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Sometimes SEO Is Only As Good As The Clients You Choose

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We direct all our SEO prospects to our online material, which we candidly post on the website (go to our homepage and click the tour button for an example).  We don’t have fancy leave-behind decks, or spend hours sweating over pitches like some agencies I’ve worked with.  I’ve seen much less time (and cost) succeed with the right kind of catered communication, especially in the SEO industry alone.  Our services are specific – SEO consulting with a lower emphasis on labor.  In our online tour, we share our history, our beliefs, our differentiators, and our price.  We have found that this helps qualify the next conversation.  Some prospects read this and never return, presumably looking for another type of SEO service.  While others only feel more confident about partnering with us.  Through this second conversation, our conversion rate is very high.

We keep it simple, and respectful of everyone’s time.  We’re all busy in business.

But our system isn’t flawless.  We had a client last for only two months.  We both agreed to part ways.  It’s sounds funny in hindsight – how could two months determine a relationship that couldn’t be saved?  From the start everything was cordial.  We asked them to review our tour, and assumed they had.  We had a 20 minute conversation following their internal review. We won the business without asking the right questions.

In our postmortem we realized we assumed too much.  We assumed they read – and understood – our services as well as we did.  20 minutes isn’t anywhere close the the amount of time we should have spent qualifying them.  We were a little too foolhardy with our gut. From the first deliverables, where we had some great ideas to really break the website out of its template, everything was rejected.  We dove into their competitors to see what they were doing, and suggested rivaling big ideas.  We were shot down again with concerns of time and little faith. We believed in our ideas, and fought for them.  “They’re working very well for other clients, and here’s examples of them in the wild,” I shared.  We were feeling pushed into old-school SEO services, something we could do, but just don’t believe in.

As the dust started to settle, it turned out when they said they wanted quick results, they meant very, very quick – what we considered unrealistic.  But for a hot minute, I bent.  I instructed our team to pivot and try to deliver – a poor decision, and something very out of character.  Not poor because I don’t put clients first, but poor because we weren’t in any position to meet that goal with this particular website.  They had a long road ahead.  Luckily, a candid discussion with the company’s CEO soon followed, and it was clear we were not on the same page.  My initial emotion was, “what did you guys hire us for?”  But later a clearer head asked, “why didn’t we qualify them better?”  We wouldn’t have believed what they wanted was realistic.

This was a valuable wake up call to help us (re)focus on the path we spent so many months creating with the launch of our business.

They were a great company with good people and cool products – we were just on completely different sides of the fence.  They knew enough SEO to have their spot, and we were trying to pull them to our side of the yard; all along not seeing the giant brick wall that divided us.  Could it have been saved?  Yes.  But I don’t think it was worth it for either party. They’re better off with a company more in sync, as are we.  Both our businesses got a pretty good education outside of SEO in my opinion.

Make Sure Both Parties See The Brick Wall From The Same Vantage Point

You should be standing next to your client.  Not across from them.  You should be able to have open conversations.  You certainly should have the grounds to disagree.  If you only want to make money, being a yes-man will only get you so far.

 Client:  Can you get me to rank #1 for grilled cheese?
 SEO:  Yes
 Client:  Can you guarantee me a 800% ROI?
 SEO:  Yes
 Client: Where do I sign?

Six months later when you’re making no money off the term grilled cheese, “yes” doesn’t have any power. Now you have contention, burnout, and praying your client services team has another client waiting in the wings when this current client goes supernova.

Sure, you made your money, but unless you own the company, don’t care about your reputation, and don’t have to face the clients after you sign them, you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt.

Here’s how I might answer those questions:

 Client:  Can you get me to rank #1 for grilled cheese?
 Bill:  Probably not without a major commitment from your team, a larger budget than you have, and the ability to make changes quickly.
 Client:  Can you guarantee me a 800% ROI?
 Bill:  No, but I can make it my goal to influence Google to see you as the authority on Grilled Cheese and related cheesy sandwiches.
 Client: Why should I sign you?
 Bill:  Because I’m not afraid to tell you how it really works in SEO, and I can teach you a lot about the additional opportunities you have in natural search based on our experiences.

I recently had a conversation with a prospect who said (paraphrasing), “I spoke with [big name SEO] who said we’d use [semi-popular blog network] for my link building if I went with them. They said it was white-hat, but it sounds like a blog network to me.”

That really depressed me.  I was more than happy to inform this nice guy that the network in question was anything but white hat.  Is the sale of service so important that you would intentionally mislead your prospects?  Won’t that set you up for failure when you get hit with a penalty?  Is the hit-and-run model the best you can scale?  Is your own reputation in the SEO space not valuable?  If this SEO had said, “so, yeah, we’re totally black hat… you down?” that would be respectable.

Succeeding As A Partnership

Whaddaya Say, Bats?I quit consulting and agency life for a few years because I didn’t like (what I thought) was #thegame.  But starting a company, and creating our own rules, built a new version of the game which I’m enjoying to death. Settling in with clients (which we call partners as an homage to a lesson learned years ago) and really respecting the values each other bring to the table has been great.  Sometimes completely different business models and philosophies can work great together.  Just like in love (and comic books), opposites can attract.  It’s a great feeling waking up knowing you’re doing good work.  When a partner will decide to leave us, I truly hope they can say, “you taught us some great stuff – I’m going to recommend you anywhere I can. Thanks for sharing your experience.  We had a great adventure.”

That’s what a consultant does.

What do you want your clients’ parting statement to be?

Summary Tips

My TL:DR tips for creating the best SEO:client relationship, and setting yourself up to do the best work of your life:

  • To have good clients, you need to have your story straight.
  • To make your story known, you need to have an identity.  You need to have a deeper purpose than “get rich.”  It’s easy to forget this purpose when running “the business end” of the business each day.
  • You need to spend the time making sure the opportunity is for you.  If it smells funny, try to figure out why before you take it or throw it back.  If it seems great, look for a possibly brick wall that might be eluding you.
  • Be specific in what you offer.  Don’t choke yourself on things you don’t know or don’t think you can accurately deliver.

I’d love your comments below!

 


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    Comments

    The comments are do-follow. However, any comments that use keyword anchor text as the name will be removed.

    1. Julie Joyce
      November 1, 2013

      Very well put, and I’m a huge believer in making sure the arrangement will work for us. We’ve had clients who shot us down constantly and it was insanely frustrating. I’ve also ignored some warning signs and it led to us parting ways early on, so I try to get a gut feeling about clients before taking them on now more than I ever did.

      Reply


      • Bill Sebald
        November 1, 2013

        I think you’re an awesome example of this – when someone recently didn’t fit your model, you introduced me. I thought about you when writing this. And now you’re getting a Christmas gift :)

        Reply


    2. Stuart McHenry
      November 1, 2013

      I seriously know exactly where you are coming from. We have a small amount of international clients and we had one that sounds very similar to yours. We parted ways after two months and honestly I had told the CEO I couldn’t work with them anymore. I had given them a prioritized list of things that needed to be done. It wasn’t a huge list but about 8-9 solid items. They completed one. So disappointing.

      I believe in over communicating but found that even when someone says they will do something it doesn’t always get done. On the flip side when you find a client that is great to work with life is golden.

      Reply


      • Bill Sebald
        November 1, 2013

        Being able to get off a phone call and being excited about next steps is a great feeling!

        Reply


    3. Scott Dodge
      November 1, 2013

      Bill,

      Just wanted to chime in and say that this post really inspired me to not only start being more picky about the clients we accept, but to develop messaging around what an ideal client cares about. That messaging also has a dual purpose, as it can be used to deliver that message internally as well.

      I’d love to pick your brain a bit on this in the future, if you’re cool with that :)

      Reply


      • Bill Sebald
        November 1, 2013

        Sure, you know I’m easy to reach.

        Reply


    4. Bryan Vu
      November 2, 2013

      This was an insightful post Bill. Pre-qualifying by shaping your identity is a great move. It definitely takes some finesse to manage the client’s/partner’s expectation while maintaining their confidence in you too, but I suppose the work upfront is necessary to find the keepers!

      Reply


    5. Uttoran Sen
      November 2, 2013

      Yes, I take this approach myself, and it does lose me some pretty major clients from time to time.

      Only a few months back, I had a client that told me he wanted to buy 2k dropped domains and build some sites and blogs on it. Eventually, all those sites and domains would be used to build links for their parent domain.

      They also gave me some examples of how their competitors were doing this – and getting good results.

      Surprisingly – they were right! Their competitors were getting good results using this black-hat link building method.

      I told them that it is a seriously black-hat method and I will not be a part of it. Also, i advised them to report their competitors to Google for doing this kind of link building practice – also offered to report them myself – if they wanted.

      They never contacted me again. End of story.
      Am pretty sure I lost a $100k client there, but that is ok as long as I don’t have to do black hat SEO.

      regards,
      Uttoran Sen,

      Reply


      • Nick
        November 3, 2013

        Lol, nice job Uttoran Sen! I’m sure most potential clients that know about SEO and see how people kicking their asses on Google want to hear the vigilante say, “OMG, your competitors are building killer links to their sites making them rank higher! This is not cool. We can report them and Google will take action in 4 or 5 months, if anyone even sees our report.

        Also, you must wait out my super white hat link building campaign and you should be in the top of Google in 7 – 11 months! Just keep paying me! LOL OMG!”

        It’s not good if you’re an SEO company and your potential clients can point out the reasons why their competitors are doing better in search engines.

        Reply


    6. Paul Weinstein
      November 3, 2013

      Great post Bill. It is so clear that the SEO Agency – Client relationship has to be a partnership to be successful over the long run. It is impossible to create the real business results from SEO (we prefer Search Marketing) without a high level of commitment and buy-in from key stakeholders (and influencers) in the client organization.

      As we continue to build out our processes, this post will help inform the kinds of conversations and buy-in we get at the start of the relationship.

      Thanks for the insights.

      Reply


    7. john
      November 3, 2013

      what i read above is mostly opinion, which is part of your creation of identity as an seo. thats great, but do we also need the judgements?

      for example, if you choose not to build a blog network to rank a client. great…youll be happier and client can move on. but either its because you choose better fitting clients, or not. i dont think its appropriate to say both – they dont fit my firm AND thats black hat and wrong.

      unless you also think you are all knowing, such judgements reveal character traits that may highlight why you are not the right seo for the job, regardless of whether or not its “right”.

      if you can say no without judging, i suspect youll be even closer to your happy place.

      Reply


      • Bill Sebald
        November 3, 2013

        I’m not following. I didn’t make any claim that black hat is wrong. Not my point of the piece at all.

        Reply


    8. MikSas
      November 4, 2013

      Nailed it Bill,

      I have had conversations with clients online about this. My real frustration is that they (quite too often) have seen “outdated” SEO webinars and warn them of very horrible pitfalls of having quick results to rank for a given keyword. I often do ‘client education’ for them, I honestly thank Google for giving some of my ex-clients a quick validation of how WRONG they are. If you could just see my grin when the Penguin and Panda booted up, I was “branded” as Chicken Little, now I could just see ‘em begging me to be back on board for them, i always reply, “No, Thanks!” :)

      Reply


    9. Stuart
      November 4, 2013

      Couldn’t agree more, it’s all about setting expectations & objectives using the right data.

      I once managed a client that wanted to be #1 for jeans at all costs, when we got there the ROI on the term was terrible. Something a small Adwords campaign would have told us in a few days.

      Reply


      • Bill Sebald
        November 4, 2013

        Interesting. I also helped win that term for a client about 4 years ago. Same story. Got top 5 for the keyword “vitamins” once for a retailer. Drove less than 2k visits a month. Lesson learned about the CEO keywords!

        Reply


    10. Laurel
      November 5, 2013

      Your article really resonated with me. Something I’ve picked up over the last few years is that while it’s always important to set goals upfront, it’s never too late to bring up the goals conversation again…and again. In fact, the more you talk about SEO engagements and results in the framework of goal achievement, the more aligned you are.
      I love the idea of succeeding as a partnership. It’s so easy for agencies to get bogged down in what is in/out of scope and focusing on the transaction, pulling the focus away from delivering impactful work that is beneficial for both the client and the agency.
      Thanks for the write up!

      Reply