What do you do when clients hate what THEY asked for?

Miranda Priestly in "Devil Wears Prada"This past Friday I had a sort of “meeting of the minds” with some amazingly talented filmmakers (more on that at a later date). One topic that came up for discussion was dealing with clients who ask you for something, you tell them “that won’t be good,” they tell you to do it anyway, you do it, then they hate it. I’m sure we’ve all dealt with that to some extent, whether you shoot weddings, events or Fortune 500 commercial spots. So how do you deal with it? Here’s how I handle it (note: it does NOT involve saying, “I told you so.”)

  • Set expectations: always set expectations for your clients. Let them know what additional costs might be incurred should they require you to “change it back” to the original. And always build into your contracts rates and parameters for changes. We build 1-2 hours of complimentary editing into every project, then state up front in our contracts the costs for editing beyond that.
  • Educate: it is important that you educate your clients about the process. The better they can understand what’s going on, the better chance they have of listening to you. If you want to budget for a full crew and the client wants to pay for only a quarter crew, explain in detail what could possibly happen without the additional help.
  • Communication: as much as possible, document decisions that have been made as well as any objections. Whether it’s via email or a project management program like Basecamp, have some sort of documented communication.
  • Anticipate: if a client essentially orders you to do something you know based on your experience is a bad idea, then you need to be the bigger person and plan accordingly. Anticipate the problems and have a plan B and C to “correct” the situation if necessary. Sometimes it’s not a matter of a quantitative problem (i.e. bad lighting because the client didn’t want to budget for lights). Sometimes it’s a more subjective issue. Perhaps they wanted an editing tweak that you knew wouldn’t do well conveying the message, but they ask for it anyway. Then in focus groups, your experience proves right. You can be the “hero” if you have slightly different versions of the project that addresses some of their concerns, but still accomplishes what you know it needs to.
  • Bite your tongue: whatever you do, don’t say “I told you so.” (Or any version of that sentiment). It’s unprofessional and immature. What if you could instead say “In anticipation of this issue given our previous discussions, my team put this together for you.” Then WOW them with your plans B and C.
  • Know when to say “No” to a job: sometimes you have to deal with this problem before it can become a problem. There are times when you know even before you take a job that a client will want to play “director” and “editor.” If that’s not how your studio works, be emphatic about that up front (again, set expectations). Be willing to refer a potential client to a colleague if you know your process will not mesh with their wishes.

I can’t help but think of that scene in “Devil Wears Prada” where Andy (Anne Hathaway’s character) finally gets it right. Throughout the movie, no matter what Andy did, Miranda Priestly was not happy. When faced with the impossible task of getting the unreleased manuscripts of the next Harry Potter book for Miranda’s twins, Andy anticipates all of Miranda’s possible objections and delivers one book for each of the twins, bound, signed, and FedExed ahead of time. She tops it off by delivering the news along with Miranda’s favorite drink from Starbucks. The scene ends with Miranda, for the first time, being speechless and getting an oh so subtle look of euphoria (a look that only the amazingly talented Meryl Streep could pull off).

Having clients from time to time ask you for stuff you know they will hate is par for the course in this business. How you handle it can play a significant part in your success and longevity.

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