm
3. Validate
4. Respond
5. Agreement

Before we go down the list, there's another, preliminary, step - which is to pick up the dang phone. Yes, the client probably emailed you. But you should absolutely not email back. I know it's tempting to respond to their irrational and mistaken email with your reasoned and accurate side of the story. Don't. Email is great for many things however resolving conflict is not one of them. Unfortunately, the opposite generally happens - when communicating via email, positions become hardened and the situation gets worse instead of better.

In fact, if your goal is to piss your client off, get all riled up and just get rid of them, send them that email.

I know it's tough to pick up the phone and risk getting into a battle with the client. I know that if you're like most photographers, you hate confrontation. (Sadly, so many problems that I see are caused by photographers who avoid confrontation to the point that they're backed into a corner and there's no way out but either give in or fight. But that's another story.) I'm not asking you to confront your client. Just pick up the phone and let your sweet voice do the talking.

Listen
Actually, the point of the phone call is actually for you to do as little talking as possible. Your goal in calling is to listen; let your client do all the talking. Ask the client to explain as completely as they can what their issues are. Let them talk through every issue they have without any rebuttal on your part. If you don't understand something, ask questions so you better understand the source of their anger or frustration. Once they get to the end of their listing of complaints, ask if there's anything else that they want to share. Your goal here is to wring every last drop of complaint out of them so by the time they finish, they have nothing left to add.

The goal here however isn't just to let the client get it all out. It's for you to find out exactly what's going on. Far too often, we make assumptions - usually wrong - about what the client is thinking. When the client sends that initial email, they're rarely being completely forthcoming about the problem.

Case in point, I remember a situation on a forum where the photographer got an email from the groom stating that his tech savvy friends didn't think the images were up to professional standards. There was a lot of name calling of the groom and interpreting of what was going on with the friends. Meanwhile, I asked what the bride thought of all of this since I suspected that this whole story was a cover for her unhappiness. When the photographer finally did call to speak with the groom, he answered by saying, "Here, talk to my wife" - since it was she who really did have the issues. All this debate about the groom proved to be completely worthless. Bottom line: Get the story directly from the client's mouth.

Confirm
As the client is talking away, you should be taking notes through it all. Write down the specifics of their complaints so that you can recite their litany of unhappiness back to the client. Once the client stops talking, you'll say, "I just want to make sure that I understand you. You're unhappy for the following reasons (insert reasons here)." Once you've finished, you'll ask, "Did I get all of that right? Did I miss anything?"

Validate
This next part can be tough to get right, but it's important. You've listened patiently as the client has shared their side. You have made no attempt to respond nor rebut any of their claims. Despite the fact that you may disagree completely (even vehemently) with everything he or she has said, you've patiently and cooperatively sat by. Now you're going to let the client know that they're not crazy. You're going to validate their feelings and let them know that you understand how they're feeling.

"Thanks for letting me know about the situation. If I felt that the photos from my wedding made me look bad (or whatever the issue may be), I'd be upset too." You are not admitting that there is actually a problem. You're just saying that you understand why the client feels the way they do. You get it.

How many times have you had a problem with something and when you complain about it, the person on the other side says, "Well, you're the first person to complain about that." (Nikon and Canon do this every time they have any sort of bug. Of course it's usually a bug that's been documented by hundreds of people on the internet.) What you really hear is someone telling you that you're crazy. No one likes to be told that! All it does is piss us off! By listening to the client and letting them know that they make sense, we're letting the client know that they're not crazy and that we want to resolve the problem.

Respond
Once you get through listening, confirming and validating, odds are you're pretty close to resolving the issue. Most importantly, you've completely diffused the client's anger. More than anything else in the world, people want to be heard. How many times have you been frustrated when you've shared a problem with a coworker or significant other and right away they begin to offer solutions to your problem? It's frustrating. Sometimes you just want to vent and share your frustration and just receive some support. By actively listening to the client and letting them know that they've been heard, you're giving them what they really want - which is to receive support and know that you care about their concerns.

Because you've actively listened to the client's concerns, they can now put their boxing gloves down. They're able to listen more calmly and rationally to whatever solutions you may have to their problem. Because you've listened and taken notes, you can now respond to each criticism in turn. Obviously, your response here is going to depend on the situation.

As you respond to their issues, be sure to do so in the context of their complaints. Unless they're necessary to resolve the issue, offer solutions, not excuses or explanations. If a problem can be resolved by spending some money, do it. Having an unhappy client, regardless of who's at fault, is not worth hanging to the often times small amounts of money it might take to make the client happy.

For example, I had a client's mom who placed a print order following an engagement session. After receiving the prints, she called to express her disappointment with the color of the prints and said she wanted her money back. We asked her to bring in the prints so that we could discuss. I had her explain her unhappiness in detail and without interuption. Straight away, I let her know she could have her money back or that we'd reprint the images. Then I explained how the prints were printed to make the groom's reddish skin look good and that if we colored the prints like she wanted, the groom's skin would suffer.

Because I listened to the exact nature of her complaints and took away any opportunity for her to continue to be angry, she was open to my response. In the end, she decided that she'd stick with the prints she'd received and walked out with a relieved smile on her face and renewed confidence in our abilities.

Agreement
The goal here is to reach some sort of resolution to the issues. Hopefully it's a resolution that allows both client and photographer to be happy with the end result. That's not always possible however. Sometimes, the client wants more than you're willing to offer.

I once had a groom who insisted that they should receive the digital files to their engagement shoot at no charge. I listened patiently. Validated their feelings on the matter. But didn't give an inch. This groom was a Wall Street type used to getting his way. Because I listened respectfully, I diffused his anger and we finished the conversation on agreeable terms. Agreement sometimes meaning agreeing to disagree. As long as there's no anger, the relationship can continue -which is especially important if the job has not yet been completed.

Final Thoughts
Just because something has gone wrong in a relationship, doesn't mean that the relationship itself is destroyed. How we respond to an issue is often more important than whatever caused the fuss to begin with. Indeed, when a relationship goes through trials and emerges intact, it's generally the better for it. Great clients are often borne of adversity.

The flip side to this is that there are times when neither mutually agreeable resolution nor even amelioration is possible. Maybe it's a crazy client who's just gone too far. (The old saying "You can't reason with crazy" applies here.) Maybe it's someone who's rude or hostile. Fortunately, these client are few and far between. All too often however, desperate situations could have been resolved (and crazy clients kept sane) had the proper steps of listening, confirming etc been followed to begin with. It's far easier to prevent a mess from happening than it is to clean it up afterward.

All images processed with the Toolkit Brilliant Brush Strokes.

John Mireles