How to say “no” to a client with professional poise

Having a client led business brings a multitude of advantages – you get to work with so many different people, it inspires creativity, your business can grow in ways you hadn’t imagined.

Despite the wonderful aspects of the photographer-client dynamic, it can also at times be tough. On the rare occasion when a client relationship breaks down, sometimes your only option is to walk away. Whilst it’s a last resort, here are a few tips on how to walk away from a prospective client with professional poise, maintain your vital reputation and ensure you don’t burn any bridges which could come back and bite you down the line.

Explain, gently

It’s important your client understands why you’re not able to work with them and the key here is to tread carefully.

No matter how challenging the relationship may have been, you need to choose wording that won’t offend them. It helps to always focus on the work, and not the person. For example, you might say that your creative visions don’t align or your style of working isn’t suitable for them.

If you flip the situation on yourself, “it’s not you it’s me,” if you like, you’ll hopefully limit the blow somewhat. It’s important to be honest, clients will usually appreciate the candidness, but you can absolutely do this in a tactful and gentle way.

On this note, whatever you do don’t lie. It may be tempting to get out of an awkward situation that way but it won’t serve you well in the long run and if you get caught out, it’s your reputation you’ve damaged.

Photographer: Autumn Liggett

Avoid conflict at all cost

When you contact your client to let them know you won’t be able to work with them anymore, they may well be hurt and disappointed, potentially verbally lashing out against you. Try not to escalate the situation by responding defensively or aggressively. Keep it calm and don’t retaliate.

By gently turning them down you can retain composure and try to keep the situation from escalating negatively. After all, you’re probably doing both of you a favour by guiding them in a different direction. If you know you wouldn’t be able to create your best work for them, they’re likely to have a better overall experience by booking someone who can.

Communicate openly

One of the worst things you can do when your business relies on a client base, is to ghost clients. Whatever you do, don’t ignore anyone.

Even if what they want isn’t quite what you offer, you don’t feel comfortable with what they’re asking, or they’re just plain rude, there’s no excuse not to respond to their correspondence. Revert back to them promptly and explain why you might not be quite what they’re looking for.

Try not to burn bridges since they may want to contact you again, for example if their vision alters or if they simply want to recommend you to a friend. Just because you’re not right for them right now doesn’t mean you won’t be in the future.

Photographer: Saraya Joy Barth

Help them out

Just because a particular client isn’t right for you, or you them, it doesn’t mean they won’t suit another photographer. Go the extra mile and recommend where they can find an alternative.

They may not take up your recommendations but at least you can be confident you have done everything you could to help them in the right direction. It may be a particular vibe they’re looking for, or specific vision, and finding someone suitable could be what they’re struggling with.

With your network you’d be doing them a huge favour by guiding them towards the right person.

Photographer: Cassie Trotter

Onwards and upwards

It’s hard not to feel guilty about turning a client away, after all money is money. However, especially in the early days of your business, you need to stick to your guns and trust your gut on these decisions.

You don’t want to take on a project when your heart isn’t in it, or you don’t feel like you can do your best work on. Equally you wouldn’t want to say yes to a client you didn’t gel with or feel you couldn’t work successfully with. You need to protect yourself from potential failure and disappointment from both parties down the line.

It’s always better to nip something in the bud than avoid confrontation and drag out the inevitable. It’s tricky to word what is essentially a form of rejection without upsetting people (which you would never want to set out to do) but if you’re polite, respectful and tactfully honest you can rest assured you’ve done everything you can.

Whilst we’re on the subject, here are 5 other tips to help you boost your client experiences.

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