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:
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.