The Art and Science of Managing Client Expectations. Learned the hard way.

Clients. You have to love the little dears. Without them it would be much harder for photographers to actually make money. But since most clients aren't deeply immersed in the art and science of image making we sometimes find that clients have unreal expectations of: what can be done in a day, how optics work,  how quickly and easily things can be fixed in PhotoShop, how much your time and expertise costs, what kinds of rights they'll end up with and how quickly everything can be turned around. Side issues include the general blank stare you'll get when you mention things like location permits, lunch breaks, mileage charges, and the fact that you actually OWN the images and you are ONLY licensing a package of usage licenses to them. 

Now, you can wait to the very end to grapple with lots of these issues and I can pretty much guarantee you that your procrastination in tackling the understanding curve will come back and bite you on the ass. Hard. There is a better way and that is to include as much detail as possible in your initial conversations and then follow up those conversations with a concise listing of the discussed points in the body of your estimate or bid (two different animals...).

The first and biggest points are nearly always about money and what the client gets for their money. I think this one is tough for a lot of photographers because artists don't like to talk about money and they don't like to talk about who owns the rights. Can you blame photographers who live in a culture where most transactions look like a slalom race to the bargain basement? You can always find a crappier product cheaper at Walmart but would you really want to own a product that's not fun to use and needs to be replaced over and over again when you could buy a better product elsewhere that may last a lifetime and be a pleasure to use? If quality doesn't matter and price is the only consideration then why aren't we using plastic cameras with single element, plastic lenses? Or Kiev cameras for that matter.  I think the answer is that we want to buy things that are well made. Clients might have the same mindset but sometimes it's up to us to explain the features AND the benefits of buying the better solution.

When we tackle price we have two line items that are really important. One is our creation fee = what it costs us to produce the image(s) our clients need. Most people base this number on a day rate. It basically covers part of our overhead but not our profits. And it doesn't cover the benefit the client derives from using the final product; photographs.

For the sake of this blog let's say you work in a second tier market and you work pretty consistently. Your basic rate to show up with your gear and do the work (exclusive of travel costs, assistants, props, etc.) might be $2,000 for each day that you are engaged. But the finished work has its own intrinsic value to the client. We bill separately for that. Let's say that your client wants to use a set of images on their website for two years and in their capabilities brochure. They'll print 20,000 brochures. Depending on the size of the company's market and the overall size of the company we might charge a fixed price of $1200 to use six images on the website and another $800 to use the images in the brochure for one print run. The basic fees for doing the work AND licensing the usage of the work = $4,000. All hard costs are added on top of those fees and, depending on your business model, you might add a markup of anywhere from 10-25% of the costs to cover the time and liability it requires for you to arrange and supervise these line items.

Most clients who don't do this on a daily or weekly basis think that they should pay one fee and own all the work ad infinitum so that's the first hurdle of expectation management you'll grapple with.  We carefully explain that this is the way our business works. We try to get them to understand that the time and expertise are both expensive things to accrue and are different from the actual value of the images. Usually they get it but it requires talking through the process and the rationale. Artists own the work they create. It's up to them to decide how they want to monetize it. Not every client will get it or want to work with you this way but it's better to have that discussion before you drive to Terlingua and talk about it the morning of your scheduled shoot... right?

When I bid a job I cover as much as I can. I talk about how we're going to shoot, where we're going to shoot, who will get the models, who will handle to location fees, how many shots we need to get and how we'll schedule that. I talk about how the work will be delivered.

For a recent annual report bid I wrote: "....globally post process all edited (selected) images for color, tonality and perspective corrections and then send, via FTP, large Tiff images."  To make sure they understood that we would NOT be extensively retouching each images I also added: "(more extensive post processing (or retouching) of images for things like the removal of labels, product defects etc. is $45 per image and is additional to the budget above. We will only initiate advanced retouching with your additional approval). I added this language to manage the expectation that every one of the hundreds of files we'd make (bracketing, expressions, variations) would NOT be individually manipulated and/or retouched. Not making that clear up front means you'll have a conflict somewhere down the line... But if you are going to retouch and post process each image individually from something like an annual report project you'd better be well paid for it or the time sink hole with kill your business. 

Clients may also have a way that they like to pay suppliers. Mostly they like to pay them whenever it's convenient or whenever they feel so disposed. We, on the other hand, usually want to be paid on some sort of logical schedule with NOW being the most logical option I can think of....

Here's what we write when we talk about payment: All payment is due on completion and delivery of the images. No license of use is considered valid until balance is paid in full. We rarely get too much push back and we really do expect to get paid for our work on a reasonable schedule. When I sent a variation of the above to a prospective client who was very interested in working with my company he wrote back to say that his parent company in XXXXX, U.S.A had a policy of tendering payment in 45-60 days but that they "were good for it." My response was to see if he could pay for the service and licenses with a credit card but that option wasn't open either. My response? "I appreciate being asked to prepare a bid for your advertising project but our CFO requires payment on completion (which usually means within 10 working days) and would not allow me to accept a contract with such long payment terms."  I added, "please let me know if your company's policy on payment changes in the future as I would enjoy working with you very much." 

I am happy to decline work if it doesn't pay well or in a timely fashion. It's too easy for the time of payment to keep slipping and slipping. You've heard the adage, "Life is uncertain, eat dessert first!" It doesn't take long for even big companies to get into trouble and stop paying their bills altogether. Happens more often than you might expect. 

But let's move on from the boring accounting expectations and get right down to the stuff that happens when we shoot....

I like to have a conversation with clients about how we operate on the shoot. If the client has hired me on the strength of highly stylized portraits they've seen on my website I want to make sure they know making these portraits can't be done by just leaning in someone's office door and snapping a "quick one." We talk about how long it takes to set up the lights and how long it takes to build an effective rapport with each sitter. You won't get what you want from a "cattle call" shoot but clients don't always know what it takes and it's your job to paint the picture. You also need to let them know that you need breaks and lunch and a good, quiet environment in which to work. How much time will you need to drag in your gear and get it set up and tested? That needs to be part of the conversation. Don't assume they've ever done anything like this before. 

Portrait clients love to point to highly produced magazine cover shots and express that this kind of work is their "target." At that point it's time to talk about make-up people and clothing stylists and why they are so important for a style like the one the client has become attached to. You will either change their budget or their expectations. But it's better than delivering a product they'll never be happy with...

On a recent shoot I came to understand how the total market capitulation to cellphone photography has, in a half a generation, eviscerated the general public's knowledge about photo techniques. I worked with a very young marketing director who wanted stuff that the laws of physics disallow. The first was a request that we shoot "wide" shots but at the same time she would like the background to be "totally out of focus." We were in a fairly small room. I had to explain to the client that the effect she was looking for (and showing examples of) is always best done with longer lenses and a lot of distance between the thing you would like in focus and the thing you would like to have out of focus. 

She modified her next request. She would like Bob, in the foreground, to be in "very sharp focus" and she would like Raymond who was standing six feet behind Bob to also be in "very sharp focus" but we would like Rachel who was standing two feet behind Raymond and eight feet from Bob to be "totally out of focus." We had to have a discussion about how focus falls off over distance but I'm still not sure she really got it. 

The next issue that always throws me for a loop is the idea that the camera can do discriminatory cropping. "You know, I want the picture to have the same top and bottom but I want the stuff on the left side to be zoomed out." Do you mean "cropped out"? Clients want things to be cropped in the camera but they want to see everything else exactly the way it is composed in the initial image. Hmmmm. I generally use live view and show them how zooming changes everything. Once they get that we move on to the laptop where I show them how different cropping is... Of course, the next discussion is about how they don't want the aspect ratio to change....

Many times clients won't understand that some things need to be lit. "Do we have to take time to set up lights? Can't we just shoot with the available (fluorescent ceiling fixtures) lights?" That's an interesting discussion and also one that should be handled in the preliminary negotiations. If your client has been working under the presumption that nothing need be lit they'll expect the shoot to go like rocket and will likely have over promised their bosses about the number of shots they'll get... wildly. Guess who gets the blame? 

You might also want to manage your client's expectations when it comes to making promises they can't (or perhaps shouldn't) fulfill. My favorite two are, "We'll get the photographer to send you a print. You can share it with your mother----or use it on LinkedIn." And, "I promised our sister company that they could use the images too. They're splitting your invoice with us. Just a warning, they're really slow pay...."

The client expects that it would be no big deal for you to make a batch of prints and send them over for distribution but that's not reflected in your bid, job description, etc. and is something you would never agree to. Rather than stay mute and take up the discussion after the job is done you need to speak up at the very first moment the "free prints for everyone" speech starts. Unless you bid a fortune and the client agreed to it you don't have time to fulfill requests like this and you sure don't want the files you've worked hard to create in the hands of everyone in the client's company, trying their hands at image manipulation and plastering the work all over Facebook. 

The second issue above generally requires a full stop. "This was not in our agreement. We don't split jobs without additional compensation (remember, the images have intrinsic values to clients) and we don't vary the payment schedules in our agreements." If it's a "make it or break it" issue I am a proponent of turning to my assistant and saying, "Pack it up. We're out of here." It's better not to do the work than to have your value endlessly diluted. Negotiate if you can but if you can't you'll need to do what's right for your business first. 

My final two points on managing client expectations have to do with working conditions and then on delivery. 

I absolutely hate to have a client stand over my shoulder shouting encouragement to a shy and socially phobic sitter; or anyone else. I can't stand the frat party atmosphere of yelling "funny" stuff to sitters while we are trying to work and I'm not willing to put up with it. When we do portrait shoots on location I talk about MY EXPECTATIONS for a happy working environment. I ask clients not to chime in or co-direct when I am working. If they have a concern or issue I ask that they wait until I get to a stopping point and then we can pull ourselves aside and discuss. Nothing breaks the mood worse for most sitters than having two directors each trying to give directions that may cancel each other out. My expectation is that the client will stand back and let me do my job.

In the same vein we need to shoot in a designated area that ensures the subjects a bit of privacy and keeps out the passersby who seem to truly believe that their tired joke about "Joe being so ugly his face will break your camera!!!" Or, to the 300 pound woman from accounting, "Sheila! Get sexy with the camera!!!" This doesn't help anyone. I think we should position an H.R. person right outside the door of the makeshift studio for the day to deal with this kind of witless humor.

Finally, delivery. I can't tell you how many times I've put a delivery schedule into the agreement only to have the client mention on our way out of their building that, "I just found out that our CEO is doing a big pitch tomorrow morning! Can you get me the best shots from every set up we shot today and deliver them to my mailbox this evening? I know you said a week but YOU KNOW IT IS IN CORPORATE...." 

We used to try and figure something out. We don't anymore. We just say "no." Why? Because most times it's unnecessary. The client is just looking for someone to tell them "no" so they can go back to the CEO's admin with some ammunition. And secondly, we just don't want to compromise the integrity of the product. The client will never remember that they asked you to rush they will only remember that the images didn't turn out quite as well as they expected......

To recap: I insist on being paid. I need to let you know how many photographs to expect from our collaboration. I need you to understand that you don't OWN the photographs and don't have the right to distribute them everywhere like popcorn. I need you to understand that there are certain things cameras can't do and we need to work within the constraints of the laws of physics. Good work takes time. Good post production takes more time. I insist on being paid on time. Available light indoors sucks more often than you might think. I don't need a "cheering section" at the portrait shoot. I won't be making prints for everyone's mom. These people are employees, they are getting paid to be here. And by the way, I insist on being paid for the work  in a timely fashion. 

It's fun to think that all of what we do is somehow just "art" and that the universe takes care of monetizing artists but I'm here to tell you that this is a business and the important part is managing client's expectations. 

You want the transaction to work for everyone. That means it has to work for you too.


Mike Rosiak said...

Funny. I'm an independent contractor ("consultant") in business IT. Everything you said fits my work as well.

Anonymous said...

Good advice, and with appropriate modifications, true for any profession. I've been a trial lawyer for several decades, dealing mostly with injury cases, and ensuring accurate client expectations from the beginning is key to a smooth and productive business and professional relationship. The people who are most likely to have client difficulties are those who oversold expectations at the beginning.

Andy deBruyn said...

Excellent post. How many times over my career (25+ yrs) have I had to "educate" the client? At what point do you, the contractor think to yourself, while explaining each and every line item, Do I cut the cord now and leave? I mean, all this explaining takes time and energy - really at what point in time does the thought come, "This isn't going to work." A number of my clients were marketing consulting firms and the general consensus was - "Up to thirty minutes is conversation, after that it's consulting" Meaning the client's on the clock. This is a very frustrating part of the business. Aaaaargh!!

Mel said...

Another wonderful account of what goes on away from the camera. Your description of managing expectations in all details is great advice. It sounds like you've learned the hard way that clients can't read your mind!

Thanks for sharing the details behind your work.

Tilman Paulin said...

Thanks Kirk, posts like this one make you pretty unique.
It's the difference between a "photoblogger" and a blogging photographer. :-)

wils said...

Good post, helpful for professionals, and somewhat humorous for I've family who do all these things - heckel the sitter(s), want to rework, post everywhere w/o attribution and would never think of buying the wine to say thanks.

Max Rottersman said...

I learned a lot from "Gross Margin: 26 Factors Affecting Your Bottom Line" by Bill Lee. His essential point is that all businesses (clients) have things they will pay a lot for, and things that won't, which may not appear rational to the seller. In order to improve your bottom line, he advises that you adjust your pricing/service to fit what the buyer values about your service (which again, may not be what you value). For example, you could charge $4,000 a day, with $100 per rushed image, etc. That is, all the problems mentioned get a price. If it can possibly be done, give it a price and LET the client decide. So multiple blurred people. $2,000 (for special lenses, photoshop expert, etc.). In my experience, when I start thinking the client is stupid I say something stupid (which hurts my relationship).

What's ironic to me, Kirk, is you are one of the best photography educators around. Part of your frustration may be in putting in so much free work, which the client can read at VSL, and then having to do it again on-site, when you should get paid. Why don't you add a half day prep meeting for $500, whatever, where you can help the client understand what can, and cannot be done.

The internet has made licensing fees very difficult to assess/pay. Clients don't want unexpected bills hanging over their head. It's not their fault many people use/want the images (unlike the days of print). The photographers who solve that pricing problem the best will have a competitive advantage.

Tom Foster said...

Really an instructive post, Kirk. That's why I like your blog so much.

So...how did those 2 and 1/2 days go ?

Gato said...

Very good post. I'll be passing this along to some of my friends who are trying to get started in the photo business.

My days of running a photography business are well in the past, but I still remember the first time I felt secure enough to "fire" a client. One of my most liberating experiences in the business, and probably a big part of what success I had as well as a big help to keeping my sanity.

hbernstein said...

This is a classic post that has business relevance way beyond photography. Thanks.

Adam Richardson said...

Great piece!
I don't know who to credit this to as I just saw the image on twitter, and it was about design services (my field) rather than photography, but I expect the same applies:
I design everything: $100
I design, you watch, $200
I design, you advise, $300
I design, you help, $500
You design, I help, $800
You design, I advise, $1,300
You design, I watch, $2,100
You design everything, $3,400

Anonymous said...

As always, people want the Cadillac for the Chevy price

Dave said...

This post is gold Kirk.

Mark Davidson said...

I agree with Hbernstein, a Classic post.

My pet peeve is when clients get offended by contracts that spell out terms that inform them that I am not their infinite photo monkey for the time period covered in the contract. Too many think that I will make mountains rise from the seas while delivering fully retouched JPGs simultaneously via WiFi.

Raymond Charette said...

Thanks for the entertaining and true commentary.

Let me add that In the video world, it's worse!

Nick Davis said...

You have absolutely hit the nail on the head, Kirk. It is exactly the same on this side of the pond (UK) too! Added to which there are far too many part-time "professionals" who think that delivering 250 ill composed JPEGs straight out of the camera makes them a photographer. This leads clients to query why it takes so long to produce the results, implying you can't be much good if you have to use post-production or even editing! Late payment is the apparent norm in the UK, so after putting up with it for years I have now built eye watering rates of interest into my contracts. Strangely enough, accounts departments (where it seems to be a badge of honour not to pay on time) do seem to take notice of this and pay up! Thanks for a great post.

Mitch said...

It's the age old problem of Person X assuming everything done by anyone else in this world is simple and a child could do it in 3 minutes ... outside of their own clearly valuable and unique contributions to the cosmos of course.

I have always loved the term 'managing expectations' and have employed the technique heartily. But today I feel it falls more along the lines of waking up the oblivious and impatient that don't want to "bother with all that stuff". "You're shooting digital so we don't need all that ..." Yeah, I'll just use the 'direct and powerful executive portrait' action I bought for $11 in Ps. Just push the button, how hard can it be as a former boss used to say to me.

Years ago the actor Martin Milner looked at me after I'd shot one single frame and said "you got it? we're done, right?", paused, then walked off set. I learned a lot about how people view what we do in that uncomfortable moment and have always tried to advocate for myself as a creative and our profession in general.

Such a small fraction of being a photographer is being a photographer.