Thursday, April 29, 2010

Business Day Thursday: Give The Money Back Or Not? --Updated

Good Morning Everybody,

We had another great shoot yesterday and wrapped about 9:15 p.m. last night.  I think everyone was pretty "beat" - me included ;~)  We reviewed the classes best images yesterday and there were some beautiful images in their set. I'm planning to share a few of their good ideas with you next week and show you what we were up to this week. I think you'll like what I've got in store, so be sure to check back. Tonight we all get back together at our home for a great dinner and a little R&R - that should be fun, too.

Hey, I'm running a bit behind today because of the long day yesterday so let's get right to today's post.  Let me know your take on my friend's situation in the comment section below. Here we go...

Give The Money Back Or Not?

Money - Fotolia_798663_Subscription_L Last week I received an email from a good friend of mine asking my advice on a "customer service" issue that had popped up in his business.  He felt he had a client that was about to sue him - yep, it was a BIG "customer service" issue.

He also had forwarded me the email correspondence that had transpired between the both of them. Here is the basic story recap:

He got a call from a high school senior, let's call him Bob, about shooting his senior photos.  My friend, let's call him Tom, was happy to oblige.  He recently started his business and was looking to book all the sessions he could.

Tom explained his studio policies to Bob and asked Bob, who was at the legal age of 18, to sign the agreement which laid out the policies of the studio and the price for the shoot, $300.00. Everyone was happy and Tom got some great shots of Bob. I saw them myself and they were really good. Tom forwarded the images to Bob who seemed very excited about them as well. Everything was shaping up into a great studio/client relationship, or so Tom thought.

A few days had gone by and then Tom gets his first communication, an email, from Bob's mother. She was quite insulting about what she felt was not a good set of photographs and she wanted the $300.00 back. My friend Tom responds in an email to Bob's mom that stated that Bob, being of sound mind and legal age, entered into the binding contract, loved the photos, and was not entitled to give her a refund. Let me say that his response was in no way offensive. He was simply "sticking to his guns" as per his studio policy.

Hit the "Read More..." link below for the rest of the story.

Bob's mother fires off another email to my friend Tom - this time she "amped it up" even more.  My friend Tom, wrote back a lengthy response outlining the entire episode from booking, to shooting, to delivering the images to HIS happy customer.  There was still no reason for him to make the refund - he had fulfilled his contractual arrangement and his customer was happy.

One more email from Bob's mother - this time things are fully "amped up".  Shortly after the mother's last email I get an email from my friend Tom, who by the way,  had forwarded me copies of all the emails.  He tells me that he feels he is going to get sued, could I PLEASE offer some advice?

OK, what would you do? You've got a signed copy of your policy agreement, $300.00, and a happy customer - Bob. It's the mother that's upset - do you give the money back?

Folks, I writing on this topic today because it speaks to how we all should handle our own customer service issues. Is the customer always right? Should the money be returned? How should we or could we have handled this situation to keep it from getting out of hand?

First, let me offer you one very important observation I've learned over the years. You can't learn much about customer service from happy clients. You learn your greatest customer service lessons from your most difficult and most demanding clients.  Do not shy away from these kinds of situations if they come up, and I guarantee you, they will come up a number of times in your business career.  Embrace the challenge, think through your approach to the issue, and plan for it to have a amicable outcome.

OK, how would I have handled the situation?

He are my Eight Steps To Handling Difficult Customers.

1. NEVER, EVER become involved in an adversarial relationship with your customer - EVER!!! It is a sure way not to torpedo any kind of reasonable outcome.

2. After being contacted by the customer, try to analyze what the essential issues are. Try to determine how severe the issues are. Sometimes the problems can look bigger that they are and there probably is an easy solution that satisfies both you and your client.

3. If a customer is upset with some level of your product or service, NEVER respond with an email!  Emails are the least efficient way to secure a solution to any kind of problem and can sometimes have a very damaging effect on the final outcome, as my friend Tom found out last week.

4. ALWAYS plan at least a phone call response to the customer.  If it’s a particularly serious issue you are trying to resolve, plan to do it at a personal, face to face meeting. 

5. When calling the distressed client back, always be upbeat and positive. Your main message should always be, "Don't worry about a thing. I promise we'll get things resolved."  Let your customer hear the words from your mouth and feel the words from your heart. Emails don't let you do that in the slightest sense. Words can be communicated in an email, but your feelings can only be effectively  communicated by the tone of  your voice and voice inflections in that phone conversation.

6. Most important - Give your customer a "good listen". Verbally nod affirmatively that you understand the issues the client is trying to communicate to you. You can verbally nod your understanding of the issues by simply repeating back short snippets of what the customer is telling you.

7. Once you fully understand the issues you are set to work with your client on reaching an amicable solution. That solution could include refunds, allowances, additional photography, additional photographs, or any combination of the above.

8. Remember, working towards a good customer solution is a process. You don't want to be reactive, you want to be proactive in reaching that win-win solution.

In all my years in business, there has never been a time when I haven't been able to achieve a reasonable solution. Sometimes, if you really messed up, a heartfelt apology along with #7 above will get the problem solved, too.

So what did I advise my friend Tom to do in his situation? I scolded him slightly for all his email responses and told him he needed to talk to Bob's mother personally. And, if she is still really upset after the telephone conversation just make the refund and be finished with it.

I was amazed when he told me he had asked the same advice of several other people and I was the only one to suggest he refund the money. You know, life is too short to fill it with hassles.  His email solution and his re-iterating the facts to Bob's mother in follow-up emails only served to escalate the situation. 

Most customers who are upset about your product or service mostly just want to have their complaint heard. Once you get past that, making them happy again is not that difficult to do.

Think about it yourself. You are really upset about something and call customer support. Don't you really remember the customer service folks that give you a good "listen".  And, you get to a workable solution much more quickly, don't you?

I love the word "disarming". I had a client years ago who commented that my studio manager was so "disarming" meaning that she listened and effectively "dis-armed" him - made him put down his "arms" - so she could reach the solution to the problem which was, by the way , for him to pay his bill. Be "disarming" when communicating with your client about their problem.

Back to my friend Tom - where did he go wrong with the shoot? The pictures looked great. Bob loved them. Tom only made one small mistake. He was only shooting for Bob.  When you are shooting high school seniors, you are shooting for the high schoolers and their moms and grandparents. Kent and Sarah Smith said it best two weeks ago in my Business Day Thursday post, "Doing It Right - Part 1". Watch it again right here and you'll see what I mean.


I just recently talked with my friend Tom about how his situation resolved.  Well, he had a real phone conversation with Bob’s mother, offered an apology for the fact that she did not like the images, suggested that he would be happy to suggest another photographer who might shoot images closer to the style she was looking for, gave her a good “listen”, and offered to refund the $300.00.

Bob’s mom apologized for having gotten so upset, thanked him for the call, got to tell her side of the story, said she hoped there would be no hard feelings between them – and took the refund.

That’s how it is suppose to work and it did.  Sometimes you have to get personal – and that’s always the best way to offer customer service.


Hey gang, that's it for me today.  My class starts in about an hour and guess what, we're talking business today ;~)

See everybody tomorrow, -David


  1. I think the easy way out of this for your friend is to do a repeat shoot (at a discount if they'll go for it, free otherwise) to get the shots the Mum wants to see.

    He'll get a happy Mum (because she gets her pictures), a happy client (because he gets his pictures) and it'll diffuse the whole situation.

    Just offering the refund will get your friend nowhere - except, just maybe, the small claims court.

    I've been in high value software sales for many years and had to deal with many "difficult" and "disappointed" clients. Offering more value to them (at minimal cost to me) has helped, as you say, disarm many situations.

    See if your friend will give this approach a try.

    If you don't ask, you don't get.

    Parkylondon [just google it]

  2. If the senior was male, as your post seems to indicate, I think the photographer is probably caught in the middle of a family problem. When I was a senior, I had to be forced to take my senior pictures and my mom handled everything from start to finish. I was strictly a prop. If this kid scheduled and completed the photoshoot completely on his own, it probably just pissed the mom off that she wasn't involved and photos by Annie L wouldn't have made her happy. It's no fun being the vent for larger problems unrelated to you...

  3. Good story and I think your advice is great as well. $300.00 isn't worth the hassle.

    I'd like a short "rest of the story" report down the road if you get a chance.

  4. Your point about customer service is "right on target" and very timely. In my opinion "customer service" in our great country is at an all time low. An it's so bad because of the very points you made David.

    Its a lesson all of us, photographers or most other professions, should try to keep in mind.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. David, this is one reason I’m a big fan of organizations like PPA. Often times they can really help someone like your friend who is just starting out and has this type of issue. I’ll assume your friend only forwarded some low resolution images to “Bob”, and not prints. If so, then the mother is truly unhappy and your advice is spot on. So, let’s make the mother happy.

    PS Your friend is lucky to have you as a friend!

  6. I would have suggested he keep the money but offer to do a reshoot. Perhaps he shot in a very modern, edgy style and the mother wanted something more traditional. A short additional session and some extra images in the style mom wanted would have made her happy and the kid could also have kept his favorites. The photographer would still probably make a profit, although smaller, and would have a happy customer.

  7. Brian P. Colt Jr12:40 PM, April 29, 2010

    Interesting situation that your friend is facing, it really illustrates the conundrum of customer service. On one hand, the mother has no legal right to sue your friend. She was not party to the contract in any fashion, and the contract that her son entered into conforms with the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Section 2 in that it was entered into by a person of legal age, sound mind and consideration was given by both parties. This makes the mother a third-party which has suffered no harm from services provided by the photographer - therefore the photographer has no liability to the mother. Even if the mother claimed that the photographs were of such poor quality (not the case) that they somehow caused her harm, she would have a difficult time successfully arguing such a claim in court.

    So, legally the photographer has no worries. If the client is satisfied with the services then the terms of the contract has been fulfilled.

    The difficult part here is the customer service issue. If the mother has connections with the community, particularly with other high school families, then the photographer's budding business may suffer.

    However, it sounds like the mother will not be completely satisfied even if the money is refunded. In my experience if an individual has escalated a situation to the point of threatening a law suit, then they will not be satisfied even with a refund and will disparage the quality of the photographer's work anyway.

    If the party has no legal claim to a refund and will probably bad-mouth the photographer anyway, I say keep the money.

  8. Great advice, especially number 3. I wonder if that would have occurred to me? I guess most people default to responding by email to avoid direct confrontation, but just as you illustrated, it just makes matters worse.

  9. David,
    Excellent advice. The $300 is not worth the grief.
    However, I am wondering if Bob and his mom ended up with any photos from this session, either prints or digital proofs. If so, it seems like your friend Tom was scammed.

  10. Did they return the photos with the refund, or just get some free photos for being a complainer?

  11. I really do love your blog, pieces like this are amazingly useful for me starting out in photography. Thank you so much for what you do!

    (LOVED your last book btw, best wedding book i've read)

  12. I would be careful trying to apply the UCC as that applies to contracts for sale of goods. It is quite possible that contract is a service contract and would therefore be governed by common law. I agree the mother is a third party & was likely not contemplated in the contract, but I like to always keep in mind that there is more to business that being right.

  13. Very interesting situation. While I agree with your advice on how to handle the situation, I find it more than a little sad that the mother took the full refund after an apology and a good listen. While there was nothing left for the photographer to do, I am again dissapointed in the fact that there are clients out there who simply want something for nothing and will stop at nothing to get it. I had a situation in which a parent received pictures of his son because he said he had paid (but had not)and the school was going to make the teacher pay because she "must have lost his payment." Luckily this is a rare situation and one which, as you say, is not worth the hassle. But I am sorry that such people are getting away with stealing our time and products.

  14. I have been following your blog from afar for some time now and while I have no interest in weddings some of the stuff you cover is priceless. This article is a fine example.

  15. I chuckled while reading this, thinking back to the post of the female duo wedding photographers who were on court TV. On a serious note, however, this lesson illustrates all the many balls we photographers must juggle. I would venture to say that most of us who follow DPT are at the very least aspiring professionals. We have a HUGE responsibility and our learning and studies never end, and must encompass more than perfecting our craft and art. We are dealing with people and must therefore learn quite a bit about the sales profession. So if that is true then think about all we must learn and put to practice. Purchasing a camera from retail and finding a family member or friend willing to dub us their “wedding photographer” does not entitle us to say we are wedding (or portrait) photographers and to create a facebook page. We must Practice Drill and Rehearse. Everyday. We must learn technical qualities of our equipment and of lighting. We must learn how to pose. We need to learn composition. We must know how to deal effectively with people. We need to learn how to use our software and we must learn how to run a business. And once we learn these we must refine them each day. And sometimes we need to juggle many of these elements in just a few, short moments of time. All that entails lots of work and energy and is why we must P-D-R each day if this is what we aspire. I don’t have a wedding gig every week but I am now up to a periodic wedding and I am encouraged because as I do these gigs I find that off-camera lighting is Greek to the client and the attendees. Sorry, but that makes me happy. It means I must be the winner of my prospective clients’ business and it fuels me with the confidence and conviction to close that sale because I am offering something that their other candidates are not doing. They ask what it [the off-camera light] does and I am happy to illustrate the difference. Thank goodness for David giving us daily reminders that we must perfect our craft, and that we must also study the sales profession! Brian F.

  16. Actually, as I study this I have a question. What if Tom—after giving a refund—gave Bob prints. Free prints. Tom is a pretty darn good photographer. Bob (or mom, or whomever) is dissatisfied (or so we think). I know our ego might be bruised and I know some may say this could invite others to come along and take advantage of Tom but let’s be realistic. Tom, being a good photographer, has aspirations of being successful. Such would necessitate his booking multiple times more gigs than this single $300 job. Wouldn’t it be awesome for a) Bob to bring in more business for Tom by showing his portraits to friends and b) Tom at some later date being able to sell the family portrait to mom? Just using tunnel vision this post gives Tom an opportunity for two prospective clients for future business. Then comes Bob and his girlfriend, and then his fiance, then his bride and later their child. And what future business can Tom win because of his association with mom? Our database of prospective clients now grows because we gave a puny $300 refund. I love challenges! Brian F.

  17. I am a little concern for photographers who gets taken advantage of. The customer is not always right, but they have a right to be wrong.

    Lets say for example the mom was upset because her son spent (in her opinion) too much money on the photos, should the photographer in all cases refund? My opinion is...offer a mini session free to capture the style she wants - if that was the reason for her being upset.

  18. I really hope Bob didnt get to keep the photos. While I agree with all the steps listed to mollify the situation, I dislike the fact that Tom refunded $300. It may not be "that much money," but you make more money with referrals.

    I would have offered to do a reshoot and specifically ask what the Mom wants to make her happy. Hopefully after a positive phone conversation she would calm down enough to realize Tom is a good photographer and she only wanted different poses. Even though she has her money, she could still be angry about the whole situation--leading to bad mouthing about Tom anyway! (especially if she's the type who doesnt care how nice you are--she just wants the $$)

    In my opinion, with a reshoot, Tom has the chance to impress the Mom much more than giving her the money back. I can imagine her conversation with a friend: "This horrible photog stole my son's money! I had to send multiple angry e-mails to finally get it back! Glad it's over." VS "This photog took horrible photos of my son! I had to send multiple emails to get my money back. He suggested a reshoot and I feel so much better with the photos now. Glad he isnt afraid of shooting what I want." Of course, this is just my imagination :)

  19. As I read the "problem" I was saying to myself "knock off all the e-mails !". We are becomong way too detached today from our customers. As a 35 year professional in the chemical business, I have heard our attorneys say over and over "put nothing in an e-mail that you would not want published in the paper tomorrow". This holds true for responses to clients about complaints. Do you want their complaint published ?? No. You want it handled.
    The best advice you gave "Tom" was make personal contact and resolve. That way the problem can be handled with empathy, firmness or whatever approach you desire, and there is no confusion.

  20. I happen to know Tom pretty well so I think I can answer some of the questions here:

    Parkylondon - He did offer to reshoot the session for free to any specifications the mother wanted and she refused.

    Dustin - We are all in agreement with that conclusion.

    Terry - The proofs were digital and because the son was caught in the middle, Tom has given him a number of free prints.

    Brian F - Nailed it as the first and second anonymous poster up there.

  21. The thing that is upsetting to me is that Tom "gave" the kid some photos because he was "caught in the middle". It sounds to me as if mom and son have pulled this stunt before and know what the outcome will be. One thing I have learned over 35 years is that if they do it to me, if you check around, they have done it to other vendors, too. I find this especially true with weddings. Not only does the photographer get a hard time, so does the caterer, florist and on down the line. It always amazes when me when people demand a refund (which I have given) and then expect to keep the photos (which I want everyone returned). Luckily, this has only happened a couple of times while I have been doing this, but my reasoning is, "If you do not like them, why do you want to keep them?".

  22. Though I wouldn't want to, I'd probably refund the money just from the lesson that people like this are never satisfied and you will only get buried deeper. But I'd also talk to my client, Bob, and ask him directly what the issue was. After all, he is the client and he is strangely mute in this whole scenario.

    And then I'd do the same thing Tom did, recommend another photographer. But then the devil on my shoulder would lead me to recommend the worst photographer I know and then mom would perhaps take a different perspective after seeing his proofs. Okay, just kidding on this last part. I'd just WANT to suggest the worst photographer I know, but I don't think it would be fair to him to send this referral his way!

  23. I've learned it is best to never label a client. More times than not, our imagination gets the best of us and what we may perceive to be at the heart of a customer's motivation is often not the case. Zig said that a customer's objection(s) can be filled with reasons AND excuses--we need to probe and learn those REASONS so that we can deal with them appropriately. Forget the excuses. That's the only way we can move the customer over to our side. Granted, it's been a few days since I read this post but I don't recall any suggestion that this family purposely conducted themselves in any particular manner for self-gain.

    Next time, Tom (and myself included) can put-on our thinking caps and begin the dialogue by asking "Mrs. Mom let me ask a question. Are you planning for Bob to have his Senior portraits that you can proudly display and share, and he can exchange with his friends and classmates?" And then we can begin our work to win her over to our side. Everyone is a photographer today, so we must learn how to sell. Otherwise, our dream of success in this profession will end in frustration. Brian F.

  24. I agree that a reshoot would probably be the best route. If she were actually unhappy with the photos (and not the cost, which is what it seems like), she would've preferred this over a refund.

    Also, I just have to wonder where the actual client was during all of this...