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The Ten Commandments Of Client Relations

February 8, 2010

Elizabeth Etienne Photography:

The Ten Commandments Of Client Relations

Rule #1: “I will NOT shoot any photo jobs for FREE!”

YES!!! This goes for FRIENDS!! Especially for friends!! This is one of the number one biggest issues I hear from my assistants and interns when they start their businesses. The ONLY exclusion to this rule is that you are trying to build your portfolio and are MISSING this subject AND having a photo of this kind will most-certainly lead to more frequent jobs of this kind.

Working with “Friends”

There is a fine line between business and friendship. Keep it separate. You can be friendly, but keep up the same professional rules with friends. Let them know this is your business. When a friend calls me to shoot something I say, “Great I’d love to! This is what I charge.” It takes practice, but it’s a relief when my friends actually stop asking me for freebies. I believe friends should pay their friends MORE than they’re asking for, not the other way around. They are friends after all so why should they ask you to do something to help only them? I wouldn’t think of asking a friend to do something for free for me. If they offer that’s one thing, and often I will even decline their offers and if they are persistent I’ll do something nice in exchange like buy them a wonderful dinner or bring them flowers and a thank you note. Friends should always honor and support each other.


I do not recommend trades unless the previous exception applies. Why? Someone always feel cheated because they feel the other person doesn’t understand the value of their work. When I am asked for a trade, I am reluctant. I usually respond by telling them that I would rather just pay cash for their services and they can do the same with me. This way there is no confusion. I will also stress how trades can confuse my accounting system with taxes and such.

Rule #2: “I will not shoot ANY jobs without a 50% deposit and signed contract!”

Yes, even for headshots! Until you have a trusting, repeat client this is always the rule! It tells people your time is valuable and if they don’t show up, you keep the money even if it’s only a hundred dollars. Contracts should specify shoot DATE and any cancellation policies. Deposits are non-refundable (if they were refundable, what would their purpose serve?) You may offer to transfer the deposit to another shoot date or apply it to another product or service you offer, but do not get swayed by the client to return the deposit amount. The deposit is designed to reserve your services and compensate you for your time spent planning and preparing. It also compensates you for other potential jobs you refused for this date because you had already secured if for this particular client. Asking for a deposit shows both parties intent to honor the service date.

Rule #3: “I will not re-shoot ANYTHING unless I (or my lab) is at fault or I get compensated”

You may come across a situation where your images did not result in exactly what you and or your client had envisioned. This is why it is imperative that you define as clearly as possible what the client has in mind. If the issue is a technical one, this is your fault even if your lab is the cause. It is unethical to do anything less than re-shoot the job, absorbing all costs yourself. Your reputation is worth more than the cost of your shoot expenses. If the client decides they wanted something different other than what was defined in the contract, this is NOT your fault. They have simply changed their mind and now want to see other options. Changes are fine, but you need to be compensated for a second photo shoot.

Be professional, polite, and flexible. You might feel inclined to cut your rates slightly, rewarding them for being a “repeat client,” but do not let them try to guilt you into re-shooting at no cost, and do not EVER hand over the finished product without getting paid first. Present them with the final invoice and when you receive the check, give them the images.

Rule #4: “ I will ALWAYS give a receipt anytime money is exchanged (deposits, payments, balances.)

Always get the balance before or on the day of the photo shoot! Never except the excuse that they’ll pay you later. DO NOT SHOOT WITHOUT A DEPOSIT AND DO NOT GIVE ANY PRINTS OR PRODUCT WITHOUT A PAID BALANCE!

Rule #5: “ I will NEVER EVER look, act or speak in a desperate manner!”

NEVER be overly available. Do NOT say my calendar schedule is wide-open! This is a sure way to get someone to NOT pay you, use and abuse you as an artist. People do not respect desperate, overly available people, especially “artists.” Do NOT ever say, “I really need the money to pay rent or I wouldn’t ask you, but do you think you could pay me for the photo job I did last month?” This is pathetic and it has absolutely nothing to do with them. It also devalues the product you created and sounds as though you need to beg to get paid – a true sign of low self-esteem. It’s not their business what financial state you are in, rich or poor. No one wants to associate with a struggling artist. It’s like a contagious disease. They’ll wonder what’s wrong with you that you got yourself into such a desperate space. Are you a drug addict or…? It just isn’t a way to gain new clients and it’s totally unprofessional. People tend to cheat those that appear desperate and vulnerable, and never question those who appear successful, so if you are desperate, just “fake it till you make it.”

Rule #6: “ I will raise my rates when I know my work is worth it.” (Even when business is slow!)

This is a BIG ONE and may be hard for many to grasp. Sometimes people get suspicious when you’re rates are too low. They wonder what’s wrong with you and suspect either you don’t have any talent or are cutting corners someplace. It is a known fact that people often want what they can’t afford. They like to test drive the new BMW even though they think their budget is a Ford Escort. A savvy salesman will show them otherwise. Learn how to be a good salesperson and learn how to politely “educate” them on the value of your work/product and the time involved (time is money!)

Years ago when I realized I wasn’t making a profit after all my expenses and the extensive time each and every photo shoot required (be it a wedding, portrait or ad campaign), I knew that it was time to raise my rates if I was going to survive. YIKES! That scared the crap out of me! For most of us there is always a little fear when we move to the next level because the voice in our head says,“ Hey you! Who do you think you are charging THAT much for a photo shoot? What makes you think you’re any better than the next struggling photographer out there? If you raise your rates any more, no one is going to hire you! They’ll think you’re cocky and full of yourself.”

All we need to do is train our subconscious minds to accept the new value amount and the world will quickly catch on. After I decided that I needed to double my rates to stay in business, I realized that I would have to go from charging $1,500 to $3,000! THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS? Who is going to pay THAT much for a wedding?. I knew other photographers were charging at least that much and more, and I knew that my work was just as good or better. The next morning as luck would have it, I met a potential new client. He told me how great my work was and I knew he would ask, “How much do you charge?” (Gulp!!!) To prepare, I knew had to first accept this new dollar amount, but I was really struggling with it. I took out a piece of paper and wrote the following words several times:

I, Elizabeth Etienne am an amazing photographer!

I deserve to charge $3,000 for my wedding services.

My work is outstanding.

My wedding photography is worth $3000

Apparently I was feeling pretty good that day – probably jacked up on coffee! I just kept repeating the same words again an again. At first I felt silly, ridiculous, and pompous, but then I could feel myself shift a little with each page of writing. I giggled with excitement, slowly starting to feel very comfortable with that number and dollar amount.

By the time the phone rang late that afternoon, I had gotten used to saying it. When the client asked how I work and what I charged I said, “THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS with a fifty-percent retainer deposit.” He simply said, “That’s fine, please send me your contract” and that was it! I did it! NOW I had to “become” that THREE THOUSAND DOLLAR wedding photographer. I knew my work was good, but in my mind it better be outstanding for THAT kind of money! It really pushed me to the next level.

Rule #7: “ I will ALWAYS charge for extra labor time and expenses.”

Additional Charges to Include: Digital file processing, retouching, DVDs, CDs, etc.

Retouching: when to charge for it and when not to:

If the need for retouching is clearly YOUR fault (i.e.) a pole sticking out of the background, general scene colors or tones are off, or something should have been in the scene that wasn’t due to your neglect, don’t charge for it. Otherwise, charge an hourly rate for retouching. Exceptions to this rule might be a repeat client or an image that would enhance your portfolio. Make sure the client is fully aware that you are doing this as a gesture of thanks for their patronage and your normal fee is $ _____.  When I do this or give anything else away for free, I will often give an invoice listing the normal fees, then draw a thin line through them and write COMP. NO CHARGE. MY GIFT TO YOU. Clients love this! Plus it reminds them how much they would ordinarily have to pay as opposed to assuming this is always free and of no value. It is also important to save your copy of the receipt as this value is a tax write-off (see CH 20 – Legal Business Stuff).

Keep a Time and Expense Log. How long does it take to complete a job? This includes all your PRE-PRODUCTION time on the telephone with them, e-mails, driving time back and forth to the lab and to scout locations, reviewing wardrobe, shooting the job. This also includes POST-PRODUCTION time picking up job orders, sorting job orders, digital processing, retouching, layouts, comps, etc. Often “favors” like extra retouching work goes unnoticed or unappreciated. Be careful because once you do it for a client, they will assume this is part of the job and included in your fee from this point forward. They will NEVER know the endless hours you spent retouching. KEEP TRACK OF ALL EXPENSES including gas, meals for assistants, paper, test prints, ink, envelopes, letterhead, business cards, etc. and remember to factor this into your hourly rate.

Rule #8: “I will not take conflicts personally. I will always remain calm, professional, and unemotional.”

Dealing with CONFLICTS

The average public is not educated enough to know about your business and the hours of time and labor involved. Be patient, and politely yet quickly educate them. Do NOT get angry with them, and don’t take it personal.

You maybe need to explain briefly in a professional tone why and how things are priced the way they are, what your service includes that another photographer’s services might not include, and the amount of time you put into ensuring the entire production runs smoothly from pre-shooting to delivery of the final product. Time is money. You get what you pay for.

Know when to walk away from a client who is abusive or treating you like a used car dealer, trying to wheel-and-deal” you and get your rate down to peanuts. Save face, save your reputation, keep your sense of self- esteem, your integrity and politely walk away. Tell them, “Thank you, but I don’t think we’re meant to work together. I have another client arriving any moment. I must go.” No further explanation is necessary (even if you’re totally broke and desperate! Do not let them know this!)

I have found that sometimes the people who are haggling you down never respect, appreciate or even remember the discounts you’ve offered later and continue their habit of haggling you for more and more of anything and everything. These clients can drain you. They don’t support a positive energy flow. Know when to walk away. Again, do NOT get angry with them. Don’t take it personal. They are not trying to offend you by insinuating that your work is not worth more. They are simply looking for a “deal” or a way of getting you to give them more than your initial estimate. It’s just a game for them.

Rule# 9: “I will always keep meetings no longer than 1-hour if possible.”

Always have (or pretend to have) another appointment following the appointment you’ve currently booked. END THE MEEETING FIRST. When scheduling with clients, tell them you have an available appointment at 2:30 pm. Be specific, like a busy hairdresser or doctor’s office. Do NOT say, “I’m wide open, have nothing booked, am very flexible, anytime between 2:30- 3:00 is ok. No worries.” This says, “I’m just sittin’ around playing on the computer cause I don’t have a lot of clients. The reason I don’t have a lot of clients is because I’m no good.” People want what and who is in demand. It is often an illusion. If you go by a restaurant or nightclub and see a line out the door, while you may not want to wait, it says this place is packed because there is something special about it and everyone else already knows. As opposed to a restaurant that may have great food but it s totally empty. This says, “something is wrong and we just don’t now it yet.” Get it?

Rule#10:I will always include a Thank You note and/or client gift at completion of each job.”

Create client incentives for them to rehire or refer you to another client. Leave them with something to remember you by. This reaffirms your professional and personal gratitude. I always include a handwritten thank-you, or with bigger clients, a small gift. This could be a small frame or an enlargement of your favorite print. For one wedding client I actually made an enlarged print from the engagement shoot as a surprise. I matted it and placed it at the gift table for their guests to sign. Next to it I tactfully placed a bunch of my business cards in a small card holder.

For another client I made an actual slide show of the some of my favorite images and surprised them with email and link to the show. They loved it! And they sent the link to all of their wedding guests and family. Of course it had my name and contact info on it (wink! wink!) I got a lot referrals from this.

With my repeat clients I’ll give them a coupon for 15-percent off their next photo shoot. These small gestures not only show appreciation, but help boost your business as well. Word of mouth is the cheapest and easiest form of advertising you can do.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2010 1:18 am

    First, please let me say how amazing your work is. Just breathtaking! Thank you so much for this list. I am just finally starting my design studio (custom and semi custom paper), and the biggest reason why it’s taken so long is because I broke Rule #1! Worst mistake of my life. I felt that I should do all of the invitations and other paper for my close friend’s sister. I also broke rule #7 in that I gave this girl unlimited revisions. I am too nice, but I looked at it as a portfolio builder. I didn’t realize I didn’t need an actual client to create anything.
    After 350 hours of work over the course of 5 months, countless fights with my husband over his feelings of neglect and frustration, staying up until 3 in the morning and getting up at 7 with my daughter, I am no longer friends with the “client” or her sister (who was once a very close friend). Not one of them even said a simple thank you.
    I have learned my lesson. No matter if you went to school for a zillion years or are self taught, your work can be just as good if not better than everyone else’s, so CHARGE MONEY!!! You’re worth it!
    Thanks for this list.
    Ali @ Dixie Cup Paper

    • February 9, 2010 6:28 pm

      Hey Ali: I hear ya. Friends like these aren’t friends at all in my opinion. Sadly its the ones you give to the most that express the least amoiunt of appreciation. The more you give the les they respect and value you it. be selective next time and yes always charge for what youre doing (unless its something remarkable that will change your porfolio and even then one should at leats TRY to get SOME money). Charging for your work adds value and others will respect you and your work a lot more.

      good luck!

  2. February 10, 2010 8:02 am

    Great post Elizabeth! I am printing this out and putting The Commandmants under my business line and reviewing before negotiating each shoot. I am so tired of people asking me to do their event for free and then follow it up with “hey, I will let you use them for your portfolio.” Really?!? Gee, thanks a lot.

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