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Dealing with An Unhappy Customer

Published: 28/02/2020
By: Brandon

A few days ago, I had a little bit of a run-in with a client of mine about the timing of when I delivered her photos. As a reference, I’ve made it a practice to deliver my photos same day. I have a very efficient process with my team of editors and I’ve been able to deliver on this promise for many years. It’s actually one of the things that distinguishes my photography business in my marketplace. Anyway, it just so happened that for one of my more difficult clients, my editor missed the deadline. She was very upset because she’d always known me to meet this deadline promise, so she promised her clients that their listing would be up later that same day and of course, it was not. I apologized and told her that I would send her an email that she could pass along to the homeowners, so that they could see that it was me who missed the mark and not her. This seemed to address the situation, as my client just wanted to save face with her clients.

At some point, we’re all bound to have a run-in with a customer or two regarding a situation where we inadvertently botch things up which ends up affecting them negatively. All we can do is try our best to make it right. President John F. Kennedy once said, “A mistake is an error uncorrected.” So, I did some research on best practices for addressing client concerns that I’d like to share:

  1. Own it. Once the error is made, it’s almost never a good idea to hope that it will take care of itself or go away altogether. It’s better to get in front of it and take some ownership for the error.
  2. No excuses. Closely linked to the first item is the idea that, as bad as our mistake is, it usually makes it worse if we come across like we’re not owning it. If anything, not making excuses will probably make us look better in the client’s eyes because we’re showing accountability.
  3. Act on it. Yes, taking ownership is important but you still have to make it right. So, make it right. Ask your client some questions about the issue and what their preferences would be for resolution.
  4. Prevention. Once you’ve made it right, do a thoughtful review on why the issue happened in the first place and try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Having it happen again can be sold as a coincidence but after that, it becomes a pattern and your competence will come into question.
  5. Go boldly (with optimism!). Yes, having a major screw up can make us question ourselves--that’s normal. Once you’ve made it right though, you can’t afford to let it get into your head. Put it into perspective and move forward with a positive attitude, always expecting the best to happen.

Hope this helps. I’d love to hear your own stories about how you’ve corrected issues with your own clients.

14 comments on “Dealing with An Unhappy Customer”

  1. One day? Yikes. I go with the "under-promise, over-deliver" model and guarantee a 48 hour/by end of 2nd business day arrangement and typically deliver the next day. If that has to change for some reason, I'll be upfront with the customer when they book that delivery will be delayed.

    I decided to go with a promise of 48 hour turnaround both so I can look better by beating the deadline and to leave some buffer in case life gets in the way. In all things I like to get customers trained to only expect a certain level of service for a given dollar amount. I'm not intentionally doing sub-standard work on any job, but if I grossly overdeliver, customers come to expect that and consider it as standard service. I do go an extra mile from time to time, but I make sure that the customer knows I've included more than the standard number of photos or spent more time on the job/post production than normal. A tiny bit of that is to leave something in the tank for times when it's appropriate to charge more for premium service. I'd love to spend all day on some jobs, but from a business standpoint, it's not viable. Those jobs where I'm giving away a little is also something I can use to point to what can be done with more time/budget.

    Promising a tight deadline when you are also relying on other people in the chain to deliver to you means more places things can go wrong. If it's your name on the door, the buck stops with you no matter what. You also need to have backups or be able to muck in and lose a little sleep if you have to.

    I agree that if something isn't right, plead insanity right away and do what you can to make it better. if you have to reshoot a couple of photos, hopefully that doesn't mean you are upside down on the job but you may need to do it anyway and just learn from the complaint. If the customer abuses your generosity, that could be an indication to not do business with them. There are people that will take advantage or complain regularly to get discounts and freebies.

    The best thing is to always play the devil's advocate and try to find ways to avoid service mistakes before they happen. Little mistakes on photos I find rarely get noticed, but showing up late won't be overlooked.

  2. We always have next day turnaround. Even for a twilight, they will receive the photos by noon the next day. Our in house editing team works through the night to edit photos and most our clients have their photos by 4am. We've had issues with agents receiving their photos at 10am and being upset that they didn't receive them in the middle of the night because that's what they're "used to."

    The other thing we've ran into is shooting a home at 10am and the agent being upset at 5pm because they don't have the photos yet, we shot it that "morning" and it shouldn't take that long. We love our clients, but even when we clearly write "Next day by noon," it's not always fast enough for them.

  3. I am with Ken, I promise next day and deliver same day 95% of the time. The few times I have had a realtor say they promised something I remind them that I didn't, and I don't care to be rushed because they can't schedule their clients. If they continue to bitch I tell them to find someone else that will cater to them, In 5 years I think they have all backed down, apologized and don't bitch anymore. I also have a practice for those that do stray (that I know of) and come back, rates increase.

  4. i’m with Ken - we don’t ever deliver same day or next day... 48 hrs is what we shoot for (no pun intended lol!) it’s very beneficial to give yourself time to account for things happening that are either unusual or out of your control...

    i personally think the cheap quick and same day delivery thing has got to change ... it has cheapened the RE photography model from the get go... our agents know that it will cost them more, that we expect more out of them and their properties and that it will take longer to get the photos back than other companies ... but we have had faithful clients for over a decade and they know they stand out not just for the listing but for their business in the future.

    i understand diff markets but RE photography should be done well and should be growing in the direction that benefits the photographers.

    Have confidence in yourself and your business and know that if you can out produce others in your area and you are in high demand that you should have practices in place to give yourself a better life and allow you to continue shooting for the long haul if that’s what you want... keep in mind too that the quick cheap model may seem great now for some cash but technology is changing quick.. phones can almost out shoot many dslrs and mirrorless cameras and photographers that don’t have any technique or know how to produce better results on their own... so it’s only a matter of time till the quick and dirty tricks will not be worth paying for and the ones that last will be those that are able to create something the laymen can’t with their phones and gadgets and that takes years of dedicated training and practice ... funny - just saw a video for lady gaga shot on iphone 11 pro... can anyone do that? no ... but trained professionals sure did and it just shows that the technology is changing the potential business model as i’m sure there will be much attention brought by it and more software that will allow anyone to do work on their own that was previously only doable by seasoned professionals ...

    keep growing your skills and your business by treating yourself as a professional and one that knows that it takes time to produce quality and a business that should be respected... remember we are professional photographers not an intern at a brokerage or a realtors assistant..

    ok long rant over lol! i just want to see this business grow and not just stay the same with the same issues the world over ... good RE photographers should be just as good as professional architecture or interiors photographers just with slightly diff skill sets... i’ve seen good pro photographers try to shoot their own home to sell and they are horrible ... it is in its own genre and should be respected as such

    ok now the rants over ... for real ... promise ... no really ... seriously :))

  5. I am totally with Ken. 48 hours and try to make it next day, end of day. And if it is a property that will need 50 images, I make sure to deliver enough for the agent to get the property up on MLS the next day and then add the balance of the images later on but within 48 hours. My shoots normally take longer since I am also shooting drone stills and video and shooting video at ground level as well which more than doubles the time on site than just shooting stills. So being able to do anything with processing same day is an impossibility since I do all my own processing. How lovely to have a digital darkroom team working through the night. But I always make sure that if I deliver faster then claimed I let the client know I am doing them a favor since they are so special to me (of course) and if I can't, I will still do my very best to get the photos to them within the 48 hours standard window.

  6. I promise 24 hour turnaround and usually deliver the next morning by 9am. So it’s technically under-promise, over-deliver. I never send the same day, even if the pics are ready. You do that once and they expect it every time.

  7. Long time ago, different industry, I learned that when someone's unhappy: Quickly decide if the issue is something you are going to take care of or not. If it is (probably the case most of the time I'm guessing) put an authentic smile on your face and just make it right. If it's that bad for you then fire 'em or be too busy next time they call. Because if you make it right, after arguing or pitching a little stink, YOU haven't really made it right at all - THEY'VE made it right and they'll remember it that way.

  8. Example: I just shot a nice home for a volume client of 4 years. She's a pain. Super-picky would be an understatement. Our shoots stretch sooooo damn ridiculously long while she flits about 2nd guessing the stager, gardener, painter and everything/ everyone else (including me I'm sure but she's careful & polite about that).

    However, our appointments don't get cancelled, the listings are always ready and stunning - and she pays within an hour of getting my invoice 24/7. Not to mention, I always do my extreme best for the skill I currently have (the shoots make me a better photographer). So I love her (using the L word lightly).

    She calls; "The floors had a bit more gray tones, a hair less beige". What I feel like saying is; "Are you f'in kidding me, you're paying for a real estate shoot (at my old prices to boot) and you want a designer shoot"? And; "That's why I turned the lights off and used a color card for those floors, because when I saw how excited you were about them I just knew we'd have trouble". But instead say; "Of course Sarah, I'll take care of that right away"... Now she still loves me 🙂

  9. All of Brandon's points are correct. He is spot on.
    However... I would rethink the same day delivery thing.
    Anybody who wants same day from me will pay extra and the reason is that I may not catch all the little things that need to be fixed in the shot.
    I review my shoots in the morning of the next day. Fresh eyes really help.
    Of course, if your shoots 6 homes per day this is difficult, that's way I don't do that.
    Quality is everything.

  10. @David Spencer, An agent wanting to be the art director at a job is one of the things I charge extra for. I don't mind having them on the walk through to quickly generate the shot list, but as you know, if they tweak and approve every image, it's a long day. If being very involved makes the customer happy, I'll go along at the right price.

    I'm lucky I don't have an clients that are as critical on the color of a floor. I'm working from calibrated monitors and not a tablet so I have more confidence what I'm seeing is correct. That said, if I had a client selling homes at the top end of the market and they have a very good eye for things, I might learn a lot. I'd still charge them for the time, though.

    Do what it takes to keep customers happy until it crosses a certain line. Also, try to figure out what is most important to each customer.

  11. @Ken Brown - I guess my point was that when a customer's unhappy you can fix it or not. But if you're gonna, do it immediately & graciously. Because if you let them know you're using a high-end calibrated monitor, or [something else they don't have, or know etc]... And THEN go about 'fixing it' for them... You'll still probably have an unhappy client (even if they say thank you). And many of them spread the word like little school children. How does that wisdom go - Happy customer might send a referral, unhappy customer WILL LIKELY share their experience with 6 or 7 of their peers? So if you want to charge them more, or not have a repeat experience or even fire them, it's probably better to attend to all that later, after you fix the problem. With a smile. Or not (and we know what happens then).

    Just my 2c

  12. @ David Spencer - You are right on about having to satisfy the customer graciously.

    Many years ago I read a research report that AT&T did about customer service.
    Their finding was that a customer satisfied with the customer service after a complaint would give a positive referral to 2 or so other people about the experience. While a customer that had, what they perceived as a bad experience with customer service would make a negative comment to 5 or more other people about the experience.

    Interestingly, having a satisfactory customer service experience didn't mean getting what they wanted. If did mean that they were treated with respect and that it was explained to them satisfactorily why the company was doing what it was doing.

    Regarding delivery time commitment; in my view delivery time commitment should be determined based on busy period workflow capabilities. Then, during slower times, throttle deliver so that it routinely ranges between 85 and 90% of the published commitment.

    That leaves available the option to offer a client a "special effort" to reduce the delivery time even more as a "freebie" without having to do anything extreme.

  13. I think the issue you ran into was that you didn't do the editing yourself. I get photos to customers same day as well, but I do all the editing.
    If the customer is still a pain to deal with, cut them off.

  14. @David Spencer, When it comes to something like color calibration the rules change a bit. If the customer has issues with color, chances are that they aren't looking at a monitor with any sort of calibration and they or somebody may have fiddled with the controls until they liked how a test image looked. I would have no idea what "fixes" I can make at that point as I'd be flailing around warming or cooling the images some random degree trying to match what they are telling me they see. In this particular case, if the customer was particularly fussy about color rendition, I'd offer to bring my calibrator to their office and run it on their monitor. I have no idea how I'd deal with a phone or tablet.

    My goal wasn't to try and impress them that I'm too cool because I have a calibrated monitor and they don't. It's to let them know that I'm working from a known starting point. A piano tuner could tune from A-335 (instead of 440) and the piano would be in tune with itself but would sound very bad with the rest of the orchestra. If I adjust an image look good on their monitor, it may look horrible to the rest of the world.

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