The following advice is specific to Australia. Most Western countries have similar structures and the broad principles are similar. However, you should consult your own advisers for specific information.
Buying photography can be scary for our clients. Why? The main reason is because they are making a commitment to something they haven't yet seen!
In our world, this is unusual. Think about how you shop or buy things. When you go to a supermarket, not only do you see the price on the shelf, you have a very good idea about the product - how much there is, what its quality is, how long it will last and so on.
Although photographers sell a product (our photos), we're not really like a supermarket because often our products can't be seen until after our clients have made their purchase - after they have hired us.
In some ways, photographers are more like a doctor or a lawyer. How do we make a decision about which doctor or lawyer to trust? Usually we ask our friends and business colleagues for their advice - referrals. And when we find a good doctor or lawyer, we stick with them because we have developed a relationship based on trust.
Of course, buying services from a doctor or a lawyer is no guarantee we are going to like the outcome, whereas when clients buy from a photographer they are definitely expecting a good quality result. Fortunately, ‘a good quality result' is very widely defined because in most cases there is no way our clients can compare our work with that of another photographer.
Take wedding photography for example. Once the wedding is over, there's no way the couple can hire a different photographer. They are stuck with you. On the other hand, a family hiring you to take a portrait can decide they don't like your work and walk away. Is this a fair thing, or should we put in places systems that protect us from unethical clients who are unhappy or out to rip us off?
Many years ago, this newsletter was only offered to professional photographers via direct mail subscription offers. Naturally enough, most of the recipients only saw one sample newsletter, so how could they know if they would like the next 10 issues if they purchased a subscription?
The solution was to offer a money-back guarantee. Take up the subscription for a year and if for any reason you were unhappy with the newsletter, send it back for a full refund.
Around six years ago the newsletter was provided as part of the AIPP annual subscription, but the offer still stands for non-AIPP members who subscribe directly. And how many people have taken me up on this offer? One. Just one. And how many people subscribed because they felt safe in the knowledge that if they had made a mistake with their purchase, they could get their money back? I don't have an answer to this, but I'm sure it was a help for many people when they subscribed for the first time.
So, when your clients approach you, what are you offering them that makes them feel warm and fuzzy?
The easiest clients to give a money-back guarantee to are our family portrait clients. If there's a problem with the shoot, it's easy to re-schedule and do it again, or if the clients are really unhappy with you (or you're really unhappy with them), you refund the sitting fee and there's no real harm done.
Yes, giving back a sitting fee is lost income. You've spent several hours in interviews and re-shooting time and received nothing back in return. But this is okay. In the big picture, you've spend far more time than this talking to prospective clients who never booked you at all.
Losing one or two clients like this should be put down to part of your marketing budget. Make them a money-back guarantee, work out how much it will cost you if ten people per year take you up on the offer, and then sit back and laugh annually because far fewer will.
On the other side of the ledger, your clients will feel much happier booking you because they know if they don't like what you produce, they need pay nothing. Yes, they have invested several hours of their time meeting with you and having their photos taken, but most people will feel comfortable with this.
Can advertising and commercial photographers offer the same guarantee? You bet they can, certainly when working for clients directly.
An advertising photographer working with an advertising agency might not offer himself as a candidate for a prestigious job with a money-back guarantee if the job doesn't turn out. There are two reasons. First, you're unlikely to get the job with this approach - the agency wants someone who is supremely confident and there is no option to fail! And second, because the photographer is often only a small percentage of the total cost of the shoot, you probably can't give them a meaningful guarantee. A money-back guarantee is unlikely to be appropriate in this situation, but having a reputation for sticking with a job until the client is happy is the next best thing.
However, not all advertising and commercial jobs are commissioned by advertising agencies. Many jobs come from clients directly and often these clients are inexperienced when it comes to hiring a photographer. They're probably worried about their job and their reputation if they book the wrong photographer or the shoot doesn't work out. In this situation, offering to do the job well before deadline (so there's time for a re-shoot) and giving the client a money-back guarantee can be very approrpriate.
Of course, how this guarantee is given is another matter. For a family portrait sitting, the guarantee could be in a bright starburst on a glossy brochure, but this is possibly not the right approach for an advertising or commercial client. It might be better to slip the guarantee into your conversations or include it as a line in your terms and conditions.
Once again, what's the worst thing that can happen? The client rejects the photographs and won't pay your bill, so you've lost a few hours or days work and gained invaluable experience - perhaps your work wasn't up to standard, or perhaps you picked a one in a hundred clients who are going to be a pain in the neck no matter how good your work is. As Thomas Edison is reported to have said, each time his experiment failed he said he now knew one material that wouldn't work for an electric light bulb, and you know one client you don't want to work for again!
The beauty about our money-back guarantees is that the clients don't keep any of the photos either, so the guarantee won't let them have the photos and not pay.
And then there is the wedding, the one-off, never to be repeated event. Is a money-back guarantee appropriate for weddings as well?
Weddings can be highly emotional affairs, so you're possibly taking a higher risk: who will determine whether the photos were a success - the bride, the groom, the mother-in-law...? And even if the photos are attrocious, the clients will want them anyway because they are the only images in existence (ignoring the guests' photos of course).
A money back guarantee for a wedding is probably not great marketing because it raises the possibility of failure, something your clients don't want to think about! Nevertheless, a guarantee of some type can be useful.
Overall, the majority of our clients are just like us - honest, hard-working and with a sense of fairness. A money-back or similar guarantee is just one way we can make it more comfortable for them to book us as their photographer.
The information in this article is general in nature and should not replace personal advice given by your own legal and financial advisers.