— Article by Jenika McDavitt – Psychology for Photographers
You open your inbox one day, brightly expecting to take care of business – and your stomach drops. Your pulse rises. There’s an email from a client – and they’re mad. Your face flushes, you feel defensive, what they’re saying isn’t really your fault – and you have no idea where to start.
Let me help.
Good business practices keep most clients happy, but even the most conscientious photographers encounter the unexpected. There are five things you can do in particular to put the situation to rest quickly.
Before we get there, let’s pause and remember that nothing calms you faster than knowing you stand on solid legal ground. With a signed contract that lays out your obligations and policies, you don’t have to spiral and become a heartsick worry tornado of what happens if they sue me or I could lose everything. Nothing helps you respond calmly like actually being calm.
That said, we want clients to feel great. So here are the top five things you can say or do right away to calm someone who is upset (and prevent that from happening altogether):
5. When a ‘hot’ email lands in your inbox, the first thing you say is actually to yourself.
Repeat after me: “Some of this is not truly about me.”
Are you faster to honk at someone who cuts you off in traffic when you’re had a terrible morning and are late for an appointment? Have you ever snapped at someone for something small, but really it was just the eighteenth disappointment of the day?
When someone sits down and writes an angry email, they are likewise usually fueled by things completely unrelated to whatever issue they’re bringing to you.
If they’re fuming that their prints are late and now Grandma won’t have them for her birthday, there is a business problem to fix there, sure. But a lot of what’s stoking the anger might be that they’ve had six things go wrong today, they have issues in the relationship with their mother-in-law, and they’re worried about some doctor test results coming back today.
They aren’t writing this email in a sterile emotional environment – lots of things impact what they say and how they say it.
Acknowledge this to yourself up front. If you feel that you personally bear the brunt of all their anger, it will make you defensive and less effective. Take a deep breath: “Some of this – maybe even a lot of it – is not truly about me.” This frees you up to find and solve the real issue.
4. Pivot to a more personal level of communication, with the least amount of time delay between exchanges.
Put yourself in the client’s shoes for a second: When you speak to people in person, you tend to moderate your words and adjust what you’re saying in real time based on what the other person says and does.
But when you’re writing an angry email, you’re not getting any feedback from the other person while you type. You can’t see their facial expressions or hear their tone of voice. So writing an email can feel a bit like shouting into the wind, and sometimes you yell louder to make sure they hear you.
The lack of actual interchange causes people to ratchet up how angry they appear.
Bring the conversation back to where they can hear or see you react more quickly. If they sent an email, try to call in return.
If you need to reply in writing, you can still send a supporting text or leave a quick voicemail: “Hey – I saw your email and replied, but wanted you to know I’m here.” Re-personalizing the interaction as much as possible goes a long way to diffusing big emotions.
3. Off the bat, summarize in your own words what you heard them say.
Put your geeky student hat on for a second:
One of the evolutionary purposes of anger is it gets other people to re-calibrate the amount of importance they’re putting on what you’re saying. If the pushy salesman is ignoring your kind requests to be left alone, a flash of frustration lets them know you mean it and s/he needs to take you seriously.
Sometimes people show anger about a problem for one reason alone: They need to know you’re going to take this seriously and act quickly. You can often dissolve someone’s anger almost entirely by proving, up front, that you hear what they’re saying and are acting to resolve the issue.
The best way to do that is to put into your own words what you heard them say:
Thank you for writing to me. I definitely understand why you would feel frustrated that the prints didn’t come as expected, especially because you missed your mother-in-law’s birthday as a result. I’m sure you were disappointed not to give her the gift you wanted, and I am too! I am committed to working together to find a solution here.
Note that this is different than admitting fault. You can summarize the problem with empathy even if you did deliver the prints on time and they had unreasonable expectations. But it’s important to start here so they know you heard them and are taking this seriously. Otherwise they will persist in anger until they feel you’re taking it seriously enough. Eliminate their need to be heard by showing you heard them.
2. Get back on the same team by taking responsibility or giving them an ‘out’ so they don’t feel embarrassed:
If you truly messed up, take full responsibility for it, and find out what a mutual goal can be now:
Yes, the prints came later than I told you they would, and for that I take full responsibility. I would like to make it up to you and your mother-in-law – what if I sent her a _____ directly, already gift wrapped?”
If you didn’t really mess up, but communication lapsed, then in most cases it’s best to take responsibility for the lapse. You are the expert on how your business runs and it’s your job to manage expectations. Taking responsibility for miscommunication shows professionalism and often eases tension:
Yes, even though our contract says 2-4 weeks for delivery, I can see that in my email I told you it usually only takes 2 weeks, and that wasn’t accurate enough information for someone on a deadline. I’m sorry for that miscommunication. How about we _______”
If they were truly at fault, give them an “out” so they don’t feel defensive when they realize it. If they feel defensive, they sometimes try to compensate by escalating in anger:
“I mentioned in my email on x/xx that the images take 2-4 weeks for delivery, as it states in our contract. But perhaps that detail got lost in the shuffle and our excitement to place your order. I want to make sure you feel happy about your prints – what if we ______?”
Acknowledging the lapse that occurred, then either taking responsibility or giving them a way to save face, gets you past what happened and back to something you can control – the outcome.
1. After you’ve resolved the issue, walk through your whole client experience step by step, and put clear reminders the step before.
The biggest source of anger isn’t that something negative happened to a client – it’s that what they expected didn’t match what happened.
Thus, a major part of your service to them is making sure their expectations are accurate.
This means acknowledging the psychological reality that people do not often read for detail – they usually grasp the gist, fill in their own assumptions, and move on.
A best practice for you is to walk through your entire client journey and write down each step, from inquiry to delivery. Think about which policies apply at each step, and work in reminders about possible sticking points on the step before. Your booking confirmation email should gently remind them what your reschedule policy is. Your order confirmation should reaffirm the expected production time frame (yes, even if you list it three other places).
Because you know all your policies already, it may help to have a friend read through your communication, then quiz them on whether they’d know what to do if they needed to reschedule, or how long to expect delivery to take. Something can feel clear as day to you, but may not be to someone reading through the first time – as each one of your clients likely is!
In sum: When someone comes to you upset, take a deep breath and realize much of this isn’t about you, and switch to a more personal form of communication if possible. Then reflect back what you heard them say, and get back on the same team using the tools above. Lastly, make sure you place reminders along the way for future clients to keep unhappy surprises at bay!
(And yes – I’ll say it again – make sure the entire process is supported by already having a solid contract in place. It frees you up to be less concerned about your immediate liabilities and offer better care to the people you serve.)
— Article by Jenika McDavitt – Psychology for Photographers