Let’s get straight to the point – if you are reading this I am going to assume you have (at one point) or will (at some point) be working with SEO clients and want to keep them around (long term).
As many of us know, in the SEO business, results take time, commitment, understanding, and most importantly communication.
Problems with client retention can often be traced back to how you start your relationship with a client. Setting expectations, educating the client, proper pricing (for both sides), setting realistic goals, and honesty are a few of the key ingredients to long term SEO Consultant/Client relationship success.
In this post we will discuss what must be done before and throughout an SEO campaign to give you the best chance to keep the client happy and on board for the long term.
I have picked up these tips over 10 years of SEO consulting (in one form or another) and have compiled some incredible feedback from both clients who have come to me from other firms, and even clients who have left me for other firms in the past.
I keep it simple, I ask them point blank, “Why are we sitting here? Tell me where things went wrong with the past provider (or with my firm!)”
This upfront approach has allowed me to gain some serious insight into how to retain clients. I do not pretend to know everything (of course) but I feel I have a really sound and solid approach on how to give myself the best chance for long term success for both the client and myself.
Alright, enough of the intro, let’s get into the core of this discussion. We will first look at what must be done upfront to set the stage for a long and prosperous SEO project with (just about) any client.
The decisions you make in the initial stages of working and interacting with a potential client set the stage for the entire campaign. At this stage of your relationship with the client you must remember to:
- Be Honest
- Set Expectations (Under Promise, Over Deliver)
- Don’t Be Pushy
Let’s take a look at each of these points in detail below. Each of these plays a vital role in making the potential client comfortable upfront and more importantly in sync with your plan and proposal. This trust and understanding will go a long way and will provide a great foundation to build upon.
An educated client has some serious long term potential. The absolute # 1 Killer of SEO/Client relationships (in my experience and through the feedback I receive) is that the client simply had no clue how any of this works – they were simply not educated on the topic of SEO and online marketing in general.
In many cases when a client approaches me and tell me openly that they are coming to me from another firm, I ask them a few simple questions to gauge their understanding of SEO and search engines in general.
This allows me to gauge what may or may not have been conveyed to them in their past SEO relationship. In more than 90% of the cases I learned very quickly that almost nothing was explained to them upfront by their past provider.
They often tell me (some variation of the following) “All they asked me to do was list the keywords I wanted to rank well for, they explained pricing, timelines, but never actually told me how they plan to get me there”.
In cases like this, the fault is shared between the previous provider and the client who didn’t ask for more information. Putting this fact aside, it is now our job to properly educate them and prevent future problems.
You may be providing the best SEO service of all time, you may be building links properly, adding great content, and much more, but if the client has no clue how any of this works, you have just wasted their time and yours.
Teach them what they need to know to have a basic/moderate understanding of SEO. In the long term this foundation will pay serious dividends.
Before any money is exchanged educate the client, present your research into their niche, show them you know their competitors, and most importantly use this research as a jumping point into helping them understand your Techniques, Pricing & Approach (coming up next).
Explain in basic terms how the search engines work, what they look for, and how you help their website to meet these requirements.
Now that the client has a basic understanding of how the search engines and SEO work, let’s build on that and move on to the next crucial factor – honesty.
The second most common thing I hear from clients leaving another firm is (something like) this:
“They lied to me, they said they can do XYZ in X amount of time, I just checked after X amount of time and I am no where near where they promised for keywords XYZ”.
This may be true, but we have to ask ourselves specifically what they previous provider may have been dishonest about.
In most cases the three problem areas here are Pricing, Techniques, and Approach. It is critical that you be honest (to both yourself and the client) about the three items above.
Let’s start with Techniques. It is critical that you give your potential client a clear picture of what techniques and strategies you plan to use for their SEO campaign and why. All too often I hear “They said they would build links and change the tags on my pages” – this doesn’t sound like a specific strategy to me.
It is no surprise that the client simply doesn’t know what the provider is doing, why he/she is doing it and what to expect going forward.
Give the client a little insight here, explain the difference between the proper way to do things, and even the improper way so they can understand the differences upfront. In order for them to appreciate your skills and techniques you have to help them to understand. Ex: White Hat vs Black Hat, Real content vs Spun content, etc.
Now that you have educated them on techniques, let’s talk about explaining your approach/plan to the client. The client now has SOME understanding of SEO techniques so let’s build on this and explain our specific strategy and plan (including a basic timeline).
By doing this you are effectively setting their expectations, eliminating surprises (for the most part) and giving yourself a very good chance to retain the client going forward. If they understand what a typical month looks like in their campaign, what deliverables to expect (or not expect) and what results they can anticipate (and when) you are way ahead of the competition.
Now let’s talk about Pricing, which ties everything together. Now that the client has some understanding of what you do, how you do it, and why you do it, we can discuss pricing.
Pricing the campaign too low just to lock the client in can be a serious problem for both you and the client. Right off the bat you will be putting yourself behind the eight ball with a campaign that is priced too low.
You just explained how you offer high quality SEO, how good SEO takes time, how hard it is to actually build real links, and you then ruin most of that education process by underpricing the campaign. You are contradicting yourself in every way shape and form.
Underpricing a campaign, in most cases, means you will have to cut corners and will not be able to deliver what you originally spoke about with the client. This, of course, leads to angry and confused clients, which leads to potentially losing the said client.
You may be asking, “Well what is too high and too low for campaign pricing?” There is no general answer for this. I can write a whole post (or 10) on just campaign pricing and why it’s so important, but for the sake of brevity I will say only you can answer this question.
There are just a few of the dozens of questions you should ask yourself before pricing your campaign, such as:
- What niche are they in?
- What does the competition look like for their niche/geographic region (if applicable)?
- How much time and effort does it take for you to build links, create content?
- How many links (and of what quality) and how much content (and of what quality) will be required for this campaign?
There have been more than two dozen clients who I have “lost” as a result of giving honest pricing. Did I really “lose” them? No – I saved myself and the client a major headache by NOT telling them what they wanted to hear.
Instead I told them the truth about the amount of work that goes into a campaign, the expenses, and justified the price I gave them.
In six of those cases, the clients came back a few months later and hired us. I would rather lose a potential client having been true to myself and the proper pricing/techniques than to lie to the client and myself and drag them along on a sub par campaign.
Be honest about pricing and your techniques, all too often we tell the clients what they want to hear as opposed to what they should be hearing. Don’t offer something at a price that is simply too low where you cannot produce and where you will have to cut corners.
Set Expectations (Transparency)
Do not promise the world in little to no time, if this is what the client wants to hear, then go back to Education (step 1) and tell them why this simply IS NOT POSSIBLE based on reality and proper SEO techniques, research etc.
We work with all of our clients on a month-to-month basis; we do not lock them into any long-term agreements. We are able to do this and retain these clients without fear because we are confident in our education process and even more confident because we appropriately set expectations.
Our rule is simple; we tell them any serious SEO Campaign is long term. Depending on the niche we will tell them we recommend a minimum of 9/12/18 months but we do not lock you into any kind of contract. We tell them they will see improvements month to month but the real results of any real SEO campaign come after a much longer period of time.
The complaint I hear the most from clients coming from other firms is “They promised XYZ in 3 months and they didn’t deliver”. This happens all the time, so do not make this mistake.
We promise NOTHING, we under promise and over deliver. DO NOT over promise and under deliver, you will lose the client.
Set the stage for a calm, rational relationship where mutual respect exists between you and the client… On more than a dozen occasions we have closed a deal just by being patient, answering questions, and NOT rushing the payment issue.
We didn’t have our hands out, we didn’t ask for a check or credit card, we just let the client have their space and answered all of their questions and concerns before money came into play.
Now that we have discussed what can be done before you acquire the client, let’s move along to what you must do DURING the campaign to insure the client remains educated, informed, involved and most importantly happy.
Education – SEO changes all the time – re-education is crucial. What you taught them on day one often doesn’t remain true forever. Keep them in the loop, up to date, and involved.
I make it a point to have a conversation (at least once per quarter) with the client to address what has changed in the SEO world, what we are doing to stay ahead of it, and what they can do to help as well.
In recent month Google + local changes prompted us to have a meeting with each of our local clients and educate them on some of the local SEO factors and what we have to do to stay ahead of them.
For example we worked with them and educated them on citations, NAP consistency, and the importance of reviews on Google and other popular review sites. The clients were both receptive and appreciative.
Keep them involved – Most clients love to feel involved, trust me! Whether it’s as simple as a monthly brainstorming session, article approval, guest post approval, etc… Showing them what you are thinking by asking for their expertise in THEIR niche is a huge trust signal.
Our writers are good and we are confident in our quality control, but we always make sure that the client is involved with approving some of the content we create. Whether the content is for a guest post, long tail content for their website, or a creative for a link bait campaign we like to involve the clients.
The client also loves this concept as they feel a sense of ownership in the process and their online marketing efforts as a whole. Remember, you are part of their team and they are part of yours, do not forget that.
Transparency - As we mentioned above, show them the work you are doing. Are you building links? Creating content for their site? Guest posting on their behalf? Whatever you are doing, show them.
If you cannot show them, you are either not doing any work or are ashamed of what you are doing; in both cases you will not likely have this client for very long and is often the product of undercharging and over-promising.
Support – Support the client. Plain and simple. Answer their questions, reach out to them to have a call other than the one scheduled each month.
Call just to check up, call to educate, call to brainstorm. Support them and you will retain them.
Reports - Often times reports are hard to read, full of graphs, data and/or rankings that are nice but can the client understand what was done? Include plain English explanations and summaries in all reports.
Accompany all reports with phone calls or in person visits. An educated client who feels involved and supported is a long term client.
If you follow even a few of the points above you will drastically increase your chances to retain your clients for the long term. They will be happier, you will be happier and everyone wins.
Do not be afraid to ask clients how you can serve them better, what they would like to see (or less) of, and most importantly make sure they are happy.
If you have any additional questions or would like any additional explanations about anything mentioned above feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Bio: Jeff Gross is the owner of nPromote, an SEO company located in Long Island NY. You can follow them on Twitter @npromote. Jeff has been in the SEO business for more than 10 years and has worked with many clients (local, regional and national) during that time. When Jeff is not helping clients he teaches Online marketing at a local college, has appeared on local television to discuss the topic of online marketing for small businesses, and guest lectures at various colleges in the region as well.