Compromising With Clients: Play Nice or Take a Stand?

by on 19th September 2012

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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.

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