When a nervous bride cries, you do everything in your power to make her day better. As a portrait photographer, I often dabbled in hair styling, makeup artistry, baby soothing, family counseling, drippy-nose wiping and even a bit of fashion consulting.
Once, I juggled camera lens caps circus clown-style to turn tears into laughter. And, I’m not ashamed to say, I’ve publicly crowed like a rooster and mimicked a seal to create incredible pet portraits for customers who commanded magazine-worthy images of their furry companions.
You’d never know that such high maintenance clients exist in the world of portrait photography, would you? If you’re thinking of breaking into a business that’s very hands-on and requires daily in-person contact with your customers, be ready to think on your toes and polish your service skills. Your audience will demand it.
Online vs. Real-World Confrontations
Every small business owner will experience complaints and confrontations at some point. When your business is primarily online, you can roll your eyes at the computer screen, then turn on the charm as you reply to the concern. But if you work with your customers in-person, you’ll need to have a bit more tact and think on the fly.
First, check your body language. Do you unknowingly look unfriendly and unapproachable? Try to get on your client’s level and start with a firm handshake, introduction and a smile. If you’re a chef, and the patron is seated, sit next to them. If you’re a painter on a ladder, step down to the customer’s level and talk face-to-face. Avoid any distancing gestures, like crossing your arms in front of your body. Instead, keep them by your sides and make eye contact with your upset customer.
Listen First, Then Reply
After an introduction, move into listening mode. Maintain eye contact, focus on their words and take it all in. Avoid interjecting with your ideas until they’ve fully said their piece.
I have a tendency to want to correct miscommunications or assumptions as they happen, but this often leads to a verbal volley that leaves a client frustrated and even more upset. If you listen to their full concern before you start to reply, you might be surprised at what has them upset.
Once, I had a portrait customer’s smile turn to a frown after unwrapping some beautiful enlargements, custom fit to a spot above their fireplace. The wife was so upset with the image, she left the room. The husband was bewildered and asked for me to wait while he consoled his wife. Neither of us knew what the issue was. I worried that the print size wasn’t correct or the color was off, and I’d need to reprint the images.
Later, they told me the portraits were fine — she was just unhappy with part of her physical appearance. A brief pep talk was all it took to help the customer realize she was beautifully surrounded by her family, and nobody was going to notice the issue she was worried about.
Focus on Empathy
When it comes time to respond, frame your words with empathy. Thank them for bringing up the concern and explain that you understand their issue. Imagine if the situation was reversed: How would you like to be treated? It may take a moment, especially if your work is very personal and has just been negatively critiqued, but remember: Everyone has an opinion and expectations that may not match yours.
After addressing the concern at hand, work together to find a solution that works for everyone. It may require offering a new product or redoing a service. Sometimes, a simple discount can make the client happy. It’s a good idea to simply ask, “How can I make this right for you?” Again, you might be surprised to hear that they simply want an apology or a refund.
Every entrepreneur will encounter roadblocks and high maintenance clients during their business journey. Once there’s an issue, all you can do is work together to fix it. Finding common ground, acknowledging the customer’s feelings and coming to a mutual resolution is the professional, courteous approach — even if you have to crow like a rooster to make things right.