Before I was an insurance broker I was a freelance photographer. I was a good photographer and had a style clients would hire me to shoot. I always delivered work on time and made sure the client knew what to expect. Despite being good at my job and striving to make clients happy, I did have one job that went badly wrong.
I was hired to shoot the interior of an independent hotel. I'd done jobs like this before so had similar work the client could look at in my portfolio to get a feel for what to expect.
Spotting (but ignoring) a red flag
I met my client beforehand to discuss their objectives and ask for a shot list. I explained that I'd do my best to capture as much detail within the timescale they'd booked me for, but a shot list would ensure I get the most important photos and don't miss any must-have shots.
Why is this important? It doesn't matter what service you provide. Code, design, photography… a clear statement of work, solid project spec or shot list means you are both on the same page about what work will be delivered.
It removes nasty surprises and reduces the likelihood of the client claiming they didn't receive the work they expected. It also gives both client and freelancer the opportunity to have important conversations. If something is flagged at this stage that sparks questions, both parties can have this conversation prior to work being underway.
My client didn't provide a shot list. Instead they were happy for me to "do my thing". Whilst this might feel like the client is putting their confidence in you and giving you creative control, it's actually a red flag.
I was too naive to grasp this. I photographed what I thought was important and hoped the client would be satisfied. This put me in a vulnerable position. If the client wasn't happy they could point the finger at me and I couldn't refer to the shot list to back up the decisions I'd made.
Considering I'm writing about a client being unhappy with my work, it will come as no surprise the outcome wasn't good. The client:
- didn't like my edits
- felt I'd missed important details
- wanted a certain aesthetic I hadn't provided
Suddenly I had an unhappy and angry client on my hands. What is the best way to handle this?
Being confident in your work even when things go wrong
It was obvious I hadn't met the client's expectations. After taking some time to clear my head and identify where it had gone wrong, I didn't feel solely to blame for this.
The client had looked through my body of work so there should have been no surprise around my style. I was a natural light photographer who would shoot clean, bright photos with high contrast. This was the aesthetic shown throughout my portfolio.
They were looking for the opposite. They wanted a moody aesthetic with ambient lighting accentuated with off-camera flash. I don't do off-camera flash.
All of this should have been discovered prior to work being undertaken. It was an important lesson to learn about communicating your style and approach with clients.
Even if your client has looked at your portfolio, it's best to verbally discuss your style and approach to work. For example, "I will be working with available, natural light to capture bright photos with punchy colours". This gives your client the opportunity to say what they have in mind if it contrasts with your approach. You can then decide if this is something you can do or make a recommendation to hire someone else.
Some freelancers work with moodboards for style direction. It's helpful to confirm what clients want with reference imagery and this can ensure everybody is on the same page.
With my client saying I'd missed important details, I highlighted that it's impossible to know exactly what they want without a shot list. The shot list exists to give the project clarity, and as they'd not provided one I had to take the photographs I thought would be suitable.
When there's a disagreement about work it's crucial to stand your ground but make sure your client feels heard. Shutting down your client when they voice concerns is not helpful.
Why is this important? It's not a good look if you're avoiding finding a solution and it can even aggravate the situation, so do aim to compromise and be helpful. Do this without putting yourself in a position of admitting liability and doing more work for free.
It is scary standing your ground when there's a dispute around work. When a client isn't happy our natural reaction is to accept blame and scramble to appease the client. However, it's important to take a deep breath and approach it with a calm head.
This situation felt like both parties could have done better with communication. The client should have provided the shot list I'd asked for, and I should have discussed my style and approach to make sure they were onboard instead of assuming my portfolio had done the talking.
Striking the balance of standing your ground and empathising with your client
A reasonable compromise was to capture the photos they felt were missing for an additional fee, and provide different edits of the existing photos to better suit the style they wanted to achieve at no extra cost. This meant we could successfully meet their aesthetic goals, and I wouldn't be out of pocket for shooting the photos they claimed I'd missed.
However, my client was becoming increasingly frustrated in their emails and pushing for a full refund. They also felt I should re-shoot everything for free.
In most cases both parties should be able to reach a compromise, but nothing I suggested was good enough. This was when I decided to lean on my insurance for help. Whilst insurance doesn't cover refunds, it does have your back if clients take things that little bit further.
For example, a legal threat could trigger the policy. Or even just a complaint or criticism might be enough for the insurer to accept your plight as a circumstance that may give rise to a claim and provide support.
This means you can navigate bumpy situations with confidence because, if your client does take things that bit further, you have a team of legal experts guiding you to the best outcome.
It was my insurance that gave me the confidence to stand my ground and say "I've delivered the photos and I've delivered them to a high standard. I've worked with you to find a compromise. I don't see where we can go from here".
This put my client in a position of needing to make a decision about:
- Taking things further by involving solicitors (not ideal, but that's why I have insurance)
- Accepting the compromise which would allow us to complete the job
- Walking away and putting the situation to bed
They chose the third option.
What did I learn?
This whole problem stemmed from the client feeling like they didn't get the work they expected. This is where a lot of the claims we deal with at With Jack stem from.
Here's what I learned and the advice I'd give others.
- Life is easier when there's good communication between all parties. Even when you think you've been clear (I shared my portfolio of similar work) always talk to the client in detail about what they can expect
- Discussing your process prior to work beginning means you can have difficult conversations before you're both committed. If it transpires you aren't a good fit for each other, it's best to discover this before any money has been exchanged, contracts have been signed and work has started
- It never gets easy hearing a client isn't happy with your work. You're always going to take this personally
- Whenever you're in dispute with a client, take a step back so you don't say or make an offer you regret. Your initial reaction is to do whatever you can to appease them, but this can cause more trouble down the line. Make sure you aren't opening yourself up to be taken advantage of
- Be open to compromise. If things get messy it will show you've been reasonable and tried to work together to find a solution. This will work in your favour if it reaches the stage solicitors are involved in negotiations
- Whilst compromise is important, there are some things that should be non-negotiable—like clients providing a shot list. I should have been firmer about not starting work without it. If a client won't pay your deposit, sign your contract or provide you with the deliverables you need to do your job, it's a red flag
- Lean on your insurance. Statistically speaking you won't have to use the legal side of things, but it can give you the confidence to stand your ground. I felt I was able to say to my client "I've done the work. I'm not sure where else we can go from here" which lead to a swift conclusion