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The Customers You Want (Part 2): Recognizing High Maintenance Clients & When It’s Time to Fire Them

Last week, in Part 1 of this three-part series on customer service, I wrote about the importance of giving certain customers significantly more of your time and attention. These “high value” clients (i.e., low maintenance / high profit) are extremely important to the overall success of our business because they: pay on-time, every time and never quibble about pricing; often refer you to other "high value" agents; almost always love your work; and always appreciate your service.

If these types of clients are clearly our top-tier clients, then an important question to ask ourselves is: “Why don’t we have more of them?” I believe that one of the main reasons is that we don’t allow for more of them because we hang on to the notion that every customer is equally valuable. Consequently, we give comparable amounts of time and effort to "high maintenance" clients who not only drain the profitability from our service, they drain our enthusiasm for the work. What's worse is that the time we give to these clients is time that could be spent servicing and/or finding more high value clients.

RECOGNIZING HIGH MAINTENANCE CLIENTS

It is important to recognize "high maintenance" clients early-on as they will likely be taking a disproportionate amount of your time and effort, usually leaving you with relatively very little to show for it. The following represents some warning signs that might indicate you're working with a high maintenance client:

There's a lack of communication. This can come out in a number of ways. For instance, your client doesn’t return your calls, nor do they communicate to the homeowner your basic requirements to prepare the house for a shoot.

There’s always grumbling about fees. From your very first shoot with them, this client has been a pain about money! They grumble with every invoice and yet, have no problem asking for extras.

The client micromanages the shoot. Even though you’re the professional photographer, a high maintenance client will follow you around the property insisting on certain shots, even though you know you can find better. You tend to put up with this behavior because after all, the client is paying you. Deep down though, you worry that producing images that you wouldn't normally take will either tarnish your brand/reputation or will be used against you if the photos they insisted on, don’t turn out as they expected.

RECOGNIZING WHEN IT’S TIME TO FIRE A CLIENT

While the aforementioned behaviors are a pain, many of us choose to improve things or at the very least, tolerate them, because of a desire to maintain good relationships. However, there are certain behaviors that we must guard against because they will invariably negatively impact our business and perhaps, our personal welfare, as well. When these behaviors persist, it's a good indication that it's time to let that client go. These behaviors include:

Aggression. You become painfully aware of a certain tone of voice they use when they talk to you... a sort of “my way or the highway” vibe that is not only stressful in its own right, it colors how you feel about the work, before and after the shoot. You find yourself becoming almost nervous about what you say to this client and how you say it--almost as if you’re dealing with a school-yard bully. In the early-days of working with this client, you rationalized their behavior as indication of their “passionate nature” or that their demanding tone came from a place of “knowing what they wanted.” Now, you see that it's more than just a personality quirk. Increasingly, their aggressive demeanor is making you miserable at every single one of their shoots. If this is the case, then it's probably time to move on from this client.

Chronic late payments. The odd late-payment is understandable as the rigors of life get in the way for everybody, including our clients, and obligations are sometimes forgotten. It’s a different story though, when this behavior is chronic. Not only does it impact your bottom-line, you end up spending your valuable time chasing down invoices, when you ought to be focused on more productive (and less stressful) things.

They don’t value you and what you do. This one is insidious and shows itself in many ways, including:

  • They demand your punctuality and yet, are rarely on time to let you into the house at a shoot and/or don’t bother to let you know that they’re going to be late
  • They take days to return your calls and emails
  • They don’t understand the value your work, as evidenced by the fact that they regularly disregard your terms of usage and share your images with others
  • You get the sense, based on your read of body language/tone of voice, that they believe they're superior to you because they've hired you and thus, have the power over a common vendor, or
  • If they're unhappy about a service, they don't give you the chance to make it right. Instead, they choose another photographer to re-shoot the property (and only call you back when they experience similar displeasure with that other shooter).

I totally understand that anybody can have a bad day that leads them to exhibit inappropriate behavior. However, when this behavior becomes an entrenched pattern, then what we’re seeing is a basic lack of respect which for me, becomes THE driver for a decision to fire a client. This can happen with a simple declaration when they call you for the next shoot: "I'm sorry but I think you'd be better off working with another photographer, as I don't think there's a good fit between us."

While making the choice to fire a client is something that happens rarely in a career (one hopes!), I urge you not to make the decision lightly and to make every effort to improve the relationship as the ramifications of firing a client can be significant, both for your business and your finances. That said, be mindful that the cost of losing that customer might not be as important to you as the loss of self-respect you'd feel from continuing the relationship.

I'd very much like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please feel free to share your own stories of how you've managed these situations. I'm sure that we would all learn and benefit from a frank disclosure of experience, ideas, and suggestions. Thanks!

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.

4 comments on “The Customers You Want (Part 2): Recognizing High Maintenance Clients & When It’s Time to Fire Them”

  1. I mirror people. Way back, in my younger days, I worked as a waiter in a high end DC establishment. I learned a lot about people and how to read them. My best tips came from being curt and a bit on the rude side. I was able to do this and get away with it because I knew my sh%$#@t about food and would not hesitate to embarrass someone or simply walk away as they were talking to me. Weird, but I have found these tactics to work well.

  2. Tony,
    This article came at just the right time. I had to fire, or it was actually mutual, a long time client last week. She was always nice, as am I to all my clients, but there had been too many times that the shoot would be "postponed" because her clients were builders. I have a 24 hr cancellation policy. She contacted me the evening before the shoot and said to postpone the shoot. I read down the email chain and the cancellation was due to the countertops not being in. I had to tell 3 clients I was booked on that day. She wanted me to delete the cancellation fee and told me she completely appreciated my cancellation fee but would I kindly get rid of it. I stood my ground letting her know of my loss of income since it was too late to fill that spot. She told me she would head in a different direction. Even though my terms are on every download this prompted me to find a better solution. Now when they fill out the order sheet they must agree to my terms and cancellation policy before the order can be sent.

  3. All of the issues raised point directly to the importance of having a proper Terms of Service document and going through it with every client.

    One of the things I'm a stickler on is my pricing. I offer discounts for multiple jobs, vacant with a code and moving an appointment to a day where I have another property booked in the same area. If it's something that saves ME time/money, I'm happy to drop my fees a bit. It's still slanted in my favor. The only other place I'll lower my pricing is with prepaid service. If a customer wants to pay for $2,500 of jobs up front, I'll take 10% off (7% if they pay with plastic). I'll use that money to pay down debt to save interest expense. The rest of the time, pricing is on my website and that's it. I've put the work in to formulating that pricing to be as competitive as I can.

    I charge extra if an agent wants to be the art director. I have no problem with input to build the shot list, but after that it's an added service fee. Often much more. I bring this up in my initial talk with an agent. If they want to work on the shot list, I go from delivering 16-24 images to no more than 20. I figure that I could have made 4 additional images in the extra time it takes. Each image past 20 is additional. This is my stated policy, but I do break it from time to time. I don't spend much time counting my images. I work through a property making the images that will show it off and do a quick count at the end mostly on small properties where I may not have at least 16 images and have to push myself to find some detail shots with value. I have enough experience at this point to know if I need to talk with the customer about more budget for more images when advancing the job.

    If a customer has an issue, I'll work with them to fix it, but my standard policy is that images I make on my own are it. Since I'm charging more if there is an art director, I'll add one round of revisions for exposure/color. I try to make it clear that unless there is a big problem with an image and I agree that I swung and missed, I'm not going to reshoot, re-edit or refund the job on the standard pricing schedule. So far, I haven't been asked for too many updates. I can recall one where I slightly clipped the edge of an eave. There was no parking near the job and I was framing to exclude my car (this is before I was good enough in PS to edit a bit of the car out). I found the request to reshoot the image as extreme, but I did redo it a couple of days later when I had another job in the area or it would have been an 80 mile round trip for one photo. The customer stopped calling after I had to raise my rates and has never used pro photography in the years since that I have seen. They also don't get too many listings in their area.

    I take payments upfront for nearly all of my customers and the couple that I'll allow some leeway pay me within days. I can't keep my rates low if I have to chase people around to get paid. It's just too much time and aggravation. The business is generally person to person rather than with large companies that need some time to get payments through their system. It's also very fast. Start to finish, I have jobs done in under 48 hours and want them paid and filed right away. I would entertain extending modest terms to a brokerage that was doing a fair amount of business with me every week after a proper credit screening of their references. I would rather get them to pay upfront. I even promise them that if they have more than $50 left as a prepayment, I'll take that as payment in full for any job under $200 if booked with another job on the same day.

    I respect clients that have a certain look they want to maintain and if it's something I can accommodate, I'll be happy to take their direction. If they get aggressive that I'm not performing to expectations they can't and start demanding extra service from me, I won't accept any more work from them. There is a fine line between constructive criticism and whining. The former I'll take, but not the latter. I want to be happy to see every customer's caller ID on my phone. If I'm cringing when I see who it is, maybe it's not a good pairing.

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