Photographers: Managing clients with unrealistic expectations

In Build A Photography Business Show, Real estate photography - business management by Build A Photography Business

If you're a real estate photographer or architectural photographer ... How do you manage those crazy clients that have totally unrealistic expectations? Maybe it's the client who thinks you can send them the images as soon as you finish their photo shoot ... ... or they expect you to 'just Photoshop it' when there's a giant truck in front of a house.

In this video I'm going to walk you through the 3 areas of your business you'll want to work on so you're thoroughly prepared for anything they might throw at you: setting boundaries, preparing your resources and knowing how to engage with a client.

Here's what I covered in this episode (you can jump to the different sections in the video timeline):
0:00 - Intro
1:08 - What I've been doing lately
1:49 - Intro to managing clients with unrealistic expectations
2:33 - Part 1 - Set boundaries
5:16 - Part 2 - Prepare your resources in advance
10:22 - Part 3 - Define how you will engage with them
17:35 - Q&A

Video transcript:
Managing clients with unrealistic expectations

Let’s talk about clients that have unrealistic expectations of you. So maybe you do a photo shoot in the morning and they expect the photos back two hours later … or maybe you shoot a really rundown home but they expect you to make it look like a 5 star hotel. Whatever it is, we’ve all had those clients that have these weird expectations, so today we’ll look at how you can manage those clients, and there are three parts to this: Part 1 is where you set your boundaries, part 2 is where you prepare your resources in advance and part 3 is where you define how you want to engage with a client that has unrealistic expectations about the work you do.

Part 1: Set boundaries

So to start things off, you really need to define what your boundaries are going to be. If you don’t have these boundaries then you’re going to be willing to do anything and everything for your clients and that’s just asking for trouble.

So what you want to do is define your boundaries around things like:

What are your prices going to be, what’s included in your packages and what do clients need to pay more for?

Okay, so back when I was still shooting I only wanted to work Mondays to Fridays and if a client wanted me to do a photo shoot on the weekend then I would tell them that I can do it, but my rates are doubled for weekend work. That was my boundary and I knew what I was going to charge if a client wanted me to move outside that boundary. And you know what? Every time I told them that weekend photo shoots were more expensive suddenly they were able to do the photo shoot on Monday, so it definitely worked.

Another boundary you’ll want to define is: how late can a client cancel a photo shoot? You need to define the time, maybe it’s 24 hours notice or maybe it’s 2 hours notice, but whatever it is, define that boundary and set a cancellation fee if a client needs to cancel a booking with you.

Another boundary could be, where are you prepared to work for your base rate, and what will your travel surcharge need to be? Get really clear on that, and set a very defined boundary, quite literally around where you will work. If a client asks you to go outside that area then that’s okay, but you need to be able to tell them that it will cost an extra $30 or $95 or whatever it is.

Another boundary could be around how much editing you’ll include for a photo shoot, what costs extra and what will that cost be? For example, if there’s a car parked out the front of the house and the client says, “Hey, can you Photoshop that?” … then what will you charge the client for that? You’ve got to have boundaries around things like that, or else your clients will be asking you to do all sorts of extra editing and it’s just not viable to operate that way.

So what I’d recommend then is to look at each area of your business and set a boundary. Write down, this is what I’m prepared to do and this will cost extra, and this is what that extra fee will be.

Now whether you choose to apply that extra fee in every situation is up to you, and it’s okay to be flexible with that and we’ll look at that further in just a moment, but start by setting your boundaries if that’s something you haven’t done yet.

Part 2: Prepare your resources in advance

So let’s move on to Part 2 and this is where we look at what you can do in advance, and I think it starts with defining your brand.

So if you’re the cheap photographer and if that’s how you’ve positioned your business then your clients may be more likely to come back to you with unrealistic expectations because they think they can do that with cheap services. Whereas if you’re seen as being at that high-end level then your clients will be more likely to respect you and trust you, and because of that respect for you they’ll be less likely to have those unrealistic expectations. So have a good look at the way you present your business and make some changes there if you need to.

The next thing to do is to look at your communication and make sure, at least as much as you can, that you’re clearly communicating what your clients should expect from you. So maybe you ask yourself:

  • How can you minimise the risk that a client was expecting a certain number of photos but they got something different?
  • How can you minimise the risk that a client thought they would receive their photos the same day but in reality they get them after midday the next day, or whatever it is you do? What can you do there?
  • How can you minimise the risk that a client thought they were getting a premium video even though they ordered your budget package? How can you minimize that misunderstanding about your video packages?
  • How can you minimise the risk that a client thought they could pay you when the house sold rather than on the day you deliver the images? Is that something you need to pre-empt?
  • Finally, how can you minimise the risk that a client treats you like dirt every time they hire you?

So what I think you need to do is to look at those and any other issues that might come up for you, and build any relevant communication pieces that you can use with your clients. So look at the emails you send to clients before a photo shoot, and maybe there’s some text that you add to your terms and conditions, it could be the descriptions of all of your photo shoots, whatever it is look at every customer contact point and then, as much as you can, make sure there is no room for misunderstandings.

So maybe you could create a video that outlines what your clients can expect from you for each package you deliver and then maybe you send that video to a client when they book a shoot. Now they may not watch your video but it’s still worth doing because you can refer to that later on should the client come back to you and say, like, ‘Why don’t I have any drone photos?’ Then, in the nicest way possible, you refer them back to the video you sent them last week where you explained what they get in that photo package and how you don’t include drone photos in that particular package.

So perhaps you could create a video where you explain that this is what we'll do as your photographer, this is what you'll do as our client, this is how it will all work, the whole thing. Or maybe you can send the client examples of past photo shoot packages so they can see exactly what they get.

Maybe another thing you can do is on your contact page you define when you’re available to talk on the phone and when clients can expect a response from you. Real estate agents work all sorts of hours and they might expect you to work those hours as well, so by setting these boundaries that might help you with the clients that expect you to take their call at 11pm on a Saturday night.

Now maybe another thing you need to do is to reconsider how quickly you respond to messages from your clients, so maybe what you need to do is to not respond straight away when it’s not business hours – so perhaps you give yourself some breathing room and wait until 8am Monday so that client gets used to the idea that you have certain hours when you’ll respond to them.

Finally, look at your marketing materials and look at how they might impact on the expectations your clients have about you as well. Now maybe in your desire to make yourself sound amazing perhaps you’ve inadvertently promised a bit too much. So look to be really honest with your marketing and perhaps look to under promise on what you can do, but then over deliver and exceed those expectations. That way you’re delighting your customers and not disappointing them.

Part 3: Define how you'll engage with a client

So now let’s look at Part 3 and this is where you’re engaging with a client. So they’ve called you up, and they’re making all of these unreasonable demands. How are you going to respond in that moment?

First of all, the way you respond to them really matters, so you’ll want to try and keep your emotions out of the way. You might be fuming on the inside, but you’ve got to stay calm and concentrate on defusing the situation and just bring the temperature down if things get heated.

So you want to start off by carefully listening to what the client is saying and clarify anything you aren’t sure about. So for example, if the client is complaining that they thought the photos would be better, then clarify what they mean by better. That might mean different things to different people, so gently coax out of them what they mean.

And look, maybe you just need to let them vent and hear them out, and when they finish you can follow-up by reiterating what they’ve said so they know you’ve heard them. And I think this is where showing some compassion for them can really help. They could be going through some really tough times and they are struggling with that, or maybe they’re getting a lot of pressure from the homeowner, so I think it can really help to show some empathy for them and be generous in how you respond. Now maybe they are just being difficult, but we don't know where they're at so try not to yell back at them, but keep things nice and calm and try and show as much compassion as you can.

So once you’ve got a really good understanding of their issue, the next thing to do is to refer to any previous communication you’ve had with them. For example, if they were expecting 40 photos but they ordered your 25 photo package then walk them through that process. So maybe you ask them what photo shoot did they think they were ordering and what price did they pay? Did they see the email that you sent them outlining your photo package?

It may be that they misunderstood what they were getting so as best as you can refer them to your past communication but do it as nicely as possible, and sometimes that’s all you need to do. I mean, maybe they didn’t read your email correctly, so when you walk them through that again then they see how they’ve misunderstood something and everything is good.

If that’s not enough for them then the next stage is to fix whatever you can, and this is where you need to decide if you’ll do it for free OR if you’ll charge the client, and I think this is decided on a case-by-case basis. If there are good reasons to provide them with a free upgrade or to fix the issue for free, then I think you can do it for free but be clear to the client about what you are doing and how you would normally charge extra for this. I think I’d really want to let them know that you’re doing them a favor and that you won’t be able to do this for them next time. But it is an option, if you’re desperate for this client or if there’s some other really strong reason, then you can go ahead and fix it for free. It’s ok to do that.

But on the other side of the coin, if there are no good reasons to fix things for free then let them know what the additional cost will be and the time it will take you to deliver, and then leave it up to them. This is where you give them different options and then it’s their choice to make.

If they’re happy to pay more then you’ll do whatever they need, but you give them that choice. That way you’re setting your boundaries, you’re being consistent with that, but you’re showing the client that there is a way for them to get what they want too, if they are prepared to pay for it.

Now maybe that results in that client walking away because they expected something for free, and that might be hard to take at first but perhaps it’s better for you in the long run. I mean, not every client is a good fit for you and some people aren’t worth working with because of all the extra resources they drain from you, so be prepared to walk away and be OK with that. And again, if you can’t do that, if you’re really struggling and you need every client, then this is where you might just have to grin and bear it. But if at all possible, try and avoid getting into that situation and instead try and find a way forward where both sides win – that is, you get paid for the extra work and the client still gets what they want.

Now the final thing I want to mention is that you might get a client that expects you to read their mind. Like, maybe they don’t tell you that they expected you to do something and then they blame you when you don’t do it.

These are tricky situations, no doubt about it, but what I’d recommend here is that you need to do all that you can to NOT allow them to have that expectation, and if it comes up later on that they did expect you to have psychic powers, make sure you have previously sent them your communication pieces that are absolutely clear on what you can and cannot do with a particular service. You want to do all you can to make sure the problem doesn’t lie with you, and that’s where really clear communication helps. If you communicate well, then you can avoid a lot of these issues. You can’t stop the client expecting you to read their mind, but it does give you a reference point when there are disputes over a particular shoot when it comes to what you’ll deliver or when you’ll deliver the final images.

So get those communication pieces in order, as much as possible make sure there’s no room for confusion, and send them out every single time.


So bringing this all together, we want to minimise the risk of unrealistic expectations and the first thing to do is to define your boundaries and what it will cost a client for you to move outside those boundaries.

The second thing to do is to prepare your business in advance by creating appropriate resources so that you minimise the risk of your clients misunderstanding things.

The third thing to do is to prepare for how you’ll respond when a client comes to you with their unrealistic expectations, and it starts with listening to the client, engage with empathy and provide a solution – it could be paid or free – but do it in a friendly and professional manner.

And if a client is particularly difficult then choose not to work with them again. I mean, there are other clients out there, and if you run your business in a highly professional way, if you’re great with communication and if you treat your clients with respect, your business is going to do well anyway so you don’t need those difficult clients dragging you down.