Compromising With Clients: Play Nice or Take a Stand?

by on 19th September 2012 with 8 Comments

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I was recently put in an interesting position where I had to choose between my professional principles and a paycheck. As a designer, you’re probably no stranger to this situation.

What’s the right course of action? When is compromise a laudable action and when is standing firm and refusing a request the better way to go? I’ll share my thoughts through a real and personal story.

An All Too True Story

Before I launch into this full story, I should mention that my creative endeavors are quite varied. In addition to being a designer, editor and writer, I’m also a professional wedding photographer. Basically, any time I learn a new skill, I try to turn it into a source of income. This story relates specifically to my career as a photographer, but is directly applicable to any freelancer or business owner in a creative field, especially designers.

“Basically, any time I learn a new skill, I try to turn it into a source of income.”

The Call

Very recently, I received a phone call from a potential client. The man in question, we’ll call him Bob, wanted to know if I was available to shoot his wedding. Bob liked my price and my portfolio and said he’d love to work with me. There was one problem though, he didn’t like my contract.

At this point, my internal warning messages are on high alert, but I concede to listen. Tell me your thoughts Bob, I’ll see what we can do.

The Request

It turns out, Bob doesn’t like the concept of photographers retaining the rights to the photos that they take. I effectively give my clients the rights to do whatever they want with the images for personal use (print them anywhere you want, put them on Facebook, go nuts), but that wasn’t enough. Bob wanted me to sign over 100% ownership of the work to him.

“I would be handing over full, unfettered consent for the client to do anything he wanted with my images.”

You have to understand, as a photographer, this is a pretty poor proposition. By doing this, I would effectively give up my natural rights to use the photos on my site or any marketing materials. Even further, I would be handing over full, unfettered consent for the client to do anything he wanted with my images: sell them on a stock photo site for his own profit, use them for unsavory political propaganda, anything goes.

My clients pay good money for my services and as a result I give them a lot more free reign than most photographers, but in the end I need to retain certain rights over the work that I produce.

One More Thing

As icing on the cake, Bob threw in another request at the last minute. The crazy-high-resolution JPGs that I normally deliver weren’t enough. He wanted the unedited RAW images straight out of the camera.

To be honest, I don’t dig the whole “over processed” look. My images are intended to have a natural beauty that isn’t dependent on trendy retro effects or filters:

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Pretty simple right? Even with this being the case though, I still spend a fair amount of time in the post-processing stage ensuring that the product that I deliver is as good as it can be.

Most professional wedding photographers these days wouldn’t dream of handing over images straight out of camera, and I’m no different. The images that I give you aren’t meant to be edited any further. They’re all set. A request to cross that line is a tall order indeed.

My Philosophy

Here’s my philosophy as a wedding photographer. If you don’t agree with it, great, that’s not the point. The point is that I have serious convictions when it comes to how I approach my work.

“As a wedding photographer, I don’t simply sell photos. I provide my clients with the story of their wedding day as I saw it.”

As a wedding photographer, I don’t simply sell photos. I provide my clients with the story of their wedding day as I saw it. The distinction here is important.

For me, these aren’t pretty pictures. They’re a piece of art that I work hard to construct, from before I ever click the shutter to the minute I finish processing them. It’s all a process that leads me to a product that I can be proud to stamp my name on. Selfish or not, that credit piece is important to me and so is the quality of the finished product.

It sounds cliché, but I take photos because I enjoy this process. Making money is a bonus, but it’s the challenge and enjoyment of the art that make me give up my weekends to such endeavors.

A Matter of Trust

What this client was requesting deviated significantly from what I normally offer. It was also a little sketchy wasn’t it? Why did Bob insist on being granted full rights to the photos instead of just those for personal use?

“This tells me something vital: Bob doesn’t trust me to deliver the product that he wants.”

Further, why did he demand access to the unedited RAW files? The only possible answer would be so that he could take it upon himself to edit the photos (and possibly use them in commercial work). This tells me something vital: Bob doesn’t trust me to deliver the product that he wants.

When you hire me, you’re consenting to the idea that my history, as shown by my portfolio, has indicated that I’m capable of providing you with a product that you’ll be satisfied with and hopefully even treasure for the entire duration of your marriage. If this statement isn’t true, we cannot and should not work together.

Compromise Can Be a Good Thing

So there you have it. I was presented with an offer and asked to pretty much violate most of my typical professional principles. As a reward for my troubles, I was offered extra payment.

Now I was faced with a decision. Do I take the money and smile all the way to the bank or do I staunchly refuse based on some weird, self-imposed moral compass?

“Do I take the money and smile all the way to the bank or do I staunchly refuse based on some weird, self-imposed moral compass?”

It’s easy to rationalize in these situations. After all, isn’t compromise a good thing? The answer to this question depends on the compromise. I firmly believe that freelancers can get caught up with silly protocols that really aren’t worth defending to the death. In these cases, compromise can be great. It shows your client that you’re willing to bend a little to make sure that they’re happy with your service.

As a random example, I provide a digital download of my finished photos to my clients. In some cases, someone will ask me to burn and ship them a DVD instead. Does that cost me a little extra? Is it more work? Yep. It doesn’t matter though, I’m willing to go that extra mile if it’s what the client wants.

Standing Up for Your Principles

Yes, compromise can be a good thing, it can even be a great thing. However, this certainly isn’t always the case. I’m not sure who first quipped that the customer is always right, but that man was an idiot.

“I’m not sure who first quipped that the customer is always right, but that man was an idiot.”

When a request cuts at the very core of the principles that you operate your business on, whatever those principles may be, it’s time to take a stand. Saying “no” to a client is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. I say it quite often!

Hopefully, your financial situation is strong enough that you’ll never be faced with the choice of violating your principles or paying your rent. That being said, turning down paid work is never easy. Just know that there are lots of instances where it’s the right decision.

What Should I Say?

If you decide against compromise, your battle is only half over. Now you have to decide how to form your decision into a response to the client.

My advice is to keep it simple and honest. You don’t have to be cheesy and dramatic, you just have to explain that you’re simply not willing to provide what the client wants. Your business isn’t structured to meet this request and never will be. Thanks for the inquiry, have a nice day. It’s that simple.

“I focused on my passion for what I do and how I do it, not on whether or not his requests were egregious.”

What I said to Bob wasn’t too dissimilar from what I’ve said here. I briefly explained my position on his requests and told him that I’m simply not the type of photographer that he’s looking to hire. I focused on my passion for what I do and how I do it, not on whether or not his requests were egregious.

In the end, he understood my stance and said that he respected it. There was no heated argument, just a friendly conversation where two people of differing opinions decided not to work together. It really doesn’t have to be more than that.

How Do You Face Compromise?

Hopefully, my story will help encourage you the next time a client asks you to go against something that you believe in. Whether other people see it as ridiculous or not, if something is important to you, you shouldn’t let clients or even other creatives strong arm you into compromise.

If you’ve faced a situation where a client request put you in an awkward situation, I want to hear about it. Leave a comment below and tell your story.

Comments & Discussion

8 Comments

  • JerryW

    Joshua,

    This is the first time I have decided to reply to an article on this site. I am replying now because I truly feel something through the words you have written. I agree with and appreciate your perspective. I believe that you offer a ideal that can touch a working professionals life in many ways, even outside that of clients. Thank you for this article.

  • Skip

    This happens often where I work, but with multitrack audio of live concerts. I no longer let those files off our drives, and any post is done in-house even if it is with an external mixer.

  • Gab

    Josh,
    thanks for sharing this. Similar situation happen to me all the time and I could not agree more to:

    “I’m not sure who first quipped that the customer is always right, but that man was an idiot.”

    The “proof” of this statement is elementary:
    – Undoubtedly some (or, according to Carlo Cipolla (*) and and many others, including myself) many people are idiots.
    – Also obviously, all people are customers (i.e. buy something at some point).
    – Therefore some customers are idiots.

    End of story.

    I have a question though… if your principles are deeply motivated, how do you resist the temptation to explain to the customer why they are wrong?
    I often feel, in similar situations, a moral obligation to explain why they are wrong: I am simply not comfortable to just say no and walk away. I feel compelled to eradicate stupidity whenever I see it.

    Needless to say, having principles, and fighting for them, often doesn’t play right in the business world.
    And I fight that, too.

    —————
    (*)
    Carlo Cipolla’s ‘Allegro ma non troppo’, or “The basic laws of human stupidity”, 1988, is not as well known as it should be.
    Cipolla was a brilliant Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, and wrote this light hearted essay in the mid 80s.

    In the words Giancarlo Livraghi: “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity remains one of the best essays ever written on this subject. A pleasantly small
    book with a remarkable concentration of brilliant insights on «one of the most powerful dark forces which hinder human welfare and happiness».

    I recommend it with utmost confidence that any (witty enough) person will love it.

    See an extract here: http://www.searchlores.org/realicra/basiclawsofhumanstupidity.htm

    • http://Theranchblog.com David

      Re: Gab, as much as I agree with your stance of explaining to client they’re wrong, that may cross the line into pride. Clients don’t understand your business; they only care about if you can help theirs. I have bit my tongue many times when I wanted to explain. IMO the easiest thing to do is find a client who does understand your business and hold on to them for life.

  • Dipak Saraf

    @Joshua, quite an interesting articles on apathy we as a freelancer face. Well I work as a freelancer web developer and had always come across situation like this, for instance, the client want the work to be done on time, as per the specification, but when it comes to deciding on the remuneration part, the same old story of having a limited budget, and got a quote which is almost half ot what you have suggested. When the work has been done, now the payment is just nowhere to seen. You have to keep on politely keep on following up for the same to be made as if you had asked for a charity/donation for the work which you have done.

    Now if you have to do the same work, similar work now the client say can you do it @ 10% of what exactly you had done, now here you have to ace with a dilemma, whether to accept the job ( *remember you have a substantial amount of payment already outstanding with the client), or just turn it down, since it’s not worth the effort, then you delaying the payment dates of dues further.

    Strange way to deal with the situation like this. Would love to hear this kindaa situation from folks out here…

  • http://www.createcosmetics.com Johan

    Everything has a price, no? Why didn’t you just offer Bob the price you’d need to see to make a compromise? After all, offering rights to some random persons’ wedding photos and giving him the raw files is not exactly selling your soul. And I can’t see any way it’d hurt future business. Get over your principles and make some money ;)

  • Alex

    I agree with the general point of this post – I work in software development, and this dilemma comes up whenever clients change their mind on the scope of work; if any extra work can be absorbed, then a compromise is reached, otherwise we have to say no and or discuss payment for the work.

    I have to say though that I also agree with Johan above. The tone of your piece suggests that Bob’s motives are potentially sinister in some way, when the likelihood is that they are the complete opposite; Bob is most likely (and quite reasonably) trying to make sure that the photos of his wedding (which to many is a private affair) are not used for further commercial gain, and aren’t displayed to the public – I’m not sure I would be too happy if my wedding photos suddenly appeared in a wedding catalogue or advertising campaign or something.

    Wanting the RAW files is a bit different and would be a personal choice; I imagine many photographers would be apprehensive about handing over unprocessed photos, purely through professional pride, but again, I can’t imagine it is anything more sinister than him being a keen photographer and wanting to play with the photos himself.

    While your protective stance would be sensible in your other business ventures, if you don’t mind me saying, in this instance, it seems a little cynical – particularly for something as personal to your clients as a wedding. Bob’s suggestion that you have a dual business model, where clients can pay a little extra to have complete control over the photos of their day seems fairly sensible to me.

    I enjoy your articles though – always thought provoking and an interesting read – thanks.

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