Wedding photography rarely makes the news for bad reasons, thankfully.  This recent story from Dallas, Texas has raised a lot of commotion, however unfortunately the initial TV report was very one-sided: A newlywed couple in the DFW area was shocked to discover, months after their wedding, that their photographer was trying to collect a “cover fee” for a 40-page album that they had already paid for in their ~$6,000 photography package.

UPDATE: What we’ve got here is, …failure to communicate.

As is often the case, unfortunately, the story first heard on TV was a dramatized and mis-informed version of the whole truth. The wedding photographer being accused has taken the time to respond regarding the situation, you can read that HERE. In the open letter we are given some very important and surprising details:

We had taken action to make things right, and instead this bride went directly to the media , bragging about the upcoming news story on all of her social media accounts and creating a very large following, which was boosted by her business as a professional social media expert.

If this story were truly based how upset and hurt she was, she would not post statements to humiliate me or harm my business. Statements like, “I’m pretty sure her business is ruined,” “I hope this goes viral,” “feeling excited,” and “justice has been served” are not the actions of a concerned and hurt bride; they are actions of an individual trying to take someone down and instigate a lynch mob of negativity across the nation. To make matters worse, I responded with a lengthy statement to the reporter on Thursday morning because I was out of town for work, and was told in writing from the reporter that “I will do my best to sum up your position to give your side of the story.” In the interview that aired, this reporter only included the very last sentence of my statement completely leaving out key information in the story.

In short, in my opinion, the television report was entirely wrong to paint the photographer in such a bad light; the bride was clearly out for blood, and went to the media without warning the photographer at all.

Are your actions truly one of justice? Justice is defined as: just behavior or treatment, “a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people.” In my opinion, these actions have not brought any form of justice to either of us.

You may still bring up the business advice that a post-wedding album cover fee is still a poor choice of pricing strategy, so this article’s take-home message remains the same even if the photographer didn’t actually make this mistake:  Try not to surprise your clients with fees after their wedding.

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According to the bride, the cover fee wasn’t listed in the signed contract, but was mentioned verbally somehow, or was at least written down in a standard album order form that clients use when picking an album in their package.  Either way the couple, understandably in my opinion, was upset by the thought that the album they paid for didn’t include a default, no-frills cover.

The TV story painted the photographer in the light of “playing hardball” with the client and refusing to budge on the issue, however the photographer has explained that they personally weren’t given a chance to make things right, and the bride went from being friendly to vengeful very rapidly.

I Wasn’t There – May I Have My Grain Of Salt?

Okay, first things first-  I wasn’t there; I don’t know the actual truth.  There could be any number of other factors that shed a completely different light on things, strongly favoring one party or the other.  Off the top of my head, here are a few possibilities:

(UPDATE: Looks like my suspicions were correct, probably.)

The photographer might have actually been very clear, verbally, about the “cover charge” in the pre-booking and pre-wedding planning.  They might have even clearly written it in all their price sheets and order forms, too, if not the signed contract.

So if the client quietly noticed this wasn’t in the signed contract, they could have schemed to try and get something for free. This sounds very accusatory, I know, but this world is unfortunately filled with sue-happy people just looking for a fight, or a free ride.

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Oppositely, the use of the phrase “storybook album” tells me that this photographer might be following a business model that relies heavily on post-wedding up-sales, with extra album pages or similar add-ons.  The “storybook” term is common among followers of famous photographer Gary Fong’s own wedding business model in which album sales are highly promoted. Not necessarily in a sneaky or confusing way, mind you, but I’d definitely use the word “complex”to describe most of the up-sell business models I’ve seen along these lines.

So, this photographer may have simply never had a problem getting folks to pay extra for an album cover after the wedding.

…Then again, the clients might have simply been not paying attention when the photographer quietly mentioned a cover charge, and were indeed caught off guard by the bill.

Either way, in my opinion going to the media was a bad idea. Both parties would have been much better off by resolving the matter privately.  Since I wasn’t there though, I can’t really say who is more to blame.

The Importance Of Transparency (And Written Contracts) When Booking A Client

The lesson that I learned just by first hearing about this story was that all professionals need to be sure to put everything in writing in the signed contract, especially when money and deliverables are involved.

Also, legal ass-covering aside, I feel like it is extremely important to not just be open and communicative and friendly towards your clients at all times, but to actually think about your packages, pricing, and overall customer experience from within their shoes.  Maybe your pricing sheet isn’t well-written enough, and could stand to be updated, simplified, or even dramatically changed.  (Then again, even if you do all of these things, there will always be troublesome clients that you have to deal with.)

In my own personal business, I avoid post-wedding fees like the plague.  I never charge my clients overtime fees if I happen to stay a little late, and I try and get all album, print, and other product orders completed or at least thoroughly explained in writing before the wedding. It’s just a better overall experience for the happy couple that way!

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When To Recognize Your Mistakes, Or At Least Save Face

The second lesson, the one that more hardball-playing veteran pro photographers might disagree with me about is, that when you encounter trouble with clients, the thing to do is to swallow your pride and make your clients happy.

The best possible outcome I can imagine would have been this:  for the photographer to immediately realize that the album cover fee wasn’t a good idea, swallow the cost, and change their contract and/or their pricing for future clients.

Could this have been the outcome?  Only if 1.) the bride had a little more patience, and if 2.) the photographer had been more quick to respond and negotiate.

Like I said though, I don’t know the whole story.  But that’s OK, I’m not a news reporter or investigator, I’m an opinion writer who is simply trying to help other wedding photographers (and engaged / newlywed couples) avoid getting themselves into a similar situation.

Whoever is at fault, the moral of the story is to communicate quickly and clearly, and try your hardest to ensure there are no surprises at any step along the way, especially post-wedding.

The Ramifications Of “Holding Your Ground” As A Small Business Owner

I’m sure every small business owner in America has encountered at least one or two crazy customers who threatened to sue, or go to the media, if they didn’t get their way.

Usually these are idle threats from, well, crazy people, however if you want to survive in the long run, you do need to be able to sniff out the serious situations and take appropriate action as soon as possible. Sometimes a client is unfairly asking for way too much, and you simply can’t afford to give them what they want.  Other times you simply can’t afford NOT to give them at least a small concession, and fast.

In other words, as one of my greatest mentors in wedding photography once told me, “Be quick to bend over backwards for ALL your clients, even the tough ones, otherwise sooner or later one of them will bend you over ‘the other way’…”

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So, fellow wedding photographers, what do you think?  Whose side would you take, in a dispute that involves written versus verbal communication, and/or “surprise” fees?

I’m not just talking about the recent news story specifically, since we’re hearing two conflicting stories, but in general- how do you run your business when it comes to pricing your packages, and dealing with unhappy clients?

Happy clicking,
=Matt=