Monday, February 13, 2012

Why I Nearly Sued My Wedding Photographer

Choosing a wedding photographer is a very stressful decision for a young couple, because if the photographer screws up there is no second chance to recreate the event - not to mention the thousands of dollars wasted.



When  my wife and I got engaged, we were in the same boat as many couples - we had no idea how to choose a wedding photographer.  None of our friends were married yet, so we didn't have any personal recommendations to rely on. 

We ended up finding a list of candidates through Google (see SEO for Photographers) and walking through a wedding show at a local expr.  We met with several candidates, and ended up selecting one whose photo style we liked and who seemed like a nice guy.  His name was Tom.

Tom was about our age and ran his business out of his home, but that was fine because he showed us around and his basement was setup like a professional studio.  In hindsight, we should have realized something was wrong when he mentioned how he was moving his studio to his detached garage that he had been building by hand "for the last couple of years."  But, with so many other things to think about, that comment didn't even register.

Before the wedding Tom responded to all of our emails and phone calls quickly and we were all on the same page.  He laid out our options and pricing clearly, we signed a check, and moved on to the other thousand decisions we had to make.

Wedding Day


If you're reading this and you're married, you already know that on your wedding day the last thing you want to worry about are your vendors.  I was constantly running through a mental checklist of what I had to get done - don't forget the ring, don't forget the ring, don't forget the ring - and worrying about the wedding photographer was not on the list.  It wasn't until 15 minutes before the wedding that one of my fiancée's bride's maids informed me that Tom hadn't shown up yet that I started worrying.

I had brought a sheet of paper with vendor's phone numbers and kept in my car.  I called Tom to find out what was wrong, and he told me not to worry, that he was "about 10 minutes out". 

There was nothing I could do at this point but pray.  I told my wife's bride's maid that he was pulling into the parking lot now.  Yes, I lied to her, so she would tell my fiancée that everything was ok. No point in both of us worrying.

He made it in time and was shooting pictures when my fiancée started her walk down the isle.  He was no problem during the ceremony or at the reception. But afterwards was a different story.

The Wedding Book


Tom had told us that after our wedding our photos would be online for review within a week, and that after we made our selections we would have our photo book within two months.  While the photos were online within a week, getting the photo book delivered ended up taking almost two years.

Tom dropped off the face of the earth for a few months, and wouldn't respond to email or phone calls.  Here's a response I eventually got to an email, about six months after our wedding:

Thanks for your email to xxxxx Photography.  I have set this auto-responder to go out through the month of June.  Until then, I am going to be working on the needs of current clients and will not be taking on any new projects.  I hate to do this in such an impersonal way, but I have fallen behind and feel obligated to my current clients to get caught up.

Current commercial clients:


I know I am in the middle of a few large projects--please don't worry.  And I am on top of my upcoming scheduled shoots as well.  One of the reasons for this auto-response is to provide better service to you in the future.
His idea of better service was an auto-responder.

It went on like this for nearly 18 months. 

I can't explain why I didn't push harder, except to say that while we wanted our wedding book, it wasn't the foremost worry in our mind. Jobs, starting a family, moving into a new home - the wedding book was never priority number 1.  

It did kind of gnaw at me though - those photos had already cost us a lot of money.  Plus, Tom wasn't going to get paid the balance until we got the book. How could he NOT be a hurry to delivery and get his money?

When I was able to get him on the phone, Tom was always very apologetic and promised to get our book done soon.  Finally, about 18 months after our wedding, frustrated and just wanted the ordeal behind me, I typed up a note in legalese (or my best imitation thereof) threatening to sue.  

We got our wedding book two months later.

On the cover, my wife's name was misspelled. 

Seriously.

Tom blamed the company he outsourced the book creation to. And since they didn't offer that style of book anymore, he had to replace the nameplate by hand (it turned out ok).

About a year later we got a boilerplate email from him, to all of his past clients, thanking us all for recommending him to their friends, but that he had decided to go back to a 9-to-5 job.

I think that was for the best.

Customer Service for Photographers


Customer service for photographers can be broken down into three phases: before, during, and after the photo shoot.

Before the photo shoot, customer service is focused on reducing the feeling of risk for the client.  That means making them confident in you and your abilities.

  • Be easy to contact.  Give your client your cell phone, your work phone, your pager, your email address, and any other way to contact you that you can think of.
  • Respond quickly.  If a client calls you during business hours, call them back as soon as you can. If they call after hours, call them first thing the next day.  The standard turn around time or email should be 24 hours or less.
  • Provide references.  On your website or in the handouts you give your clients, give them the names and number of past clients who have agreed to be contacted.

During the shoot, you want to be seen doing your job, but not getting in the way.

  • Arrive early.  Early enough that the client isn't wondering at the last minute if you're going to show up.
  • Let them know you're there.  After that, unless you have to talk to them, you need to behave like a child from the 19th century - seen but not heard.
  • Bring business cards.  Guests at the event may want to talk to you about their own upcoming events, but you need to be focused on your current client. Hand them your business card and tell them you'd love to discuss their needs, and then excuse yourself to go take an urgent photo.

You'll have your best opportunity to provide excellent customer service after the event is over.  At this point, customer service is about enhancing your reputation.  Now is the time to surprise your client and leave an indelible impression on their mind (and hopefully get them to mention you to all of their friends.

  • Throw in upgrades. Upgrade them to a more costly package, free. Of course, you've already built this into your cost of business in advance, but you don't need to tell them that. Just send them a letter when delivering your final product and let them know that you've thrown in the extras.
  • Personalize the delivery.  Include a memorable token with your final delivery.  For instance,  wedding photographers could send their favorite photo of the event in an elegant picture frame, and include a personalized letter telling the couple what a beautiful and memorable wedding it was.
  • Follow up.  Email or phone the client a week after the event to make sure they were happy with how it went, and do the same again after the final product delivery. If anything is wrong, fix it quickly, free.
  • Hook them for next time.  Include a discount coupon for the next time they use your service - and tell them they can give the coupon to any of their friends. It's cheap marketing.