The secret to dealing with an unhappy photography client.

March 3rd, 2022
The Secret to Dealing with an Unhappy Photography Client

For photographers, happy customers are essential for building a successful business. Did you know that 92% of people trust recommendations from friends and family when making a decision to buy something? Your good reviews will create more and more business. Unfortunately, negative feedback happens—even when you’re giving 100%. Here’s the secret to dealing with unhappy clients to make sure they don’t affect your growing photography business.

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely encountered an unhappy client experience. It’s ok. It happens to the best of us. When you’re dealing with people and images (particularly of themselves), there’s inevitably going to be a miscommunication every so often.

These are the most common customer service complaints according to the Consumer Federation of America:

  • Misrepresentation: The customer thought they were getting one thing but they got something else.
  • Unsatisfactory work: The customer feels the delivered work is not up to the standard they expect.
  • Billing disputes: The customer has a different understanding of how much the service and products cost.
  • Behavior: They feel as if you didn’t provide a safe and professional service.

When you’re a photographer, many of the complaints will be subjective. There’s no clear right and wrong. You’re dealing with a matter of opinion and it’s emotional for both people involved – you’re passionate about your work and they’re concerned about their money, memories, and/or personal image (depending on the photoshoot).

Ultimately, it’s in your best interest to resolve the conflict as quickly and effectively as possible. Your goal should be to transform an unhappy client into a loyal customer who will tell their friends and family about how great you are. When you have a photography business, you play many roles. This is the opportunity to reveal your customer service skills.

To seamlessly navigate an unhappy client experience, follow these five steps:

1. Listen.

Everybody wants to be heard. When you encounter an unhappy client, your first step is to listen carefully to your client’s feedback. Make sure you don’t take the criticism personally, even though that can be hard to do. This isn’t the time to get defensive.

If you find that your unhappy client is being rude, stay calm. You should be attentive and polite. Treat the client how you would want to be treated (not how they might be treating you). By listening patiently, you’re making the client understand that their feedback is being heard.

Did you hear from an unhappy customer? Consider yourself lucky. On average, businesses will only hear from 4% of dissatisfied customers. That means, the majority of unhappy clients won’t say anything and simply not work with you again (or worse, not recommend you).

Don’t think about your response as the client is speaking. That’s not active listening because the client can tell you’re distracted. Make sure you’re focusing all of your attention on the client and the current situation.

If you’re resolving the issue in a face-to-face meeting, your body language should also reflect empathic listening. Don’t stand with your arms crossed. Be open to what the client is saying and use affirming body language, like nodding, to show that you are listening.

Even better, have a pen and paper in front of you. Write down specific points about what they did and didn’t like. Properly identify your unhappy client’s issue. Is it the creative vision? The quality of the prints? The client’s appearance in the photos?

When it’s your turn to speak, you should summarize what the client has told you and ask further questions to clarify. Repeating back what the client told you demonstrates that you were listening attentively. It shows that you respect your client and what they’re saying.

2. Communicate.

When you’re discussing the issue with your unhappy client, choose your communication method wisely. It might feel more comfortable to hide behind a keyboard but emotions tend to escalate when you’re going back and forth on social media platforms. Without body language or vocal cues, email can be the biggest culprit of misunderstandings.

Instead of typing it out, make an effort to set up a meeting over the phone or face-to-face. A video call service like Zoom or Google Meet (both free) can also be a good solution. You can be surprised how much is resolved when the unhappy clients hear the concern in your voice and on your face.

After your phone call, you should follow up with an email that restates the issue and the resolution that was reached. This ensures that you, the photographer, and your client have a record of the recent communication and mutually agreed upon resolution.

3. Respond and present a solution.

Your goal should be to find a solution that benefits all parties involved. You want the client to leave happy with the product, but not at unnecessary expense or headache to you, the photographer.

Since the resolution is dependent on the problem, the listening and communication stages are very important. If you’re empathetic, and show the client that you understand and value their concerns, sometimes a genuine apology resolves the problem. Demonstrating an understanding and willingness to resolve the issue can be what matters the most.

“Bad customer service reaches twice as many ears as praise for good customer service” – Source: The White House Office of Consumer Affairs

When you’re presenting a resolution, try to suggest a few options. This makes the client feel as if they have a choice. If you don’t have any ideas, ask the client to specify what will make them happy. Is their response realistic? Let them know that you’re available to work on a solution that makes everyone happy.

Can you do a reshoot? Will it help to re-edit the photos? If you really make a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit that and offer a refund.

Most of the time, it doesn’t matter if you agree with the client’s feedback. You should consider their happiness important for your business goals. The White House Office of Consumer Affairs reports that bad customer service reaches twice as many ears as praise for good customer service.

4. Follow up.

Once the work has been revised or a resolution has been put in place, make sure to follow up and get feedback from the client. In most cases, the client will be happy with a carefully thought out, collaborative solution, but you want to double-check.

Send a quick email or make a check-in phone call to make sure all of the issues have been addressed and resolved properly. Assure the client that you’re available should any other issues arise. The client wants to know that you care about both your work and their happiness with it.

Additionally, try to think if there’s something special you can offer the client. You could throw in a couple of extra prints, free framing, or a discount on their next purchase. Those add-ons will help to rebuild trust and relationships.

You should also be prepared to realize that occasionally there is no resolution to the issue. For people in creative fields, sometimes their vision just doesn’t match up with that of the client.

Beware of those rare situations, when a client is just looking for an argument or a freebie. Be fair but firm in handling the situation, and always stick with what you think is right. In the case of angry or abusive clients, be assertive. Know in advance what you will tolerate and what you won’t.

5. Learn.

After you’ve reached a resolution with your unhappy client, take some time to reflect on your own practices. What did you learn from this experience? What can you do differently next time to make sure this situation doesn’t arise again? Each piece of negative feedback should be a positive learning experience for you as a photographer. Use the complaint or feedback to improve your service.

In the end, negative feedback and complaints are unavoidable in any industry. Creative professionals deal with the additional factor that the success of their work and services is very subjective. The best way to avoid this situation in the future is to establish clear expectations.

When you find yourself in the middle of a conflict with an unhappy client, don’t be defensive or make excuses. Do your best to offer solutions to ensure your client base grows and your quality of work continues to improve.

Looking to perfect your skills? Check out these:
Becoming a Professional Wedding Photographer
How to become a Professional Landscape Photographer
How to become a Professional Newborn Photographer


  • Amanda W

    Amanda is a Content Marketing Associate at Zenfolio and the Owner/Photographer of Wild Orchard Studios photography. A BFA graduate from Maine College of Art and Design and professional Lifestyle Family and Branding photographer for over 10 years, she thoroughly enjoys drawing from her experiences to guide new photographers as they are starting out. Amanda lives in the wilds of Maine with her husband and two imaginative daughters. If there’s such a thing as too much dark chocolate, she hasn’t heard about it.

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