How to Please the Impossible to Please

Everyone has expectations, and they carry those assumptions into every situation. Expectations that are reasonable to one person may be utterly absurd to another. Still, photographers, like all small businesspeople, need to manage clients’ expectations to build good working relationships and provide a positive customer experience.

Marc Gordon, speaker, marketing consultant, and internationally recognized expert on customer experiences, says that managing expectations begins with understanding client assumptions.

Understanding expectations

Gordon categorizes expectations as based on fact, fiction, or imagination:

Fact. Factual expectations are based on any experience a person has had in the past.

Fiction. Fictional expectations are based on influences presented by someone else. Those influences could be positive or negative, but they are largely biased because when people share their experiences with others they focus on what they feel is important.

Imagination. Expectations based on imagination come from an organic perspective that encompasses everything someone has seen or heard since the day they were born. For example, let’s say you grew up in a very traditional family of doctors and lawyers, and everyone working outside of those professions was seen as part of a fringe occupation that was less reliable. The imagined expectations by someone from this background would put a photographer in the difficult position of having to verify their reliability and professionalism rather than being assumed to be reliable and professional.

Marc Gordon
© Courtesy Marc Gordon
Marc Gordon

“It’s critical to establish expectations early on by understanding what beliefs the client is bringing with them and then either challenging those beliefs or agreeing to work within the confines set by the client’s expectations,” says Gordon. “For the latter, you’re essentially agreeing to produce what’s already in the client’s head, not what your artistic inspiration dictates. And you need to decide if that’s acceptable.”

To establish and address expectations, Gordon urges photographers to pursue full disclosure at the beginning of every client relationship. In most new client conversations, the photographer asks a lot of questions pertaining to the project. What is the event? What do you want us to photograph? What kind of images do you like?

“Those aren’t the questions you should start with,” says Gordon. “You should start with, Have you ever worked with a photographer before? How did you find out about me? May I ask who your last photographer was?”

Based on their responses, you can start to classify their expectations as fact, fiction, or imagination, and then respond accordingly. “It’s really about getting a dialog going and getting to know people,” says Gordon. “Within a few minutes you may realize that someone is bringing in totally unrealistic expectations—could be related to price or the specifics of the shoot. There is a lot of information they can give you before the contract is signed, and you can decide if this is the journey you want to embark on.”

It’s a two-way street. You need to know what’s expected of you, and you have to let the client know what you expect of them. So talk about the fundamentals of what you do from the start. If you don’t, you give up your authority over the creative process. The assignment stops being an artistic venture and turns into a commodity exchange. It’s important to let customers know up front what they can and cannot have. When you let them know what you can deliver and how you can deliver it, that will qualify or disqualify people right away, which potentially saves you a lot of time later.

Pleasing the impossible to please

Everyone’s encountered fundamentally difficult clients who are simply impossible to please.

Or are they?

“Most people can be pleased,” argues Gordon. “The problem is that no one comes out and asks them, ‘What do you want?’”

A lot of professionals will view some clients as impossible to please, but the underlying issue is that these clients don’t understand what they’re getting. So when they see it, they’re unhappy. Photographers, like many specialized professionals, can fall into the trap of using jargon that’s not clear to clients. Clients will often simply nod their heads and smile because they don’t want to appear stupid or uninformed. Then they’re unhappy when they see the final product because it doesn’t match their unvoiced expectations.

Problems arise when the service provider guesses or assumes what clients want because the provider hasn’t solicited specific feedback from the client. Then there are misunderstandings. So start from a basic level. “No client will ever complain that you made things super clear and easy to understand,” says Gordon. “Talk about things like you’re talking to a child who has never seen a camera before. Go slowly, establish understanding, and get approvals at every step.”

When you communicate this way, the onus falls on the client to explain what they like and don’t like. If the client explains what they really want, they have less room to be disappointed and complain later.

Keep clients coming back

Gordon points to three key concepts that keep people coming back to your business, happily: ease, convenience, stress-free.

We all understand ease and convenience, but maybe you’ve never considered how a photographer could unintentionally introduce stress into the client relationship. When something is late, when something unexpected arises, when a client feels unsure, all these are stress inducing. In an easy, convenient, and stress-free client experience, the client shouldn’t have to worry about anything. Think of it like a concierge level of service.

Part of delivering this type of experience is the regular check-in. Communicate often, even if you’re checking in to tell people you have no updates. Keep them in the loop so they’re not left wondering.

 “Ultimately, you need to deliver what you say, when you say,” says Gordon. “And if you can’t, then explain why and offer other options.” However, delivering on your promises does not mean overdelivering. “In fact, I would recommend not overdelivering,” adds Gordon. “Numerous studies show that when you give customers more than expected, it will have no impact on their loyalty or the quality of experience. When people get things they didn’t expect or even know about, they don’t place any intrinsic value on those extra items. And when they don’t value something, it doesn’t affect their experience.”

For example, a family orders a set of prints. You deliver them, and you also custom frame all the prints as a free bonus. The family will notice that it was a nice touch, but they have no concept of the value of that extra expense, and it doesn’t lead to a better experience in their mind—certainly not one that warrants the added effort and expense on your part.

“Sticky spots in a business experience—things that didn’t go as smoothly as they should—those are what people remember,” explains Gordon. “Consistency is key. That’s more important than going above and beyond. Treat people well and give them what they expected. That’s the definition of consistency for a business. If you’re going to offer something extra, offer it across the board and do it in a manner that is consistent, manageable, and affordable.”

Set your standard

To move toward meeting more client expectations, start by creating a set of standards for the business. Consider what kind of photographer you want to be. Do you want to be known as high-end or budget? Known for service? For skill? For speed?

You can’t do it all, so determine where you should set your focus. Then write down what that level of service entails. What makes you the kind of photographer you want to be? What is included? What kind of experience will you deliver?

“You must be who you say you’re going to be,” says Gordon. “If you want to be a budget photographer but compete with the service and deliverables offered by premium photographers, you’ll put yourself out of business.”

So choose carefully, and then do what you say you’re going to do. When clients can trust in your ability to deliver and in the consistency of the experience you provide, you’re already most of the way there when it comes to effectively managing expectations.

Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.