Working as a photographer will expose you to all different types of people. As such, you’ll have lots of different relationships with your clients. Most of the time, people will be wowed with the pictures you produce and thank you for your work. Yes, seriously. But sometimes you’ll get a client who, for one reason or another, was disappointed in you enough to ask for a refund. This can be a difficult thing to accept as a photographer because you already did the work. What should you do?
What should you do if a client asks you for a refund? Generally speaking, you should not offer refunds. You’ve already done the work; you can’t get the time or resources you spent back. This is especially true if you have a formal agreement or contract.
This is a tricky situation to approach. Of course, you want to provide the best customer service possible. But at the same time, you need to recognize that your time and talents are valuable. Let’s get into some specifics on how to handle a requested refund.
Should You Give a Refund if Asked?
Even as a photographer, time is money. When a client of yours asks for a refund, they aren’t recognizing the value of the time and effort you put into the shoot. You could have spent this amount of time with another client. If you think this approach is wild, I challenge you to name another service business that offers refunds after the service is rendered.
It’s generally a good idea to have a firm “no refunds” policy. This will protect from having a wasted afternoon, but also from inviting repeated refund requests. Most demands for money back will stem from those who get cold feet or don't like the process.
Back when I freelanced IT, I had a client for a computer build who changed their mind after delivery. It started as any other successful client build I had done until the end. This person let me know they wanted a refund by stopping by my house and leaving the computer and all peripherals in front of my house. I didn't know about this until later that day when I nearly tripped over everything outside of my front door trying to make my way to class that night. Because of this event, I changed my entire business model. What an asshole.
Other times refund requests come from genuine dissatisfaction. However, there may occasionally be people who simply try to take advantage of photographers and other professionals by feigning displeasure to get free or discounted services. This happens in every industry and there are ways to address those types of scammers.
What if You Really Messed Up?
Nobody’s perfect. There may occasionally be a situation where you made a mess of things. If the client’s criticism is justified, you may want to consider making an exception and offering some form of refund by way of discount.
If you know that you screwed up before the client has approached you about a refund, you may want to get out ahead of it and offer some type of compensation pre-emptively. This kind of above and beyond customer service can transform an angry client into a repeat customer.
If you screwed up, own up to it. You may actually get a repeat client out of it. So, what kind of error would justify extending a credit to a client. Here’s three common reasons:
- Your Photos are Bad – As a professional photographer, you promise a certain level of quality. Maybe your pictures are overexposed or out of focus. Maybe you forgot to take a lens cap off. Maybe you forgot to bring a spare battery and had to shoot off your iPhone. If your photos are objectively bad, you may have to eat a refund.
- You Arrived Late – Appearing as a professional is important for your image. Tardiness can be a huge deal for some people and may be seen as a sign of disrespect or incompetence. If you want your clients to value your time, you have to value theirs. If you were still able to do the shoot, this probably doesn’t warrant a full refund. But consider ponying up something.
- You Disrupted the Event – When your shooting, it’s easy to get laser focused on your viewfinder and lose some situational awareness. It’s possible that while trying to snap the perfect shot, you bumped something over, made a loud noise, or got in the way somehow. If this happens at a critical moment in say, a wedding, it could be a pretty big deal. Assess the damage and correct.
These examples lend themselves more to a reshoot than a refund, unless you drag down a wedding. God help you if you tank a wedding. More information on reshoots below.
What Can You Do?
It can be scary and intimidating to be asked for a refund. What is the right response? They seem to want to be done with you but how can you provide a good experience and right any wrongs without getting scammed out of a day’s work? Here are some ideas to help you navigate managing a disappointed client.
Stick to Your Guns
When you have an unhappy client, it can feel alluring to travel the path of least resistance. Extending a refund can feel like an easy way to placate someone being difficult. Surely, it will be worth it if it avoids a negative public review or maintains a good relationship with a valuable client.
The reality is that a client who you have to extend refunds to, essentially providing free labor for isn’t actually all that valuable. They are unlikely to respect you more if you bow before their demands, but they might learn that you can be pushed. When you provide a refund, you vindicate the customer in thinking that your work was poor enough to be worth less or nothing at all.
If you took quality photos, fulfilled the terms of your contract, and held yourself in a professional manner—then stand by your product. Odds are that you took great photos in a professional manner. Your client is more likely to realize that if you confidently reaffirm the value of the work you did. Be careful how you navigate this option though. Your approach is everything here.
Point to Your Contract
Is the thing your client is upset about covered in the contact you both signed? If so, then you can point to the agreement they signed as evidence that you did nothing wrong and all work was within scope of your agreement.
Many people will back down pretty quickly if you can point to a document they signed. A contract is an excellent way for both parties to have their expectations spelled out in writing. Encourage the client to review the contract before signing.
In an extreme circumstance where a client is not so much asking for a refund as withholding payment. Referencing your contract can be a way of credibly threatening legal action. If the client continues to refuse to offer payment, having a solid contract will be crucial to you successfully suing for damages in small claims court.
Make a Concession
While extending refunds should be something that you generally refuse to do, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways that you can throw a client a bone. Often, it’s less about the money then about making someone feel heard. Offering some additional service can be a way to deescalate an angry client without giving back your hard-earned cash. some ideas on things you can offer to meet a client halfway.
Offer Free Edits
Most people don’t realize how easy it is to adjust contrast or color correct photos. If you take some pictures that are a little underexposed or drab looking, it can be a bummer for a client expecting to see crisp, professional photos. If they express disappointment, offer to touch the photos up at no additional charge. With a little practice and tools like batch editing, you can breeze through the process.
If the problem is obvious enough, you might consider doing this before providing the photos to the client. You can mention that you did some basic complementary edits, and they can be presented with a much cleaner, more polished final product at first glance. Doing this may prevent a problem from arising in the first place.
Many photographers touch up their photos anyway so if this is something that's new to you, I encourage you to either make this a default part of your service package or some type of lightweight addon.
If the problem your client has isn’t something that can be fixed in post, but could be easily reshot, you may want to consider offering reshoots. Perhaps your client had a really specific shot that they were dreaming of, but never told you and assumed you would just know (it happens). You could offer to meet another day and take the picture.
You likely won’t have to schedule another full session, just a quick thirty minutes to snap a handful of things that you didn’t get the first time or didn’t fit their vision. Reshoots won’t always be possible, but when they are, this can be a relatively easy way to diffuse a conflict with a client.
Give a Coupon
In the right context offering a discount on future services may appease a displeased client. You need to be very careful with this one if offered in the wrong way, in the wrong situation, offering a coupon can feel really tone-deaf. You don’t want to give the impression that you’re using an unpleasant experience to squeeze more money out of a client.
However, if the situation is not particularly severe and you’ve got a good relationship with the client, or they’re already a repeat customer, then offering a discount on the next one can be a good way to stay firm on a no refunds policy while offering something of value to the client.
Acknowledge the Importance of the Occasion
Often in a situation where you have an upset client, there’s somewhat of an iceberg when it comes to the issue your client is presenting. You’re only seeing the ten percent on the surface. If you can find the root of the problem underneath, you may be able to fix the issue without giving any money back.
A good way to get to the root of the problem is to acknowledge how important the event you’re photographing was. For you, it’s just another day at the office. But for them, this was an occasion important enough to have professionally photographed. Weddings, baby showers, birthdays, anniversaries—these are all occasions that mean something to people.
You’ll be amazed by how much people calm down and listen to you once you recognize how important the event was to them. From there, you can move on to finding a solution that will appease the client.
How Can You Prevent Requested Refunds?
In a perfect world, you’d never have to deal with clients asking for refunds. You won’t be able to prevent this from happening one hundred percent of the time, but there are some measures you can take to make this issue less likely to arise in the first place.
Take Top-Notch Photos
In order to stand by your product, you need to consistently produce great photos. Always be on your A-game. Don’t get lazy and don’t coast. Always perform equipment checks, lighting checks, have back equipment. Preparation is half the battle. Then take a mix of classic shots and creative, innovative photos. If you wow your clients, your way less likely to run into issues.
You want to be treated like a professional, so act like one. Show up on time, dress appropriately, be busy but not disruptive. If your client views you as a professional, they’re a lot less likely to try to step all over you. Remember that you are your brand, not just your photos. Sell yourself out there.
You might be surprised how often a refund isn’t really about the quality of the pictures. Often these start with miscommunications or mismatched expectations between the client and the photographer. This happens all the time in business, so expect this to also happen with creatives as well. If possible, take some time to set expectations with your clients. Here some things to cover.
Some photographers are very hands-on; they direct people to stand in specific places or in specific ways and tell them when to smile and so on. Other photographers aim for a more candid approach; they’re a fly on the wall capturing things as they occur.
If you act one way and your client is expecting the opposite, it can rub them the wrong way. Explain ahead of time how you prefer to operate and why it may spare you some ire down the road.
Go over when you plan to arrive and when you plan to leave. Cover the itinerary and when things are going to happen. Is there a wedding planner or event planner that you need to coordinate with? For just a basic photoshoot, go over what locations you’ll be shooting in, what backdrops you’ll be using, and how long you might spend on each. Paint a picture of what the session is going to look like and make sure they’re on board.
We already covered the situation where the client is expecting to get a specific picture or shot. If you don’t provide an opportunity for them to express this kind of request, they might not tell you until after it’s too late. Ask directly to describe any pictures they’re hoping to get or anything else they’re expecting to see from you.
Write a Thorough Contract
I didn't get into contracts with my IT freelancing, nor did I with the few times I freelanced a few photography gigs. It wasn't until my web freelancing gigs that taught me the importance of a thorough contract or even a statement of work.
Especially with photography nowadays, I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a thorough contract that details as many elements of the process as possible. Take the time to write up a contract that really covers your bases and then customize it for each client. Then you can quickly and easily explain it to your client so they don't get analysis paralysis.
Here are some ideas for things you might put in your contract to cover yourself later:
- An estimated number of pictures or shots you’ll provide to the client.
- Number of photographers who will be on site.
- Start and end times of the shoot.
- A disclaimer that you can’t control the weather and won’t provide a refund for imperfect conditions.
- A no cancellations policy.
- A no refunds policy.
The only thing scarier than a client who asks for a refund is a client who never pays in the first place. Getting stiffed is the worst thing that can happen to you as a photographer or any aspiring professional for that matter. Remember my IT freelancing story above? I was prepaid for my labor but I covered the parts.
I ordered the parts to be repaid two weeks later by the client. Not only did they not pay for the parts and ask for a refund for labor, they also broke the monitor. Luckily I was able to return the monitor and was able to sell the parts individually. I was still out quite a bit of time so after this encounter, I changed my entire freelancing business model to be paid FIRST.
You can also be like many other photographers and avoid this by requiring payment in advance of the shoot. Ensuring that you’ve got money in hand before you start snapping pictures means that you aren’t going to have to hound any clients for payment. Money collected now is better than money collected later.
This also puts the power to refund or not fully in your hands. If there’s a rare instance where you decide to issue a credit, you can be the one to make that decision. The power stays in your hands when you require prepayment.
If You Have to Give a Refund
There may be cases where you feel you do need to issue a refund. This can be uncomfortable and unpleasant for all parties. There are a few different ways to approach offering a refund.
Give a Partial Refund
If you can get away with it, perhaps only provide a partial refund. Chances are that you got some pictures that are useable. Explain that you went through all the work of doing the photoshoot and that your time alone is valuable. Unless you really didn’t end up with any photos worth keeping, partial credit is probably a fair way to meet halfway.
Offer to Make it Right
Own up to your mistake. If you’re offering a refund, then you better have a good reason for it. Whatever went wrong, take full responsibility without pointing the finger at anyone else. You may be able to combine a partial refund with some of the concession techniques we discussed earlier to smooth things over. Whatever you choose to offer, be clear that you’re trying to do what’s right by your client.
It’s a simple thing, but a genuine “I’m sorry” goes a long way. Explain that you value and take pride in your work and this isn't a common thing. It’s easy to get your pride wrapped up in your work. You should be proud of your work. But apologizing costs you nothing and can be the first step in cooling someone off.
Don’t meet aggression with aggression. Own up to your mistakes. Stand by your product and your policies. And apologize that you didn’t meet the client’s expectations. You can’t please everyone all the time, but with any luck, you’ll be able to mend fences with the clients that are most valuable to you.
There you have it. A few different ways to negotiate with your client whether the refund request is your fault or not. This can be one of the more painful parts of the photography business cycle but it doesn't have to be. There's real potential here to bolster your relationship with your client.
In the comments below, let me know what experiences you've had. What was your experience with your best client and/or your worst client? Did you ever have to fire a client or change your entire business model?