One of the biggest draws to photography as a profession also happens to be one of those things that can get you into trouble: creative vision, artistic license … call it what you will, we’re always looking for that perfect shot, the one that transcends the mundane and puts the “extra” in extraordinary.
If you’re doing portfolio pieces, this is fine. But in certain commercial scenarios–weddings are a prime example–sometimes the client wants ordinary. Some people simply can’t see beyond clichés … and if the final product doesn’t match their vision, well, it’s wrong, plain and simple.
Now, if you’ve done even a couple of weddings, you’ve probably already learned to leave a good chunk of your creativity at the door and go for standard shots. That’s usually the best and easiest way to get the job done. But sometimes, for whatever reason, the client still isn’t happy and starts demanding money back. So what do you do? Here are a few suggestions:
Validate the claim.
The first decision thing to do is decide if the complaints are justified. Did you miss a key shot? Is the final product up to professional standards? If you really did screw up, a full or partial refund might be in order. Even if you don’t feel it’s your fault, sometimes the fight isn’t worth the aggravation: it might be better to cut bait and get on with your life.
If you feel you held up your end of the contract, and if the fight is worth it, it’s OK to stand your ground. If the client is as determined as you are, this will lead to a couple of likely scenarios: a chargeback (if the client paid by credit card) or a court battle. In either case, your best friend from here on out is the evidence you can provide.
Get your story straight.
I’m going to assume you were already savvy enough to get a signed contract before you started. That will be hugely beneficial … but it’s also a good idea to get your entire argument down on paper, too, preferably in a carefully worded letter to the client. List all the client’s complaints as evidence that you understand the charges, the add your justification for each item.
This is also a great way to wrap your head around both sides of the case. In truth, the judge may never look at your notes (although an arbitrator in a chargeback dispute probably will), but they are admissible in court, and the fact that you wrote the client with explanations shows you tried in good faith to resolve the conflict.
Keep the tone of the letter civil, and be as objective as you can. Skip the insults, and try not to make judgement calls. Stick to the facts: the more rational your argument, the more believable your version of events.
Bring up the contract.
Most disputes of this nature are going to be conceptual rather than contractional, but if the client is accusing you of missing important shots or not being available hours after the wedding was supposed to be over, feel free to fall back on the language of the contract. Again, remain as calm and collect as you can: let the contract speak for you.
Accept the inevitable.
If nothing you’ve done thus far has placated the client, and words like “court’ or “lawsuit” are being bandied about, there is no need to keep beating your head against the wall. Acknowledge that a court date will most likely ensue, then set it aside until that time: anything else you need to say can be said in front of the judge.
Obviously, this won’t keep the client from continuing to contact you. And while you don’t need to argue anything the client brings up, you do need to respond to any communication; a simple “I received your letter, but stand by the response in my letter dated 00/00/0000” acknowledges the client’s correspondence without an argument … and without leaving yourself open to charges of “I tried to contact him, Your Honor, but he ignored my letters!”
At this point, you’re mostly waiting for your day in court. One other thing: if the situation is dragging on, you can always offer to settle. That doesn’t mean you’re admitting guilt–and you should go to great lengths to not–but rather you’re willing to compromise because it’s in your best interest.
Of course, if the client were willing to settle, the idea would probably have already come up. But there’s always the chance the client underestimated the amount of hassle involved, and is now in more of a mood to negotiate. Just make sure to get the deal in writing, and be certain it fully releases you from all claims past, present or future pertaining to the event. Make sure that once any money is paid out by you, you’re able to wash your hands completely of the client.
Finally, I won’t say a lot about lawyers, but I will say this: I’m not one, so don’t consider any of these actual legal advice. What I am is a professional photographer, and my professional photographer advice is simple: it’s not about whether you can win a case, it’s about not having a case to worry about. With a little forethought and common sense, you can easily avoid situations now that could take a whole lot of resources to resolve in the future.