Deep Thought Thursday: Satisfying an Unreasonable (?) Client

Help this artist out. Here's the dilemma as described by the artist.

Two years ago I accepted a second commission from a client. It was for a large painting to coordinate with one I had completed for this couple the year before.

Since the second painting’s delivery, I have been asked (by the husband) to redo it several times even though the original drawing had been approved. I've added and taken out things and tried to do everything possible to satisfy the clients. The wife seemed to love my last redo, but the husband (a retired powerful military officer use to getting his way) now wants to meet with me and discuss the painting.

I am at my wit’s end trying to make my clients happy, and I know the husband intimidates me in a very gentleman-like manner. How do I handle this in a professional way?

What do you think?

We might not have enough information to know whether or not the client is being unreasonable, but what should this artist have done to avoid this problem?

More importantly, what can be done now?

Christopher Schneiter, Untitled Photograph. ©The Artist
Christopher Schneiter, Untitled Photograph. ©The Artist

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24 thoughts on “Deep Thought Thursday: Satisfying an Unreasonable (?) Client”

  1. This is no doubt the hardest thing about doing custom work. You want to make the client happy but you also want to be fairly compensated. I have a policy with my custom work that small changes are done for free but that anything more than that is billed by the hour. This makes the client really look at the piece and consider what they truly would want changed versus nit picking and putting you through the ringer with multiple rounds of changes.

    I would politely explain to the client that you want to do everything you can to make the piece exactly how they want it, but that unfortunately you need to move your focus to other clients’ work because you want to ensure that all of your clients receive your utmost attention. Lay down some sort of guidelines, like you will go through one more round of changes for free, and then you will be billing them for the time. You can also offer something to offset the bad news, like a discount on their next commission or perhaps bill them for the changes at a discounted rate.

    Hope this helps!

  2. Probably too late, now, but a “what’s done is done” agreement before-hand would have been helpful. That is, the commission agreement might say that preliminary work is subject to approval and modification, but the finished work is either accepted as-is or rejected outright, and, if rejected, all money previously paid remains with the artist, as does the right to sell the work elsewhere.

    For now, perhaps the modifications can be performed to at an hourly rate? A high one?

  3. When taking on a commission, we make clear, in writing, the following:
    *50% down at start
    *Up to 3 sketches will be provided. Additional changes are charged per sketch (usually $50 – $100 each, depending on the complexity of the piece)
    *Once the sketch is approved, the painting is completed.
    *Balance due upon completion.

    But, I have to add, we bend over backwards to make someone happy. If the painting is finished and the client asks for one little additional change, we’ll make it at no charge. If it’s a big change, we’ll politely say “that’s going to cost an extra $xxxx, fair enough?” And I haven’t had any complaints – most collectors understand that you’re putting in extra time and they are willing to pay for it.

    For the artist in this blog example, I would say, chalk it up to a learning experience and don’t let this happen again. I think the most important lessons we learn, we learn the hard way!

  4. A Learning Experience is the right idea – learn to exercise better CONTROL with this client by sitting down with them and carefully describing EXACTLY what it is they (he) want done, in laborious detail, item for item, noting each aspect of the work on paper as you go.

    If it is a simple rework, figure it out on the spot – work to be done, hours to be invested, final approval date etc. Rewrite the notes into a more easily readable form, have them sign and date it, then sign and date it yourself. Now you have a Contract, which is what you should have had in the first place.

    If it is a complex, time-consuming, major rework, make sure you have ALL the notes, including a project balance statement, and LEAVE the meeting, further establishing your control. Figure out what you will and won’t do, and what, if anything, to charge for it, and what the charge will be if there is even more work demanded by the client (probably not), put it down on paper with a copy for them, and arrange another meeting.

    Refer to the notes if there is a conflict in interpretation of the Contract, noting any changes or add-ons onto BOTH copies. Client will probably try to push the envelope to look for weaknesses in the understanding, but stick to the Contract – it should be comprehensive enough to cover the issue, and if not, make notes on both copies.

    Once agreed, have them sign and date it in the spaces provided on BOTH copies, you do the same, then pick up the original art work to be modified, and LEAVE.

    Next client, START with a signed and dated “Letter Of Understanding”, which is an artistic way to say Contract – clients expect and respect it.

  5. Great advice from experienced people. To the artist: go to that meeting prepared as Fuzzy describes. Meet the retired officer with your own inner admiral, master of your art and business, on terms he’ll respect.
    Could this be a case of “the customer is always right, and they get to pay you for the privilege?”
    Thanks to all for the contribution. I learned a lot!

  6. I had ONE rather difficult customer in my past. When I first met with them I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I drove away feeling doubtful about working with them. I put a very tight contract together, and the samples boards were signed and dated with approvals. When I started working on the project the husband became a nightmare, coming into the space where I was working trying to micro-manage my artistic process. He was having me add and change colors because he was not liking the initial steps of a multi-step process. He didn’t trust that the finish would appear like the sample board. After two days the wife starting making things up that she was trying to claim that I promised them. They started arguing in front of me – yelling at each other over other issues. The wife tried to get me to deliver a message to her husband unrelated to my art. She started to add things and change the finish. The list of additions to my contract, and the signatures of approval were out of control. It was so horrible. On the fourth day, with several more days to go on four projects. I cleaned up all of my tarps and materials and packed everything in the car. I drove off knowing that I would return what money I could, and never speak to these people again. I was willing to cut my loss and risk my reputation. They were such unhappy people. They were crazy makers. I sent a certified letter stating irreconcilable differences, along with most of their deposit check. I know I did the right thing. I later heard that this was a pattern for them. They had many contractors walk out on them because of the same reasons. What I learned… no matter how tight a contract, no matter how often you review the contract, there will always be a few people that will be unhappy with their lives and want to make everyone around them unhappy. I learned to trust my intuition. It was screaming to me on that first day meeting them. Since then, whenever I get that feeling again I walk away from those jobs. It’s never worth it to me.

  7. Seriously? You were commissioned 2 years ago and you are still “working” it out with this man? Oh my.

    (I am so saddened to hear about things like this.) Clearly you have issues with him that perhaps go deeper then the art work? You describe him as a “a retired powerful military officer use to getting his way”, but you need to understand the “military”: unless he was a 5 star general – he took orders, too!

    Change your relationship (in you head) with him and become his commanding officer instead of a private.

    It’s attitude. You need to adjust your attitude AND ask for his help as one person to another. If not – you will continue to be his “project”. Appeal to his wife? She may know some ways and means to work around his attitude.

    And yes.. a stronger more specific contract might have helped, but not if you are intimidated into disassembling your boundaries. You would have likely disassembled your contract, too.

    2 years…. wow….


  8. To Lucinda regarding her intuition: I’ve learned that if a client is difficult on the first day, it’s only going to get worse. Same goes for any deal that I’ve done in business: If it’s trouble from the start, walk away from it.

    (Your story sounds like a horrible, frustrating one! Yikes!)

  9. Good advice from everyone….I agree with Maria. This is how I structure my client agreements and it goes a long way towards deflecting these kinds of problems. You must remain in control and still make the client happy.
    Really ask questions in the planning stages and document them! A client may know what they want in a painting, but it’s your job to discover exactly how they see it in their minds.
    Bottom line—it’s a CONTRACT and customers remain a lot more reasonable when it’s a business-like document spelled out clearly.
    Clients like your retired officer tend to respect the idea that they are going to get charged for changes. As mentioned above, you must create a stopping point for all these changes if this wasn’t in your original contract. If it was in your contract, now is the (way past) time to invoke those fees.
    This can all be done and you still have the opportunity to make life-long friends/clients. Yes, really.
    If all else fails, give him his money back and suggest he take art lessons and do it himself. (Just kidding.)

  10. You could always just go to the meeting with the husband, do what he asks, finish the job to his & her satisfaction & end on a happy note. I am finding in this tough economy that I am having to go much much further to satisfy collectors.

  11. The total of all these comments adds up to excellent advice. I have worked with the public for years in the service industry & one thing I have learned is that some people you can’t please no matter what you do. This man sounds like he is playing with you–best to walk away. These people don’t sound like people I would want to work with.

  12. I came to the same conclusion as Lucinda after working with a particular client. I’m a writer, not an artist, and was hired to write a one page bio for someone to post on the Web. A small, simple job. Or so I thought.

    More than eight hours of work later, I had multiple drafts and rewrites done and an unhappy client who couldn’t express what the problem was with any of the versions–and she didn’t want to pay me.

    Looking back, I realized what the issue was. She had multiple bios in different styles from me, one she’d written herself, and three other versions posted online in various places (her Web site, Biznik, LinkedIn), and NONE of them satisfied her. I realized the underlying problem wasn’t the writing but the way she felt about herself and her experience. She wasn’t comfortable with any of her bios because she wasn’t comfortable with herself or her career path.

    I walked away too. I had no interest in sinking more time into the project, nor did I want to deal with her efforts to negotiate down the flat fee we’d agreed upon, which accounted for only a quarter of the time I’d spent trying to make her happy. Learning experience–how to write a better contract, handle revisions, choose projects.

  13. The client should get his/her way. The client is the client. The rest of the details really don’t matter. If you want to keep this client, you will please them, but if they can’t understand what you can humanly do, then you will not please them, and you won’t have this client any longer. You could be prepared ahead of time with a document that states that additional ‘re-do’s’ will incur a specific fee. Or you could make the document say that the art is sold on an “as-is” basis and no further adjustments will be made.

    Sometimes our worst fears (of the meeting) are not realized at all. Jack White had an article in Art Calendar about a “difficult” client who turned out to be anything but that…when Jack took a financial hit on a misunderstanding with a client about a picture frame. Instead of fighting it out with the client, he gave the client their way. He lost money initially, but then the client told her husband (a bank executive) about how wonderfully Jack had treated her about the frame, so that won his trust & Jack White ended up selling several paintings to the bank to hang in all their offices.

    This is just one example, but I’ve always found if you give the client the benefit of the doubt, you won’t lose in the end…you might lose a bit initially, but good customer service always pays you back in one way or another.

  14. Please let us know how this all comes out…..
    I once advised an artist friend in the same situation to write a gracious note advising the client that the situation was something she could not fix, offer to give them the painting “as is”. (She had already collected 3/4 of the total commission price.) And then walk away and not contact them again.
    As it turned out they took the painting to their vacation home, it fit with the color scheme and they fell in love with it. And they paid the balance.
    I’m not saying it will work out that way for you, but the point is….take a stand and walk away from it. Sometimes the oddest things happen. Sometimes they don’t.
    Chalk it up to a lesson and vow never to get in that situation again.

  15. Since you have re-done the painting several times, it’s time to tell the client (as nicely as possible) that you have done everything possible to satisfy them and feel you have fulfilled your agreement with them. Tell them that you regret that you will be unable to do any more work on this painting. And walk away. You don’t really want any more from these people, now, do you?

  16. AnnaMaria Windisch-Hunt

    Well, John Singer Sargent said a long time ago. You can only please one person in a family and hopefully it is the one making the purchase.

  17. Commissions and clients, dealing with living breathing people, this is what makes it all interesting and fun! My wife and I have been painting portraits for a living going on twenty years now. We both ran our own businesses (not art related) before we met. Commissioned paintings, portraits and the sale of our paintings is our entire income, so believe me, we take this type of situation very seriously.

    In the past, we have also had retired military officers for clients, and at least one had been a general. Difficult to work with, yes. Very difficult, yes. Anyhow to get to your situation

    As someone noted above you have to work with clients as equals. After two years, it’s time to say no. You might have to practice saying it. ” I’m sorry, no.” or ” No, I can’t” (Funny thing is, sometimes the client will say “Oh, Okay” and that’s the end of it.) Forget the win-win talk. You are way past that.
    Not knowing the financial part of this situation, whether you have been paid in full or not it is hard to make a suggestion.
    Do you want to make them happy? or do you want to walk away and forget about it. Either way, The only way for you to have any power in this situation is to be able to walk away from it. If you want to give it one more shot, you have to take control of your meeting. Meet them and say, This has been going on for way too long, No one is happy. I have bent over backwards have been unable to please you, but we will resolve the situation now, this is the last meeting. Again without knowing the money situation I don’t know exactly what your options would be. If you are owed money still and they have possession of the painting, at the very least you will get your painting back to your studio and have some more power in the relationship.
    You say he intimidates you in a nice way. Well, take that and turn it around. Acknowledge that to him, “You know, it seems that you are very nicely and politely trying to intimidate me.” Smile and a little laugh. Later, let him know when he tries it again. “Your doing it again,,” It will disarm that weapon of his.

    The more I think about your situation, I encourage you to try a another meeting, If you are willing to walk away, you can meet with him as an equal. And have the opportunity to learn and practice. If you are willing to walk away, it will be a game to you. Have fun with it.Think of it being a scene from a movie and you are playing a part. If you are willing to walk away, you have nothing to lose and everything to win. Just let him know. This is it.

    One last general note, Clients and collectors look at their paintings in an entirely different way than you and I do. You have to find out what is important about it to them. As I tell our clients, I’m going to deposit the check and spend the money, it will be gone by next week. You will be looking at the portait for the rest of your life. That’s rule number one. Number two is, don’t start work without a deposit and nothing leaves the studio until it is paid in full.
    In the past, our artist friends have discussed commission contracts with us. Theirs looked like mortgage agreements, pages long, with so many stipulations and clauses and this and that. We now have a one sheet agreement with really says nothing. It has space to describe the work and record the price and payments. Working with the clients on rule number one to establish a relationship is much more powerful than any clause you can have in a contract.

  18. Geez…Go to the meeting…Remember these people are your collectors & they are re-collecting…Precious to you…Christmas is on its way, think of it as your gift to them…Forget about the money…Do it right the way they want one last time…End on a good note…Just do it…Ignore your costs…You have spent 2 years on this, heck with it finish the job right. You will then have deep respect from these people for following through such a tough number…Obviously military people have had tough lives, so they expect others to work just as hard as they have. C’mon, make us proud. Forget about your profit or whatever is holding you back & just do this last thing he wants. Then you are done. It is probably the very last request. Just say it if it is not said- this is the last revision I’m going to do…I’m tired & I am going to screw the work up if I change it anymore…Anyway, whatever you say, just remember how hard our predecessors worked & for how long- 2 years was normal a long time ago…You gotta end friends with these people if you can…Why not? Money should not be your problem at this point- you obviously care about the work more than money, so let’s not pretend you do…be an artist, not a businesswoman at this point- I know this is Art Biz blog, but sometimes the best way to do business is not to…Set it free & it will come back to you…Let the money go on this one, for Xmas, & it will come back in some other way in the new year. promise.

  19. I like Maria Brophy’s practical suggestions. I would add that in the future, have a financial contract that stipulates changes can be requested up to “x” number of days after the acceptance, delivery, and final payment of the commission. If changes are requested within this time, they are made at no additional cost. (Recommended: 30 days) If the request for changes is made after this period of time, it will cost the client additional fees to make the changes– and as suggested, you could charge by the hour for the changes to be made. I would stipulate how much an hour you charge in your original contract. All changes must be listed, written out, and signed by you and the client as a one time only list whether before or after the (30) day period. You may also want to limit the number of changes that can be requested, say up to ten, in the original contract as well. A great book for help in this is Calvin Goodman’s “Art Marketing Handbook.” This is an incredible resource in handling these matters.

    When I first started as a portrait painter twelve years ago, I had trouble with a couple asked me to make a few changes and over the course of the weekend, added more and more and more. I was exhausted from painting 14 hours a day to make them happy. The integrity of the painting began to suffer. I finally said, “It is done. I can do more.” The wife promptly said, “I love it.” I know now that if I had not drawn the line, she would have continued to request changes. I learned that some personalities are like this. So don’t be afraid to set a boundary and see what happens.

  20. I appreciate everyone’s thoughtful responses here. I know that however this artist responds will be based on individual circumstances. Every situation is different, so we can’t say that what applies here should be applicable to someone else. But we sure do learn from others. Thank you!

  21. I do voiceover, which, although it should technically be considered a performing art, leaves an object in the form of an audio file (is it an object? Interesting to ponder. But I digress…). When I work with a client, I make sure they understand that I will rerecord for performance, but only two times (if they’re that unhappy with my performance, they shouldn’t work with me) and any script changes will incur a new fee. Basically, I’ll do what it takes to make you happy, but if you change your mind, you have to pay for it. Then, as we correspond on the project, I make sure to gently remind them of different points of our agreement as we go along. I have found that people respond quite well to consistent friendly reminders.

  22. Pingback: Attack it head on — Art Biz Blog

  23. Thanks for that, Jeff!

    All: The artist sent me this update:

    “Just wanted to update you and everyone that offered ideas and support with my 2 year old commission. I met with him several days ago and he asked me how I liked the finished piece. I told him it was perfect and that there was nothing more I could do with it. He said “ok” and thanked me. and that was it. I think reading some of the comments really helped give me the confidence I needed to talk with him. Thank you and everyone. Merry Christmas and a happy and financial successful new year.”

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