When a client asks for a refund, it doesn't have to be a big deal. There are professional ways to handle it to ensure that everyone walks away happy. Here are some of the common incidences that happen in our industry and how you can handle them. I also want to note that every time you have a client who doesn't leave 1000% happy, that's an opportunity for your to learn, adjust your workflow, and improve. EVERYTHING is a learning experience and no rule is ever set in stone. Addressing their concerns in your consultation will also help you reduce the number of cancellations or no-shows drastically. Be up front with your pricing and expectations and you can avoid most issues after the shoot.
There is no hard and fast rule. If you have a policy of never working out the issues in some way, your reputation will be your demise. On the other hand, if you always bend to the client's demands, you will be taken advantage of. So what can you do?
This is probably the most common one I see, and it's the easiest to handle. Include these details in your contract. Make them sign this clause specifically, not just at the end of the contract. This will usually protect you from last-minute cancellations. But...
For portrait photogs, I require a 72-hour notice if they want to reschedule or cancel. This gives me time to alert my stylist and any other assistants I may have booked. If they contact me before the 72 hours, I give their money back or let them reschedule. If they contact me the day before the shoot, I offer to let them reschedule, once. If you let someone keep rescheduling you are showing that you have no boundaries and they are going to keep pushing you for other exceptions, like discounts.
If they cancel the day of the shoot, they do not get their money back. Depending on the client, I might offer to let them reschedule if there is a legit reason they didn't show up. It's definitely a case by case basis. If they argue, I tell them that not only do I have to pay my stylist and assistant for the day, but with that short of notice, I will not be able to take another client that day.
For wedding/event photogs, your contract is your best friend. Have a cut-off time for cancellations. If they cancel after that time, find out why. If they're postponing the event, let them reschedule. If they just want to cancel, their reason for cancelling should tell you what to do. If they broke off the wedding, it's a refund. If someone's parents passed away and they need the money for burial or travel or something else, refund. Protect yourself, but be reasonable. If you can book another client in that time, satisfy the customer and move on.
I've had clients email me and tell me someone in the shoot has died or some other catastrophe has occurred and they would like to cancel their appointment and get their money back. I've heard some photogs ask for proof, such as a death certificate. Please don't do that. If someone really does need to lie like that, just give them their money back and move on. The cost of calling their bluff is NEVER worth it. The last thing you need is for them to go on review sites, social media, and anywhere else and tell everyone how insensitive you were during this awful time in their life. It's not worth it.
This has happened to me a few times in my 10 years, and for very different reasons. I learned something from each one and changed my workflow to prevent these from happening again. So far so good.
The first time is because I had never photographed kids before and she wanted photos of her kids. I let her know that I'd never done it and we tried it out anyway. It wasn't my best work, and she didn't love the photos. I offered a reshoot for free. Even after that one, she wasn't totally satisfied. I gave her all of her money back. She was very kind and said she loved all of my other work and knew she had asked me to do something I had never done. It did, however, motivate me to learn to photograph kids. I made a lot of money shooting families after that.
The second time was because the client was just not happy with anything we had done from the start. She had my stylist redo her hair twice, and ended up just teasing it all out with a comb at the start of the shoot. She did not bring any of the wardrobe we had planned. She arrived with yoga pants and a red medieval tunic, like you'd see in a portrait of king from the middle ages. She wanted sexy romance novel images, so I'm not sure where that outfit came from. She also argued with all of my posing instructions. I usually take 100% accountability for my client's satisfaction, but sometimes we just can't help some folks. Maybe she wasn't having a good week, or something else was going on. I don't know. During our phone call when she asked for all of her money back, she told me I was the third photog she had hired and no one could get it right. I gave her half of her money back. This scenario is very very rare. I haven't had anything close to it since. I'm better about screening my clients before we book now and if I have any sense that it won't be a good fit, I decline and offer to help them find someone who will be a better fit.
I ask questions about how they want to display their prints. If they say they don't want prints, only digitals, I can clear that up right away. We also discuss budget in the consultation, and if they're not willing to come to a consultation or do IPS, it won't be a good fit. If they want to cut costs and do their own hair/makeup, I don't let them book. Some people haven't even seen my work when they first call me, so I tell them to make sure they even like my style, because my look is very unique and I don't shoot anything else.
I've learned what kinds of exceptions will lead to bigger problems later on.
The third time was because a client wanted to change her order after the photos were printed. As you know, you can't un-print photos. She wanted them in different sizes than the original order. I offered to print additional photos for her at a discounted rate, but I couldn't refund her first order because it was already made. She was not happy with that option and wanted all of her money back and a discount on the second order. I made the same offer again. She ended up keeping half the original order and I kept my cost for the ones she didn't want. Now, during my IPS sessions, when a client signs their receipt, they also sign a section that says once the order is made, it can not be changed for any reason. Since I added that, I have not had any issues.
As you can see, each time something happens, I make adjustments to prevent it from happening again. You certainly can't prevent everything, but you can sure try!
If the quality of the photos, prints, experience, or anything else, wasn't up to your normal standard and your client wasn't happy, give them their money back or offer to redo the shoot. Making sure the client walks away happy is your first priority. And offering a guarantee on your website goes a long way.
Mike is the Tim Burton of photography. He tells powerful, imaginative stories with cinematic photography. He specializes in dramatic, film-noir style boudoir and epic cinematic portraits. He's also the creative force behind Photogs Unite! which focuses on learning from professionals outside the photography industry to learn marketing, sales, branding, and everything else you need to know to build a thriving photography business. And burritos are the key to his happiness.