In a previous Business Coach article, I wrote about how to respond when an unhappy client first approaches you. Usually, if done right, the problem will be taken care of. But sometimes, for whatever reason, the client can't be mollified and they start demanding money back. Often it's because you missed some important shots or perhaps the client is just unsatisfied with the overall quality of work. Whatever the case, this client is out for blood. What the heck do you do now?
The first decision that you need to make is whether you feel that the complaints are justified. Did you miss the shot of the bride walking down the aisle with her father? Is the work you performed up to professional standards? Is the work you delivered on par with the work you show on your website and portfolio samples? If you did screw up, the question really of "how much" is a legitimate one. While you may prefer to offer a trade or product credit, sometimes you do need to pony up the cash. Sorry Charlie.
Also, keep in mind that a battle royal with a tenacious nut-job client is usually not worth it. If you're gonna give in to their demands, do it early and just get it over with. Yes, it sucks to give in to a demanding, unreasonable client but sometimes it's not worth the fight.
But, if you feel that you adequately performed your job and there's enough money at stake, it's okay to stand your ground. Often times, the situation isn't as simple as the client would have it. The bride may feel that you missed a bunch of shots, but the reality may have been that the wedding was running late and that you didn't receive any cooperation from the wedding party so there was no time to get those shots. Why should you agree to a refund for something that wasn't your fault?
Once your best efforts to diffuse the situation have failed, then it's time to dig in and prepare for battle. If you don't agree to pay for a refund, you may well be headed to court so everything we're going to do from here on out is done with that in mind.
The Pen is Mightier than the Conversation
The first thing you'll do is put everything in writing. Written documents are admissible in court so by putting your version of events down on paper, you go a long way to building a strong case for yourself. You'll want to list out all of the client's complaints. Then you'll want to respond to them with your version of what happened and why.
Here's the thing about letters: If you make an assertion or statement of fact that the client does not dispute, then that lack of response can be used as proof that the statement is in fact true. For example, if the client writes you a letter stating that you showed up two hours late and you don't correct that in writing, it can be assumed by the court that the reason you didn't dispute that statement is because it was actually true. The idea is that any reasonable person would dispute a materially false statement made about them. Got it?
One more thing that writing a letter listing all of the client's complaints does is help you defend against them piling on more later. If you get to court and the client starts complaining about all kinds of craziness, you can pull out your written correspondence and use that as evidence to the fact that these are just new things that you had no idea about - and that the client is just making up.
Just the Facts Ma'am
So knowing that, you're going to write a letter that favorably views your version of the facts. Keep the tone civil and objective. Don't make judgments nor insults. Stick to the facts. The more coolheaded you remain, the more believable your version of events.
Your letter to the bride may go like this:
In our conversation of XX date, you stated that you were unhappy because I did not capture any posed photos of you with the maid of honor. In response, I would like to remind you that I suggested such a photo however the maid of honor was unfortunately too drunk to stand at that particular moment.
You also expressed your disappointment in the fact that we failed to take table shots of all the guests. While it is true that we did not take table shots, it is not our customary practice to take such photos. As you'll recall from our website and sample albums, our work is documentary in nature and nowhere do we show nor indicate that we offer table shot services. You hired us for our ability to capture spontaneous and candid moments of your guests having fun.
If we did take table shots, we would not been able to create work of the like and kind for which you hired us. We'd thus be open to complaints by you that we failed to provide the type of work that you saw in my portfolio. Having said that, we would have taken table shots if we were asked, however no such request was made by you nor anyone else.
One of the keys in responding to a client making unreasonable demands is that the work you delivered was of "like kind and quality" to the work that the client saw when they decided to hire you. If you specialized in formal posed portraits of the wedding party and that's all you show on your website, it's not reasonable for them to then come after you for compensation over the fact that you didn't shoot a lot of candid images. Likewise, if you specialize in photojournalism, it's not reasonable for them to expect a posed image of the bride and groom with Aunt Touloola.
(Having said that, the longer you work in this business, the more you know it makes good sense to get the basic posed shots of bride with mom, bride with maid of honor etc because it's just not worth the battle afterward. The bride may have loved your photojournalistic approach when she was looking at someone else's wedding, but when it comes to her wedding images, she wants that photo of bride and mom smiling at the camera.)
Chapter and Verse
I really hate quoting contract language to a client. The contract is really the line of last defense in my book. Most client issues are customer service issues - not contractual ones. I often find that most photographers want to jump to the contract whenever a client complains. Resist the temptation. While it's important to have a solid contract, ideally you should never have to use it.
But if your back's to the wall, then it's time to use it. If the client is accusing you of missing images, here's where you quote the line about not guaranteeing any specific image. Just try to do it in as friendly and civil a way as possible because quoting the contract usually has the same effect as waiving a flag at an angry bull.
Let me add that there's a difference between not wanting to quote from your contract and not having one or having one written by photographers pretending to be lawyers. The fact that I have a solid contract gives me the confidence I need to stand firm with the client. If you're working without a contract, you're basically at their mercy. Just pay up and learn from your mistake. (For less than 50 bucks, you can have my lawyer reviewed contract protecting your backside. Don't wait until you need it!)
Responding to Legal Threats
Once the client begins to seriously threaten to take you to court or sic their lawyer on you, then it's time to get off the phone or stop responding in detail. A simple, "If that's how you feel, then I'll just wait for the lawsuit" and a goodbye is all you need to do. Once you've stated your case, you don't need to keep going into detail.
If a client continues to send you emails after you've cut off communications, respond politely and refer them to your previous communications. A simple, "Thank you for your email. Please refer to my previous email of XXX date for my response to your claims" is all you need to cover your butt. Don't let emails or letters go unresponded to however since that may demonstrate that you were not cooperative. If the client makes assertions that are untrue but to which you don't respond, those assertions can be used against you in court.
If the client is rude and threatening, you don't have to take that. Just tell them that their language is not acceptable and that you'll be hanging up. Follow up in writing with a letter or email confirming their rude behavior and let them know that any further communication must take place via email or snail mail.
I've seen photographers recommend to other photographers in trouble that they have a lawyer respond to the unhappy client. Given that lawyers charge $300 per hour or more, it doesn't make sense to pay a lawyer hundreds of dollars to resolve a dispute that can be settled for hundreds of dollars.
Whether or not you choose to hire a lawyer to defend you, it's always good to write that letter that I talked about. You can run it by your counsel, but you should do the work yourself because you know the facts and it's a lot cheaper than paying your attorney to write it from scratch.
If you're a PPA member, you're entitled to receive help from a lawyer working with their Indemnification Trust program. Basically, the Trust is an insurance policy for photographers that pays for the defense and costs to settle a case. You'll want to call them once you realize that you've got a problem that can't be resolved through customer service. If you're not a PPA member, this program alone is worth the costs of membership.
If you do make an offer to settle the dispute, be sure to state that it's being made in the "spirit of compromise." Basically, if you say that you're offering this settlement to make the client go away and that it's not an admission of fault, your attempt to settle the case can't be used against you in court.
Don't say this: I'm really sorry that we missed those shots of you and your mother. Will you accept $1,000 to settle this case?
Do say this: I'm sorry that you're unhappy with the work that we performed. Although I feel that our work met professional standards as well as the standard of work that you saw in my portfolio at the time that you hired my studio, I'm willing, in the spirit of compromise, to offer $1,000 in resolution of this matter.
Before paying up, be sure to get something in writing that fully releases you from all claims past, present or future pertaining to the wedding. (This is where bringing in the PPA attorney can be helpful.) I'd be very leery of paying out money and then having to provide an album. Make sure that once any money is paid out by you, you're able to wash your hands completely of the client.
Do not just send out a check with the expectation that if the client cashes it, the case is settled. The client can bank the money and then still come after you - unless there's a clear agreement settling the dispute. Writing some bogus release on the check isn't going to help you either. I'd also avoid providing partial payment for something that's not in dispute while holding off on paying for something that you're still fighting over.
For example, let's say you agree to refund the cost of the album that the client doesn't want but you're still fighting over a refund for a portion of the wedding coverage that the client was unhappy with. Don't refund the album cost until you've got an agreement for the whole dispute. All refunding part of the money does is encourage the client to keep fighting you. It's either all or none.
Finally, once things get serious and there's big dollars at stake, bring in the lawyer. Ultimately, I'm a photographer, not an attorney so as much as my advice might be helpful, it's no substitute for qualified legal advice. Before you get to that point, work hard to keep the client happy so that the lawyers don't become necessary. Problems are much easier to avoid than to resolve.