5.05.2011

Bad Clients. Good Clients. Great Clients.

A group shot for one of my favorite clients.  They listen.  They show up.  
They treat us with respect.  And we do the same for them.  

Your business lives and dies based on what kind of clients you have.  Good clients make work fun and keep you in the black.  Bad clients make you wish you were in some other field and the time they suck away from you eats into your profits and your will to live.  A very sage photographer told me twenty years ago...."You don't succeed because of the clients you keep.  You succeed because of the clients you fire."

I'm pretty slow on the uptake and it took me being in business for a few years before I really got what he said.  Now I'm quick on the draw when it comes to giving a bad client his or her walking papers because I know that the longer I hang on the more miserable I'm going to be.  And once a client shows their true stripes they never seem to change.

So, what's a bad client?  They come in lots of shapes and sizes and the stories of their particular flaws are photo legends.  Let's start out with some easy, "no-brainer" distinctions.


1.  Any client that doesn't pay you on time isn't a client they are a thief.  The longer it takes to get paid the less money you make.  And, as anyone in the collections business will quickly tell you, an invoice that goes 90 days beyond the due date is likely never to be paid.  And if, by an act of God or the courts, it does eventually get paid I can pretty much assure you it won't be for the full amount and you might end up sharing the bulk of your final payout with your attorney.  The first rule = if they screw you once, walk.  If they screw you twice it's your fault.  I remember complaining to the CFO of one of the world's biggest computer companies about 120 payment on invoices that were contracted to be paid in 30 days.  His reply?  "My job is to keep your money for as long as humanly possible."  We required all future work for that client to be prepaid by credit card.  We're still working for them years later....but only when they send over their CC information.

2.  The "bait and switcher."  You know the client.  You show up for the "simple" job that you bid a pittance on and all of a sudden it's grown up to be a "big boy" job.  It might start out as, "can you come over and do a few headshots?"  When you get there you find out that they need to shoot the CEO on the side of a billboard seventy feet in the air and you'll be shooting from a helicopter and, "by the way, can you rig the helicopter with some giant battery powered lights because we're going to do this at twilight, and since you're here already and it won't be twilight for another six hours we'll be shooting some products in the meantime."

If this client isn't willing to sign a "change order" or "modification agreement" they'll keep doing this to you until they run you out of business.  This client LOVES the half day rate and the day rate.  Because he equates it to an "All You Can Eat" buffet of photography.  He's the one that books you to shoot ten portraits on Weds. and then lines up 25 more people "because you work so quickly!!!" What this client never sees is the massive amount of post production you'll be doing if you fall for his ploy.  The antidote?  Make specific contracts that call out exactly what you will do and for how much money.  Your prices might be based on a day rate but it's not the same as slave labor.......

3.  "I'll know what I want when I see it...."  This one is tricky.  You probably got the job because you showed your portfolio and the client seemed to like it.  Now your on the set and the client has just changed the model's shirt for a different color for the 15th time.  You've changed angles seven times and you're also running out of batteries from shooting a million variations.  Each time you shoot a few frames the client demands to "see the little screen" and evaluate each frame.  At first you feel like you can't fault them.  After all, they're just trying to get it perfect.  After a dozen iterations you start to realize that they don't have clue what they want and it may be something that's beyond the realm of possibility.  I learned this lesson while standing knee deep in Polaroid test materials, shooting for an art director who rearranged the flowers on the set over and over again; each time asking for a new test Polaroid.  And she worked for a world class ad agency.  When it was all over I vowed "never again."  I lost money on the Polaroid alone.  And I think I wore out the shutter on one of my view camera lenses....  Your contract can protect you here but you really need to have the "talk" before the problem begins.  The antidote?  You specify that you charge additionally for every additional set up.

4.  The bully.  This person "knows" more than you'll ever know and he'll tell you exactly the way he wants to do the job.  He'll pick the worst angles and the worst props and the worse colors.  He'll decide that being a client means that the rented location owes him the adulation of a king.  That he can be loud and "assertive" and he throws little barbs into the conversation like,  "That better not be on my bill."  Or, "For the prices I'm paying you I should get (fill in the blanks).  There's a reason he showed up at your studio door.  The last photographer probably threw him out.  If there's a constant psychic battle on the set no one will ever have fun, the work will suffer and the models will stop caring.  Even if he pays his bills on time the bully will (intentionally or unintentionally) make sure that you never get anything from his shoots that will end up in your portfolio.  His constant excuse?  He "knows what his boss wants!"  And his constant reminder?  "I know a guy who's starting out and will do this kinda job for half of what you're charging."  I wonder why he didn't just call his "guy" first...

5.  The "Nickel and Dimer."  This is the client intent on making sure he doesn't spent a cent more than he or she has to.  Even to the point of ruining a project.  This is the one that wants to use his chubby daughter as the fashion model, his brother in law as the assistant and is positive that all the props CAN be acquired on Craigslist.  He is amazed that you charge for mileage, doesn't understand why he has to pay sales tax and thinks that assistants and make up artists should be paid out of your fee.  If you need wardrobe he'll volunteer to "source" it rather than paying for a stylist.  He buys "the latest fashions" at the local Walmart and cautions your models not to take the tags off the clothes so he can return them for a full refund.  When you make coffee he asks,  "Am I getting billed for this?"  Usually it's not his own money at stake anyway, he just can't stand the idea that having the right stuff at the right time is perhaps more long term cost effective than "making due."  Wanna work for this guy?  Then be sure to get every line item in your budget approved before you move forward and make sure you get an advance.  You'll earn every penny........

I remember the client who booked us all into a La Quinta 58 miles away from the town we'd be shooting in the next day because he "did his research" on the web and found that it would be $20 per room cheaper than the motels in the location city.  If you factored in gasoline he was saving $16 per person per day!  Then we found out we'd all be sharing rooms......think of the savings.  Think of the hour and half drive....

You work a long day and find out that the client's idea of a good, solid meal is the McD's on the strip.  Yum.  Gotta love the McBBQ sandwich.....

6.  Finally, at least for now,  the final client.  The one who can't commit.  You know the type.  You get the call,  you write out the proposal.  Now you're on hold.  Now you recompute the budget with new parameters and you book a date.  Then just outside the date where they're on the hook for deposits the shoot gets re-scheduled and re-scheduled.  At some point, a year later, you realize that this client is the kind of person who won't head off to work in the morning without the assurance that all the traffic lights will be green on their morning commute.  I have a "potential" client who has spent the last two years rearranging schedules and re-bidding projects.  We've never worked together but we're "this" close.  Once you start to add up all the phone calls and the time re-bidding and re-writing contracts you realize that you've spent a solid work week for.......nothing.  And you wonder if this is a new hobby for them....

Not bad for a hobby.  Terrible for a business.

I guess that's why the old photographer told me to "fire em quick."  Let the bad ones go before they ruin your business.  You know.  While you still have a choice.

And then there are good clients.  They have a need.  They want your input.  They want your suggestions.  You shoot for them and the like everything.  They pay on time.  Hell, they pay early.  They get good results.  They give you credit.  They pick up the tab for lunch occasionally.  They say, "thank you!" when you pick up the tab.  They ask, "how much more should I budget?" when they change the parameters of a job.  They return your call.......even when they don't need something.  They pass your name along to other good clients.  They make suggestions but not orders.  They understand the value of real models.  They get the idea that one hour of great make-up beats six hours of post production.  They understanding the idea of licensing.  The love collaboration.  They say,  "You tell us, you're the pro."  They sign contracts.  They have the actual intention of abiding by the contract.  They understand that they need you as much as you need them.  It's called a relationship.  It can be amazing, fulfilling, functional and fun.

Damn the bad clients.  May they have clients who are equally bad. God Bless good clients.  May they flourish.