Firing a bad client and then spending a quiet afternoon photographing a few interiors at Zach Theatre. The RX10iii is my all purpose camera of choice.

Being dorky and snapping a selfie in the Serra Lounge mirror.

During a typical day in the photography business I understand that I'll have to deal with Austin traffic, juggled schedules, last minute cancellations and lots and lots of problem solving. We all do that, but one thing we should not put up with is a client bent on manipulating a deal so that's it's totally in their favor and offers you little to no value. I had a potential client who booked me to shoot a future project over a month ago. At the time we agreed to a schedule and to a fee. It was a small fee. 

But nothing sucks the profit out of a job like a really bad client. Here's the first warning sign:
you've negotiated a fee and a set of deliverables and you've talked about a time line. A couple weeks later the client calls and tries to cajole you into adding an evening social event without increasing the budget. You look ahead on the calendar, you remember that someone decent recommended you to this new client, and you bend. A week later you get an e-mail from an unknown person with an unknown company who has also sent along an exhaustive agenda, with lots of tight scheduling, for the very same event you've been booked on. She seems to think you know who she is and that her requests will have priority. She says she is working with your client.

You call the original requester and have a phone meeting in which you tell them that you don't have administrative staff or a booker and that, as per your agreement, all information and requests having to do with the show need to come from only one point of contact; him. You explain that on big shows, if you don't set up parameters like this you'll have five or ten "chiefs," who are not privy to your budget, or the terms of the jobs, snapping orders at you willy-nilly. Even the best photographer can't be in five places at once. 

Two weeks out from the show your client sends an e-mail claiming to be working on his show budget and asks if the number you agreed to was 1/2 X. Or about half of the rate you negotiated. You lead him back through the e-mail trail and show him the four or five times your original budget numbers were approved by him. He apologizes and then comes up with a non sequitur excuse about why you should accept 3/4ths of your original fee so that his budget works out better. You disagree and stick to the initial agreement.  Then he sends along another text indicating that he's now willing to do you a favor by.....paying you the price you both agreed upon in the beginning. And all of this begs the question: If the client is too stupid to look at recent e-mails to remind himself of your agreement how will he possibly have the snap to submit your invoice and get you paid. Seems like a long shot...

Doesn't sound like that much hassle, initially, but each step requires your attention and your response. Each response seems to generate some sort of tangential counter response. It's cumulatively a giant time vacuum. If you are smart you realize at a certain point that keeping toxic clients is bad for your business (and your general attitude). 

You fire said client. Client comes back to argue that they don't want to be fired and will, this time, work everything out. Your response? If you are smart you'll fire them again, even harder. A grizzled but financially comfortable senior photographer once said to me, "You don't get rich just keeping good clients, you get rich firing the bad ones. And you need to do it as soon as you realize that they are more trouble than they will ever be worth". 

There's an old business understanding that bad clients are about 20% of a given businesses clientele but they take about 80% of your time and effort. And you will never make them happy. You can fix this business problem by consistently looking out for the jerks and getting them out of the system as soon as you've become convinced that they do not have your best interests at heart. 

I'll happily spend those days, a few weeks from now, sleeping in, reading a book on the couch with my dog, and going to swim practice. My best idea of revenge is just to remember that this former (potential) client will be hard at work at a boring show, from early to late,  eating from a bad industrial buffet, and drinking mediocre coffee, and eating pastries from Sysco that were frozen solid 24 hours earlier, for three days in a row.

I was on the fence this morning but after a glorious noon swim and a lunch at my favorite cafe I went back to the studio and fired my unfortunate (almost) client right away. 

To clear my head, and surround myself with creativity and happiness, I grabbed my RX10iii, and a wooden monopod, and headed over to Zach Theatre. I'd promised to shoot a few interiors for a wonderful and compassionate client. Shows are in rehearsal, the lighting designer is doing her magic, the sound engineer and I spent a nice half an hour discussing microphones and I got the shots my client needed. I came home in a much better mood. 

I can only imagine some of you have much better tales of firing clients. I'd love to read them. I'm so happy this only seems to happen once a decade or so.

Zach Theatre Lobby, north to south.

Zach Theatre Lobby, south to north.


George Beinhorn said...

Just a quick thought: all bad clients are alike; all good clients are delightfully different.

George Beinhorn said...

Just a quick thought: all bad clients are alike; all good clients are delightfully dissimilar.

john gee said...

you need one bad (controllable)client to remind you only need one bad client

Gary said...

Lawyers occasionally have to fire bed clients, and I'm sure other professionals and businesses must do so as well. I wonder what gives rise to such a sense of entitlement in some people that they believe they can demand to change the terms of their agreements with no adjustments in the price. More generally, why are some people irredeemably difficult/obstreperous/confused. As you have written, the best clients collaborate with us to reach a goal. The bad clients see us as "the help" who should be grateful for the work notwithstanding their bad behavior and additional demands. Best to sever such relationships early.

UP41 said...

I have been reading your blog for ... Can't remember how long. I am not a photographer. But what a coincident, I just fire a client yesterday who want to cut retainer fees by half.

The Candid Frame said...

Great post. Amen, brother. You only have to make the mistake of not firing such a client once to learn a big lesson. The warnings signs are usually there if you take the time to read them and follow what they are suggesting.

Dave Jenkins said...

Good one, Kirk. I copied it into the file of your articles that I'm building for the ultimate book on the business of photography that we're going to do.

Rusty said...

Read your blog almost daily, the business aspects are universal. Had a client a few years ago that could have provided lots of work but did not take my recommendation once, then a second time. I decided there would not be a third time, fired. A few years later, toxic management changed out, they came back to me for more work, all good.

Michael Matthews said...

More power to you! I wish I'd had that option during a couple of years working for small ad agencies in Philadelphia. Not being the owner, my task was to endure.

Rick Keir said...

When I was a teenager, I read David Ogilvy's "Confessions of an Advertising Man". One line that has always stayed with me is his boast that "I am proud to say that I have fired far more clients than have ever fired me." (Quoted from memory).

As a teenager the idea that you could fire the client boggled my mind. It's been a worthwhile reminder at times.

Doug said...

A great read, and important. I've added the link to a local Facebook group's document about business practices, tips etc. that I curate. Thanks!

Ron Nabity said...

A couple of years ago, I had a simple headshot session at a local financial consulting company. Owned by husband and wife, self-proclaimed "former theatrical celebrities", the warning signs presented quickly when the wife wouldn't stop interrupting her husband's session with "stage-mom" antics. They were extremely obsessed with their appearances, in spite of the many decades that had passed since the time they were on stage. His neck was overflowing his collar and the wife insisted that I could easily "just photoshop that". (I was reminded of Dolly Parton talking about her outfit, saying she had to stuff 20 lbs of potatoes into a 10 lb sack.)

After reviewing the proofs, they demanded a complete reshoot, even though I had spent twice as much time trying to accommodate their theatrics. They threatened to stop payment on their check if I didn't do the reshoot. I delivered their check as a favor to save them the bank fee. It was cathartic to be so kind to them as I fired them.

A couple of months later I noticed they had posted their new staff photos to their website. The owners' portraits were so heavily touched up, they looked like the parents on Family Guy.

Fortunately, these types of clients are rare, but they do make for good "learning opportunities." And a good laugh.

joe gilbert said...

Firing bad clients has been one of the best personal moral boosters I can think of. There is great satisfaction in knowing that you are not dependent on those who make your business life difficult. Two memories made me smile while reading your post: 1) A long time client was acquired, and the new director scheduled a conference call with several vendors (me included). I waited more than 20 minutes for the new director to start the discussion before hanging up and going about my business. He called about an hour later, attempted to chide me for not being a team player and then stated that our agreed to rates were going to be some fraction thereof. I'd already started the assignment in beautiful Vicksburg, MS and politely told him good-bye.. I enjoyed a great day of tourism and photography that day and never worked for them again! 2) A long time client (slow payer) called before a trial and needed copies of some year old reports. The associate got snarky with me when I told her I'd be glad to send the reports in question, as zoo as I received a check for an almost as old invoice. It felt great!

Best, Joe

Anonymous said...

Love your wooden monopod

texascbx said...

As usual, your blog has some of the most interesting things to say about photography and life in general that I read.

Ray said...

I was a city bus driver and used to subscribe to the WSJ not because it was a great paper, which it is, but because it didn't have a sports section or funnies, i.e. my customers didn't want to borrow my paper.

Two points:

1) A very few bus riders made life miserable for me and other riders and I tried to weed those people out before they even boarded the bus. I have story upon story about those customers but you don't want to read about it, so on to point two.

2) One of the last WSJ articles I read before I retired was about a small hotel chain whose profits went up after they gave employees the authority to fire difficult customers. The hotel ownership acknowledged the 80/20 rule and realized the customer isn't always right. The hotel desk clerk (and the city bus driver) weren't always right but they were right more often than not and life was better for everybody except the difficult customer.

Kirk Tuck said...

More and more people in larger corporations seem to negotiate from the position that artists are all a commodity and that the corporation is in the position of all power. They always seem shocked when confronted with the reality that most of the world (at least the one I live and work in...) is not that way and that most business transactions are win/win or business is unsustainable.

It makes me a feel a bit sorry for them. They are the ones trapped by their needs. Let em scramble.

Mitch said...

Signed estimates, which I used to do in FileMaker and now do with an ugly but effective online system, usually cause all of this attempted renegotiation to happen before said estimate is signed and said date is booked.

Equally effective in creating silence is the "here's my real price and here's the itemized line of discounts I'm already giving you" estimate.

So yeah, let them scramble since their attempt at strong-arming you (in order to fix the budget they screwed up OR in order to gain themselves a bonus for coming in under budget- a popular tactic- ) didn't work.