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How Do You Handle Criticism?

Published: 05/02/2020

Christopher, in Brisbane, Australia writes:

“I recently got hit with a bit of harsh criticism from a client recently and, I must say that I’m struggling with it. It’s not as if I’ve never been criticized before. I have a graphic design background and my instructors at school were ruthless. And it’s not because I got it from a paying client. I think it’s because of how personal the criticism felt to me from a paying customer. I’m hoping you can post on article on this as I’d like to hear if others have also experienced this and if so, how they dealt with it. Thanks.”

Thanks Christopher. I’m sorry you’ve had to encounter this from a client. It’s an interesting question you’ve asked. In the many years that I’ve been a PFRE reader, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article written about this topic. So, I’ll give you my two-cents and then will very much look forward to seeing how our community responds.

All Feedback Is a Gift

I’d like to share two bits of advice that I got from different bosses that I had when I worked in a corporate setting. The first boss used to say, regularly, “Feedback is a gift.” In your case Christopher, this one might be a challenge because you’ve indicated that the feedback given to you felt more like a personal attack. Nevertheless, the advice is sound. Are you able to “park” the personal nature of the feedback off to the side, just for a little while, so as to give you the chance to consider the spirit behind what was said to you? I know it’s easier said than done but, more often than not, the effort is worth it.

The M.R.I. Approach

The advice that I got from the second boss that I noted earlier, was to “practice M.R.I.”, an abbreviation for “most respectful interpretation”. In other words, what’s the most respectful interpretation that you can make regarding what was said to you. For instance, you might presume that this person shared what they did out of a sense of anger or frustration because they were already having a terrible day when they answered your phone call. This technique is really hard to do because it’s so easy for all of us to presume the worst but if done well, it serves to reduce your blood pressure and prompt you to think of another way of seeing the situation. Psychologically, it doesn’t really matter if your interpretation is accurate or not. The time you take to rationally look for the respectful interpretation is time that isn’t spent on blowing things out of proportion, on your end.

There is, however, a caveat to this MRI approach and that is, you have to limit the number of times that you use it with the same individual. If someone mistreats you the first time, then the MRI approach sees it as an isolated incident. If you have to use it another time, then perhaps it’s a coincidence. However, if the behavior happens again, then it’s a pattern and you’ve got to make the other person aware of how their behavior/words are affecting you and that it must stop. On a personal note, I used this approach last year with a client of mine over several shoots. I was increasingly troubled by what I perceived to be his condescending attitude and slights toward me. There were a number of small exchanges that included eye-rolling at certain comments and being interrupted when making suggestions. Anyway, after chatting with him about my concerns, it was clear that his condescension was not an isolated incident. The result was that he became the first (and only) client I’ve ever fired.

Other Options

Even if you don’t find these specific bits of input helpful, I would encourage you to consider some core relationship management advice that is often cited as CRM best practices:

  • Don’t fight fire-with-fire.  Firing a personal attack right back at the person who's said something unflattering to you is rarely helpful. It’s really important to have the discipline to "count to 10", so to speak, and try to find the value/insight that might be embedded in the other person’s criticism.
  • Ask questions. Doing so might help you get past what you’re experiencing as a personal attack and instead, focus more on what might have prompted the other person to make a disparaging comment.
  • Agree to disagree. If you take the time to ask questions and the other person’s answers give indication that, as suspected, they’re actually a jerk, then just ignore the criticism and don't take it personally.

Anyway Christopher, I hope this has been helpful. I’m sure that our community will also offer their input and support in their comments. Thanks again for writing in. I’m wishing you a quick resolution to your situation!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach, based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

12 comments on “How Do You Handle Criticism?”

  1. Criticism is Ok, personal attacks are not. There are simply going to be those people that are angry, mean, rude, or all of these.

    I have been doing this for 5-6 years, have delivered thousands of tours and have hundreds of clients. In that time I have fired 2 clients. I was going to fire a third, but when I said, "We may not be a good match for each other", she changed and became much easier to get along with, and is one of my top producers.

    People that you do business with are no different than everyone else that you meet. Some percentage is going to be people that you would really rather not interface with, and the vast majority are going to be great. You should never fire a customer without good reason, but you should never be afraid to either. When you do not respond to shoddy/poor treatment, then you are teaching your client what your worth is...

  2. Retribution/firing/distancing is a touchy subject because all of our clients know each other. So much so that 98% of my business's growth happens by one agent referring me to another. We really need to be careful how we treat even our least favorite client, as all the rest of them will hear about any incident in short order. They love gossip.

    I so far have only mutually agreed with one client that we weren’t a good fit for each other, but I have never experienced a lashing by someone who I and my business enjoy.

    Having said that, if it WERE to happen I think many of Tony’s techniques (I don’t want to call them solutions) have some merit.

    Happens once...couldve been a bad day. Twice...you’re now on my radar. Thrice....I cut my losses and exit as gracefully as I know how.

  3. When I started doing this type of photography about 10 years ago, I was hired by the developer of a really huge, beautiful waterfront home. He hated the photos and proceeded to tell me how awful they were, concluding with "These are just terrible", and then hung up.

    Since I had been a photographer for many years before that (mostly art photography), my greatest fear was that someone would outright say, "Your work is terrible". And then it happened. It was crushing, but also kind of a relief; someone had actually said what I feared the most and I had survived it. And learned from it.

    And looking back, compared to my work today, the photos really were terrible!

  4. If it's a personal attack rather than a critique of your work then walk away. Keep an eye out next time you are out and about in shops, hotels, government offices etc. Many of them have signs that say personal abuse of staff will not be tolerated. I suggest you implement that policy in your own business.

  5. I've had customers ask for a re-edit or reshoot a couple of times, but not a whole job. I like to hear from customers that they love the gallery I deliver. If a new customer were to absolutely hate a set of photos that I'm perfectly happy with, I'd have to chalk it up to their poor taste and give them a refund. They'd have to delete and not use the images. I'm not going to be criticized for delivering poor work only to have them use the images anyway. There are people that use that tactic all of the time to get things free or a big discount. I'm really surprised that it hasn't happened to me. My style is to deliver images with a natural quality of light and color where many agents are posting super bright, nuclear white photos. One of these days I'm suspected I'll get a call that mine don't look like that and the customer never bothered to look at my portfolio or discuss my approach and look.

    If your style and the customer's desires don't line up, thank them and break off the relationship. If it's just a matter of making sure you capture certain details and do certain compositions, maybe you can accommodate them. It's rare that it doesn't take a little time for me to take onboard a customer's preferences. I keep a text file in their customer folder and write down anything I need to keep in mind when shooting for them.

    I'll echo everyone else and say that if it's personal attacks and abuse, that customer is 86'd. Life's too short to have anything to do with screamers and nasty people.

  6. I listen to the criticism very carefully. No one is more hard on me than I am, and the client might be right. More often, however, I discover that the client either prefers a style that I don't care for, or is frustrated because their home is priced too high for the market and they are sure that deceptively good images will somehow trick a buyer into signing a contract.

  7. If this is criticism of your work, than you should be thankful for getting it. Why, because 99% of the time, the only way we know that someone is unhappy with our work is that they left for another photographer. Now you need to stand back and match the criticism with your work. Is it just? Is it a matter of opinion? Is someone just being unfair. How you answer those questions, will tell you what you should do. Either you adjust your work or not. Do you keep the client or not?

    Keep the personal out as much as you can. If it is a personal attack, fire the client and walk away. There is nothing to gain by attacking back and everything to loose.

  8. In my view criticism falls into two categories;
    A) Objective critique of my work. That the customer, or anyone else, has a right to express. I'll listen attentively and glean from it useful information to help me improve my craft.
    B) Subjective cirtique of me or my work. That gets much more complicated because is involves me having to attempt to intemperate their experience, emotion, knowledge and a lot of other unfathomable contributors to their subjective point of view.

    What's the difference? Objective - that angle doesn't work. The image is too bright, dark, etc. The color of the wall in one picture is different than the other. It's the same room. The image lacks a center of focus, etc.

    Subjective - I'don't like this picture. (OK, tell me why.) You're not capturing the feeling of the house. (OK, tell me how you visualize those feelings.) etc.

    By this time in my life, my skin has gotten callused by cirtiques, good (art school teachers, art directors) as well as people without background, experience or an ability to explain why.

    The only bad criticism I've received is criticism I've been too lazy to think about and categorize into subjective or objective.

  9. I think Neal has it spot on.

    I received some criticism this afternoon, from my client's client via my client. Something to do with cushions not being placed well enough and curtains (drapes) not being symmetrical, plus I didn't photograph the stairs.

  10. @Matt Davis, I'd only worry about that criticism if I were being hired and paid for full service. I do a little bit of staging on every job, but I don't spend inordinate amounts of time. I budget roughly 2 hours for a basic job and there just isn't time to fluff every pillow and straighten every drape. Every once in a while I get a home where the stairs are more of a hallway with stairs in rather than an architectural feature. One of the last photos I would ever make without prodding would be photos looking up/down a boring set of stairs. I will try to make a photo that catches a bit if possible.

    I go over preparation with agents and it's in my Terms of Service so there should be no questions about what I'm responsible for and what the agent/seller is meant to do. If my client was upset about the photos, that's more important to me than if their client is upset and the agent doesn't agree. I could return and do some pick up shots, but I'd charge for it if I could. At least get lunch out of it and some gas money.

    I keep reminding my clients that if they have a nice property, we can spend more time on getting everything perfect rather than just going with standard service. I charge a little less than 3 bookings for a whole day on site. 3 jobs is about as much as I'll book for a day unless there are a couple of small properties. The other upside for me is that by having the time to get everything perfect, I have way less time in post.

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