When Clients Want to Change Your Photography Contract

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In a perfect world, people love your work and accept your offer quickly and happily. But we don’t live or work in a perfect world. Whether the client, or their helpful third party friend, relative, or other legal-minded individual brings modifications to the conversation, things can get uncomfortable fast.

It’s been a great week. That potential client is ready to book. The consultation went smoothly. You’re already envisioning the photos you’re going to take. You send over your contract and they tell you they’ll get it signed and back to you right away. You go to bed happy and get a good night’s sleep.

Two days later your client finally shows up in your email box. Great, the contract is back.

Only it isn’t. You open the email. Instead of your contract, you find a message. Your heart sinks.

“I had a friend look over the contract and there are some things we’d like to change.” That split second of frustration turns immediately into panic with the words, “My friend’s a lawyer…

If something similar hasn’t happened to you yet, then you’re probably overdue. Sooner or later, someone’s friend, family, spouse, or even the client themselves, will be a lawyer called upon to review your contract. The client will usually take great pleasure in pointing this out to you. Especially the lawyer part. Like that’s supposed to convince you to either obediently alter your contract, or shut down the entire project and send your almost-client on their merry way.

Sadly, those two alternatives are often the only ones the photographer will consider. One of two syndromes takes over: either scarcity syndrome (I can’t afford to lose this client, it may be a while before I get another…besides, he’s a lawyer…) or red flag syndrome (oh, absolutely not, this is going to be a nightmare…besides, he’s a lawyer…)

Take a deep breath.

There’s actually a third alternative. Take a look at the changes, and decide if you are comfortably able to make adjustments, or to compromise so that both you and the client are happy.

Before you make any decision, however, it’s important to understand what’s going on here.

Some clients simply accept a contract as a formality in the hiring process. They have signed, they have paid a fee, they are confident they have locked in a photographer for their needs. Those are the clients we all want. Other clients see a contract as an offer, up for negotiation. They are spending a lot of money and want to get the best deal out of the experience. They go over the contract with a fine tooth comb. Sometimes they even think it’s a good idea to have someone look it over for them, especially if that someone is more legally astute.

There are four (4) main types of clients when it comes to contract change requests. The first thing you need to determine is which you’re dealing with. The types of changes they ask for will help you decide. Once you understand what motivates them, you’re better able to respond.

Contract change requests fall into four general categories:

  • The Uneducated Client
  • The Well Meaning Third Party
  • The Paranoid Client
  • The Bully

Let’s look at some of the traits of each.

The Uneducated Client

The majority of clients who ask for changes are simply uneducated clients. Regardless of how thoroughly you explained things before or during the consultation and contract process, your client may not understand something. This is usually the case when your client wants changes regarding usage. If they don’t understand the concept of usage and licensing, they may want to tighten control over usage. (“We don’t want our photos posted anywhere.”) Or they may demand more rights. Watch for the phrase “full rights”. This is an indicator that they need more clarification to what those rights are.

Another common request from clients that need more clarification is “the RAW photos.” Chances are they have no idea what that even means, it’s just some great advice they picked up along the way. It sounds like something they should want. Never mind that the photographer is hired to create a finished product and a RAW file is anything but.

The fix for all four types of client begins the same way. Acknowledge the client’s concerns and then discuss them. No need to be flowery, just simply state, “You obviously have some concerns and I want to make sure you’re comfortable. Tell me what you understand (insert point of concern here) to mean.”

The mistake I see a lot of people make is to leave this step out and jump straight to “educating” the client. Spewing chapter and verse of copyright law, industry practices, and your company policies does not endear you to the client. Don’t waste your time and the client’s goodwill by overwhelming them with your superior knowledge of the photography industry. The objective is not to create more questions and concerns. It is to clarify doubts in the areas they specifically point out.

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“I think it just needs a little more explanation,” is a friendly, professional approach that leaves neither party feeling belittled or at fault.

A patient, competent response is often all they’re after. Assure them you are the professional and their concerns are natural. The more defensive you become, the more likely you are to convert them from being The Uneducated Client, to The Paranoid Client. Or worse, The Bully.

The Well Meaning Third Party

The Uneducated Client is usually the easiest to deal with. Once they’re back in their comfort zone, your contract is signed and everyone moves on. But what happens when The Uneducated Client goes elsewhere first? When they hand their contract over to someone else? If they brought their requests to you without mentioning this, you’d be right back to treating them like any other Uneducated Client. Most of the time, though, they don’t keep to themselves. They return with an us-against-you attitude that can make it hard to think straight at first.

Let’s get something very important out of the way. If your contracts have been prepared by an attorney, under no circumstances should you be intimidated by hearing that your contract has come under scrutiny. This can be especially difficult if your client tosses the “my spouse/parent/cousin/friend is an attorney” card onto the table. The only reason to be apprehensive is if you cobbled your contracts together yourself, without the help of your own attorney. If you find yourself in this situation, only let it happen once. This should be lesson enough to have your contracts drafted or reviewed by an attorney.

So what if the Well Meaning Third Party is an attorney? First, don’t be surprised or indignant. There’s nothing wrong with a client taking advice. They probably don’t enter into contracts for photography services every day. Chances are your fees are not insignificant.

If your Well Meaning Third Party is an attorney, there are a couple of things going on here. First, they’re making sure the terms of your agreement are legal. That you neither prohibit nor impose rights on your client that they otherwise have under law. Next, they’re going to do what trained legal professionals do – negotiate the best deal for their client.

All the rights. Full refund. Longer cancellation period. Any and everything that not only extends your client’s rights, but takes away your own are all impractical requests. They may be taking the attitude that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. It doesn’t mean you have to give.

Other requests might be minor by comparison. Requesting a copy of your proof of insurance. Spreading your payment plan over 4 payments instead of 3. These are requests of confidence and convenience. They have no effect on your obligations or rights.

If these minor changes are acceptable, and don’t change your contract in any substantive way, there is nothing preventing you from making any changes you’re comfortable with.

Ironically, any changes requested by a competent attorney are often easier to deal with than changes made by others. The motives of the bride’s father, for instance, can lead to unrealistic requests. A client with a Well Meaning Third Party can slip straight over into Paranoid Client or Bully territory.

With that in mind, what if the Well Meaning Third Party is not an attorney? Consider the tone of the request. What points does it cover? Does it sound like you’re still dealing with The Uneducated Client? Treat it that way.

What if requests go beyond questions about your service, process, or licensing? What if they want changes to your policies or protections? Any requests to give up your rights or to alter the contract to the benefit of your client at the risk of harm to yourself might take a second step. Once you’re responded and ruled out The Uneducated Client as the cause, you’re probably dealing with The Paranoid Client.

The Paranoid Client

This could be a combination of all the above, taken to the extreme. They’re terrified of being taken advantage of, or that there’s some loophole they’ve missed, so they’re out for every possible advantage they can get. Never mind that it means they have to cancel out your rights and protections to get them. Any objections over the generic protective clauses in your contract could be The Paranoid Client overreacting to fears that your big scary contract is out to get them.

The clearest sign that you’re dealing with The Paranoid Client is the “all for me, none for you” vibe they send. They want no responsibility, even for things that are their own doing. They want the ability to get all the work, all the money back, and to sue you without being sued themselves. Any clause that allows you to terminate the contract (such as “safe work environment”) or be faultless when things are out of your control (“indemnification”) is a hot button for The Paranoid Client.

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Anything that looks the least bit legalese can trigger paranoia. See this for what it is. Anything that requires a signature becomes the big scary contract they fear will destroy their lives. At the very least, it will harm or threaten them in some way. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience in the past. Maybe they don’t understand the verbiage. There could be other issues in their lives that make them overly cautious.

Most of the time, The Paranoid Client is just another form of The Uneducated Client with an added dose of fear. They need assurances that the contract is a blanket of protection for both you and them equally. It’s a written understanding of what each party gets from the other and how those things are handled. It keeps everyone on the same page. It is actually the opposite of fear and doubt. They will know exactly where they stand at all times.

Back to the magic “You obviously have some concerns and I want to make sure you’re comfortable. Tell me what you understand (insert point of concern here) to mean.”

A compassionate, professional explanation of each point is usually all it takes to ease your client back on course. There might still be some prickly bits, but your contract can move forward toward business as usual.

On the other hand, if you’ve done all you can to deal with your client’s requests and still no joy, you might have a Bully on your hands.

The Bully

The Bully wants all the control. Plain and simple. Even if they aren’t overbearing or condescending, you clearly understand they expect to be in charge. There isn’t much you can do about The Bully except decide whether you want them in your life or not. Keep in mind that not every Bully is harmful, though they may be a lot of work.

Even if you talk them down from their lofty contract demands, their oppressive nature may show itself regularly. Some photographers have a magical way with The Bully. They can set aside the behaviors and concentrate on the job, especially for high ticket contracts. Others are more sensitive to The Bully’s demanding nature.

There are some cases when you might not even want to take a chance. Any request to change your price, your schedule, your obligations, or the work itself should be a warning that you might want to reconsider this client. Anyone who wants control of your artistic style and discretion should be avoided. A prospect who insists on removing your protections and adding ways they can get out of their obligations or maximize yours should never become a client.

It goes without saying that threats to you or your reputation should cut any further discussion cold. This is true whether the threat is explicit or merely inferred. You are the judge of what constitutes a threat.

The good thing about The Bully is they are pretty obvious. Even if you don’t see or hear something right away, your subconscious mind is working on all the other signals The Bully is sending your way. When people say “go with your gut” this is what they mean.

Never be so desperate for a client that you knowingly take on The Bully unless you are supremely confident of your ability to deal with them. Even a 30 minute mini session can turn into an eternity with The Bully on the scene. Imagine your life with The Bully who has you booked more than a year in advance for their once in a lifetime event.

The choice is yours

The advantage of being the business owner is that you can set your own rules. Your policies, business model, prices, and the work you offer are just a part of the decisions you have control over.

Minor changes to a contract that are acceptable to both parties are your decision to make. Changes that undermine the substance and protections of your contract are another matter. These should not be considered. The rule of thumb is that neither party has greater advantage or suffers more harm than the other.

In a perfect world, people love your work and accept your offer quickly and happily. But we don’t live or work in a perfect world. Whether the client, or their helpful third party friend, relative, or other legal-minded individual brings modifications to the conversation, things can get uncomfortable fast.

Just remember who is in charge of your business. Make decisions that you – and your business – can live with. Just like your business, the choice is yours.