Just Say No to Troublesome Clients

It’s not just for photographers, either.

A bit of humor sheds light on a serious problem.

There’s a video that’s been making it around Twitter and the blogs of professional photographers lately. It’s called “The Vendor Client Relationship — In Real World Situations.” I’ve embedded it here, just in case you haven’t seen it yet. It’s worth a look if you’re either a service professional or someone who uses service professionals. In other words, it’s worth a look for anyone.

The problem is, too many people try to save money by trying to cut special deals with service professionals. Sean Cayton, for example, is a professional photographer who blogged about this topic. In his article on Black Star Rising called “Five Tips for Dealing with Unreasonable Client Requests,” he reported:

I met recently with a prospective wedding client who was on a very tight budget. The groom, an art director, asked if I would allow him to help with the photo editing in order to save some money. I had to tell him no. I operate a full-service studio, and letting the wedding couple do their own editing just isn’t an option for me.

As a helicopter pilot, I’m often asked to provide flying services at locations an hour or more away from my base. Not only do the potential clients try to get a lower hourly rate from me, but they balk when I explain to them that they have to pay the cost of getting the helicopter to the operating area and back. In their mind, I’m not providing a service to them when I’m not flying with one of their people on board. But the simple reality is that I’m working for them from the moment I begin my flight planning and pull the helicopter out of its hangar to the moment I put the helicopter back.

They’re fortunate they’re only paying for the time on the Hobbs meter. I put at least an hour more of unbillable time into every single flight I do.

Why We’re In this Mess

I believe that one of the reasons service professionals have to deal with clients like this is because too many other service professionals have said yes to their unreasonable demands.

I’ll admit that I used to be one of them. When I first started my flying business, I was so hungry for work that I’d do almost anything to make a client happy. That sometimes included trading services (usually advertising space) for all or part of my fee, waiving ferry fees, or dropping my rates just to better meet my client’s budgetary needs. Then one day I started looking at the numbers. While the revenue I was bringing in usually covered the variable expenses of flying — the actual flight cost per hour — they didn’t come anywhere near covering my fixed expenses, including hangar rent, advertising, and insurance. I realized I was working at a loss.

And I realized that I’d rather not work than to lose money doing it.

Just Say No

So I started saying no.

I said no to local flying jobs less than 30 minutes long and other flying jobs less than an hour long. It simply wasn’t worth the trouble of taking the helicopter out of the hangar for the profit I’d make on these short flights. (I did, however, encourage longer flights by introducing rate reductions for flights over 5 hours and 10 hours.)

I said no to free ferry flights for repositioning the helicopter. I was not going to fly for free anymore. Not only was there a helicopter cost involved, but a trained helicopter pilot was at the controls. Didn’t she deserve compensation for her time?

I said no to any barter offers — I can’t fuel the helicopter with a free ad in a publication no one will read or pay my insurance bill with a photo taken during a flight.

I said no to flights that required me to spend more than 15 minutes in flight planning before I had a signed contract and deposit in hand. I was tired of doing someone else’s homework in the hope of getting a flight they were probably too cheap to pay for.

This really happened:
One person I did a charity golf ball drop for made fun of me the following week at a local Rotary Club meeting because we missed the drop zone on our first try. I guess she didn’t appreciate how much it cost me to make one drop, let alone the second drop we did to make up for our failure. You know what I said when she had the nerve to ask me to do it again the following year: no.

I also started saying no to all charity flights, including raffle prizes. They’d promise a mention in the charity publication, etc., but these free pieces of paper were usually discarded, unread. Zero advertising value — instead, all it’s good for is more requests from more charities. And for a while, i was getting more charity requests than calls from paying clients.

The Importance of Screening

I also started screening my clients during their initial contacts with me. Did they sound like they were going to try to wrangle a deal with me? Were they making unreasonable requests? Did they have a clue about what they wanted? Were they trying to use me as a tool for getting information without utilizing my services? Did they have the ability to pay at the conclusion of the flight? Did they understand what they were getting for my hourly rate?

If I got any indication during the phone call that they could be trouble, I actively began discouraging them from flying with me. I’d state minimum fees and make it clear that I wouldn’t budge on my rate. I’d tell them that what they wanted was beyond the capabilities of my aircraft. And sometimes, if I got a gut feeling that flying for them would be more trouble than it was worth, I’d tell them I wasn’t available on the day or time they wanted me, even if I was.

Snobby? Elitist? I don’t think so. Just protecting my interests.

We Need to Stand Firm Behind Our Experience, Expertise, and Skills

I’ve been in the business for eight years now and have a wide range of experience completing many different missions. I’ve decided to stand behind my experience, expertise, and skills. That’s what my clients are paying for and despite what they might think, they’re getting a lot for their money.

I probably have more knowledge and experience for photo flights over Lake Powell than any other helicopter pilot flying today. You want an experienced pilot to take you on a photo flight over the lake? Then you’ll pay the 4 hours of ferry time to get me up there and back. Hint: there’s no other helicopter pilot who will fly up there for free.

I happen to have a good amount of skill chasing race cars and boats, low-level and high speed. I can put a still or video photographer right where he needs to be in these action photo shoots. Is your race an hour away? Then you’ll pay the 2 hours of ferry time to get me there and back. And you won’t load up the helicopter with unnecessary “observers.” You’re not just paying for a helicopter and a skilled pilot — you’re paying for a safe flight.

Helicopter at HouseAn off-airport landing zone.

I’ve probably flown over and landed at more remote, off-airport locations than any other commercial helicopter pilot in Arizona — other than medevac pilots. You want to see some “air park” property in northern Arizona, east of Wikieup? Or a bunch of land north of I-40, east of the Colorado River? Or a vacant steel plant outside of Kingman? Or the side of a 40-mile long cliff north of Seligman? Or a powerline stretching from Forepaugh to Bagdad? Or a pipeline stretching from Tucson to the New Mexico border? Or a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border from Yuma to Nogales? Or some other equally weird or remote place? Then you’ll pay for a pilot who knows where to find fuel, who to contact for permission to fly through restricted areas, where to find a landing zone where you can get out and take pictures or soil samples or a leak. And don’t expect to trade that flight time for a mention in the credits of your video or annual report or promises of more business in the future.

I’m not going to sell myself short — even if it means losing out on business.

Frankly, if a client doesn’t pay me what I’m worth, I’m losing out anyway. And I may as well lose out in the comfort of my office or home than flying a mission for someone who doesn’t appreciate the value of what he’s getting.

What do you think?

I’d love to read your stories of how clients have tried to deal you out of what you think you deserve. Not just from pilots or photographers, but from any service professional. Use the comments link or form for this post to share your stories or links to them on your own blog.

And if you think I’m wrong about this — that we should allow potential clients to cut whatever deal they like with us — I’d like to know why. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here.

But after years in a very expensive and highly specialized business, I don’t think so.

6 thoughts on “Just Say No to Troublesome Clients

  1. This is an excellent article, thanks Maria. It’s so easy to be swayed into reducing rates or giving freebies, especially for good causes.

    But that doesn’t pay for the groceries or the power bill. I’ve never yet had a supermarket say I could have my groceries for free because I’d given a client a freebie!

    Over the years I’ve given away far too much of my work and it’s coming back to bite me now.

    I’m curious though about what this means: “I said no to free ferry flights for repositioning the helicopter.” Or is that where you’re based in location A, but the job is at location B so you have to fly there first?

    Miraz Jordan´s last blog post: 5 PowerTips for Deleting Text

    • Miraz: Yes, by “ferry flight” I mean an aircraft repositioning flight. For example, last summer a video photography client wanted me to do about 3 to 5 hours of flying over a race. The race began 2-1/2 hours away from my base of operations and ended 5 or more hours away. When I reminded him that he needed to pay for all flight hours, including the aircraft repositioning time, he balked. I didn’t budge so I didn’t get the job. But that’s a good thing because if I’d given in, I would have LOST money on a dangerous flight in brutally hot weather. Instead, I spent the day relaxing in safe, air-conditioned comfort.

  2. Well i’m into the IT business. I have a difficult client who never pays on time and always insists that i put my price down – i stand my ground nonetheless. I worked for her for over a year and left the company because of the way she treated her staff and the unbelievable rates she paid. I still charge under the market rate now, but if she had treated a few of us better the first time round, she wouldn’t be paying 10x what she paid us before.

    I’ve started to charge by the hour now, and i explain and make it clear that hourly rates are set and if she feels that the clock is over going her budget, she has the opportunity to ask me to leave it and come back when she has more money – to continue. I find it pretty humorous.

    I feel uncomfortable when she insists she shouldn’t pay this, but i think i’m going to end the contract with her!

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog and feel for you!


  3. I was a nanny in atlanta for 12 years. I had one client that knew my value and everyone else wanted me to work for $5/hr. I took the jobs because it was the only way to work and I had no overhead. These people would not take into consideration my age, training and the possibility of something happening to their child, pet, or property. I can’t believe how cheap parents are with childcare. At over age 21 I am worth more!

  4. I have thought this for a while now, people are so willing to give away time and services (which equals money) just to get a client for their business. I read an article a few months back where the author started several small businesses by the time he was 18! One of the points he made that is sticking with me is along the lines of ‘Don’t do something for free if people are willing to pay for to do it.’
    I think one of the leading causes of people trying to get your services at next to nothing is the general lack of knowledge of the ammount of money it takes to operate in aviation (or any business for that matter) they see the prices that the big box stores can offer and figure it costs you less than that.

    • What’s funny is that the more money my company has in the bank, the more likely I am to turn down a job I just don’t “feel like” doing. I had a good summer doing agricultural work and am not motivated to deal with the tourist types that come to Phoenix in the winter. I don’t expect to fly very much — and I don’t mind one bit.

What do you think?