Managing expectations & difficult clients

Almost every photographer I know wants more clients.

Without clients, we wouldn’t have a business. They’re absolutely vital to success.

We don’t just want any client, we want awesome clients who totally love us and can’t help but to rave about us to all their friends.

Let’s face it: the more our current clients talk about how amazing we are, the more likely their friends are to hire us, right? And with things like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest making it easier than ever for people to tell their friends about the fabulous experience they had working with you, it’s one of the best ways to get more photography clients.

Yet the reality is that most of our clients are not these ideal clients we want. Not only that, but you’ve likely had at least one “difficult” client.

Dealing with difficult clients is stressful and time-consuming. We end up spending more time trying to resolve their issue and make them happy than we spend on our ideal clients. If you have several difficult client situations, it can burn you out and start to make you bitter towards your clients, which is a bad place to be.

However, I believe that almost every difficult client situation can be prevented completely, and I’m going to tell you how to do it.

It’s simple, although it does take a decent amount of work. But once you’ve perfected it, not only will you have fewer difficult clients, you’ll also have more ideal clients that rave about you to all their friends.

So what’s the secret?

Manage Expectations.

It’s almost a disappointment how simple it really is, but SO many photographers fail miserably at this.

Think about it. Almost all difficult client issues come from your client expecting something different than you provide.

Let’s consider an example.

The Story of Sally Supermom

Sally Supermom books a child portrait session with you. Sally has never had professional photos taken before, and has only ever had her neighbor, Bob Tographer (who just started his photography business), take photos for her.

Bob spends an entire afternoon photographing her kids, and an hour after he’s done he gives her a disc of 500 images and printing rights for less than you charge for a single small print.

But Sally saw her friend Suzy’s family portraits taken by you, and she fell in love. Suzy convinced Sally that you were worth hiring.

What do you think Sally is expecting to receive from you? If you don’t tell her that she should only expect to receive 15 photos from her session but that’s what you deliver, she’s going to feel like that’s a ridiculously low number because she’s used to getting 500 from Bob Tographer. Not only that, but if she isn’t completely familiar with your prices and doesn’t know that the files are not included and must be purchased separately, you’ve got a surprised customer who is not going to be raving about her experience working with you. In fact, if it’s shocking enough to her, she may even complain to her friends about it. Not good.

Sally Supermom is now disappointed and you have to spend extra time managing the situation to make things better in her mind.

However, had you clearly explained what Sally could expect from her session with you up front, from pricing to number of proofs to every detail that she needed to know about the experience, this situation would be non-existent.

Do you really want Bob Tographer setting the standards of expectation for your business?

If you do not set correct expectations for your clients, someone else will. Chances are, you’re not going to like what they come up with.

When Managing Expectations Isn’t Enough

While most difficult clients situations are preventable through managing expectations, there’s still some situations where you’ve done everything right but you still have sticky situations in front of you that are difficult to respond to.

  • The mother-of-the-bride at your last wedding e-mails you disappointed that there aren’t more photos of her side of the family.
  • Your client feels the images you took of them are not the same quality as you show on your website, yet they are consistent with your style and quality.
  • A prospective client really wants to work with you, but you’re out of their budget.
  • A boss or colleague wants you to do photography for them, but you are afraid it’d be a conflict of interest.
  • Someone wants you to shoot for free or for good exposure.

In cases like these, it’s important to respond professionally, but it can be hard to find the right words to say to them. Saying the wrong thing can cause even more stress.

Jamie M Swanson helps people get more photography clients and learn to price photography over at The Modern Tog. She also enjoys eating watermelon, gardening, and homeschooling her three young kiddos. You can connect with her by liking her Facebook page.




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  • So true!  Sadly, the situation described here is eerily similar to an early, frustrating experience with a friend that left a bad taste in my mouth for years.  Although I felt the mom/client (a small business owner herself) should have known better, ultimately it left me DETERMINED to clarify and communicate with every client going forward.  Bottom line:  it’s on us.  [And I just bought Jamie’s Guide to Emails and can’t wait to start using it to improve my communications]

  • Exactly. I’ve been there too (a few times, unfortunately). It changed my business significantly once setting expectations became my focus. Hope you enjoy the guide! :)

  • Danielle Griffin

    is the free sample still available

  • Hi Danielle,

    Yes, it is still available (scroll down on the page linked above where you can buy the full version). Check it out and see what you think. :)


  • Arghh!  I could have used your templates 2 weeks ago.  I had a client agree to my portrait package and then later on asked me for ALL the images (unedited) on a disc from the session (saying they know many photographers give ALL the photos from the session).  It was so frustrating to have her hire me and then decide after the fact decide she wants more than what we agreed on. Thanks so much for posting this so now I have better resources for the future! : )