Convincing Old-School Clients that Things Have Changed

Posted by Kristina Kledzik

There’s a reason we use the terms 
“white hat” and “black hat” for SEO: it used to be the Wild West. Black hat tactics were so effective, they were almost necessary to market online. Paying a few thousand dollars to an SEO could get you to rank #1 for almost any term (before you let them go and your competitor paid them the same to outrank you). You only got a few thousand dollars in return for that ranking, though, since there weren’t many people shopping online yet.

Fast forward to today: Ranking well on Google is
insanely profitable—much more so than it ever was in the early days—and Google’s algorithm has advanced dramatically. But former SEOs and people outside our industry still hold on to that idea that a few thousand dollars of “technical SEO” can make them magically rank #1. 

So, how do you convince your old school clients things have changed?

The immediate answer

When this comes up in conversation, I have a few trump phrases that usually bring clients around:

  • “Yeah, that used to be a great tactic, but now it puts you at risk for getting a penalty.” (Really, any response that includes the word “penalty” stops clients in their tracks.)
  • “That makes sense, but Matt Cutts said…” / ”Good point, but Google’s official blog recommends…”
  • “I / another coworker / another client / a Mozzer has tried that, and it had disastrous results…”

Basically, acknowledge their idea as valid so you don’t insult them, then explain why it won’t work in a way that scares the shit out of them by mentioning real repercussions. Or, you know, just persuade them gently with logic.

If you can’t persuade/scare the shit out of them, tell them you’ll do some research and get back to them. Then do it.

If that doesn’t work…

Okay, so you have answers for on-the-spot questions now. They will work anywhere from moderately well to amazingly well, depending on your delivery and the respect you’ve gained from your client. But the client may ask for more research, or be skeptical of your answer. To be really effective, the right answer has to be coupled with a lot of respect and a logical, well-delivered explanation. 

Many of you are probably thinking, “I establish respect by being right / talking professionally / offering a lot of case studies during the sales process.” That’s the sort of thinking that
doesn’t earn respect. You gain respect by consistently being:

1. Respectful, even if your clients are wrong

It’s embarrassing to be wrong. When your client says, “What meta keywords should we put on this page?” and you chuckle and say, “Gosh, meta keywords haven’t been used in so long—I don’t even think Google ever used them,” your client is going to fight you on it, not because they’re particularly invested in the idea of using meta keywords, but because you’ve made them feel wrong.

So when your client is wrong, start by validating their idea
. Then, explain the right solution, not necessarily digging into why their solution is wrong:

Client: What meta keywords should we put on this page?

You: Well, I’m going to put together some keywords to target on this page next week, but making them meta keywords won’t make much of a difference. Google doesn’t look at them because it’s so easy to spam (wouldn’t it be nice if they did?). Anyway, when I send you those keywords that we should target, I’ll also include what we need to change on the page in order to target them.

Answering like this will keep your conversations positive and your clients open to your ideas, even if your ideas conflict directly with theirs. 

2. Honest

You’re probably smart enough not to make up client anecdotes or lie about what Matt Cutts has said. Where I usually see dishonesty in consulting is when consultants screw up and their clients call them on it. 

It looks bad to be wrong, especially when someone is paying you to be right. It’s even worse to be caught in a lie or look dishonest. Here’s my mantra:
It’s not wrong to make an honest mistake. When clients tell you you’ve done something wrong, consider it a misunderstanding. Explain where you were coming from and why you did what you did briefly, then fix it.

(Note: this obviously doesn’t work if you made a stupid mistake. If you made a stupid mistake, apologize and offer to fix it, free of charge. It’ll lose you some money up front, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.)

3. Direct

This is the best outline for any answer:

  1. Brief answer, in one sentence
  2. Deeper explanation of answer
  3. Information to back it up
  4. Reiteration of brief answer

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard another consultant (or myself) not be entirely sure of an answer and ramble on for a couple of minutes before stopping to complete silence from their client. Or know the answer but think it’s too complicated and deliver an answer that only confuses their client more.

By starting with the answer, the client already knows what’s coming, so all other information you give after that will naturally support your answer as you go, rather than possibly leading them down the wrong path. Consider these alternatives:

Standard answer:

Client: How much will this increase our rankings?

You: Competition is always a huge part of the equation, so we’ll have to look into that. It’s easier to rank for, say, “yellow sapphire necklaces” than “blue sapphire necklaces” because there are more blue sapphire necklaces out there. But this is definitely what we should do to increase our rankings.

Direct answer:

Client: How much will this increase our rankings?

You: I don’t know, it’s not something that we can definitively say in SEO, unfortunately. Competition is a huge part of the equation, so we’ll have to look into that. But, regardless, this is the most effective action that we could take to increase our rankings.

The more direct answer admits doubt, but is still much more convincing in the end (though both are vague and obviously top-of-mind examples… just ignore that). 

4. Complimentary and inclusive

It’s called the 
Benjamin Franklin Effect: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” (Props to Rob Ousbey for telling me about this.)

When your client has done something right, compliment them on how they’ve made your job easier since you don’t have to fix their mistakes. When your client has done something wrong, let them know what they should do to fix it, but help them share in the work to make the change. It’ll make the client feel valued and it’ll take a big part of the workload off of you.

5. Proactive

Good project management is the key to effective consulting. When clients don’t know what you’re working on, they get worried that you’re wasting their money. Make sure that you consistently:

  • Meet; I like to have scheduled meetings once a week
  • Share a 3-6 month project plan, with dates and deliverables outlined
  • Ship those deliverables on time
  • Respond to emails within a day or two, even if the answer is “Great question! I’m prioritizing [other project for the same client right now], can I get back to you in a week or so?”
  • Follow up with open questions; if a client asks you a question in a meeting you don’t know, admit you don’t know, say you’ll get back to them after you research it, then actually do that

I think that project management is often dropped because it seems so easy that it’s de-prioritized. Don’t believe that: this may be the most important of the five traits I’ve listed.

To sum it up: be honest, selfless, and proactive, and your clients are going to love you.

Even if you’re a terrible SEO (though try your best to be a good one), clients are going to respect consultants who put their clients’ business first, are open and honest about what they’re doing and thinking, and get their work done without being micromanaged.

Now that you’ve earned your client’s respect, they will be open to you changing their mind. You just have to give them a reason to.

Nail it with a great argument

When a client says, “Can we rank for ‘trucks’ by putting the word ‘truck’ as the alt text to each image on this page?” our mind immediately says, “No, why would you think that?” That’s not going to win the argument for you.

The reason we SEOs say “why would you think that?” is because we know the answer. So, teach your client. Start by validating their idea (what did we just learn about clients being wrong?), then explain the right answer, then explain why their answer won’t work:

Client: Can we rank for “trucks” by putting the word “truck” as the alt text to each image on this page?

You: Well, that would certainly get “trucks” on the page more often! To really optimize the page for “trucks,” though, we’ll need to put it in the page title, and a few times in the body of the page. SEO is all about competition, and our competition is doing that. We have to at least match them. Once the page is optimized for “trucks,” though, we’ll still have to work to get more backlinks and mentions around the web to compete with Wikipedia, which ranks #1 right now for “trucks.”

Don’t focus too much on their mistake.The more time you spend on the disagreement, the more frustrated your client will get; the more time you spend on your solution, the more impressed they’ll be with you.

If that doesn’t work, do the research to tell an even better story:

  • Give examples from other clients. Don’t give away too many names, of course, but knowing that you’ve solved this problem or a problem like it in the past makes clients feel much more confident in you.
  • If you’ve never seen this problem before, reach out to your SEO community. One of the best parts of working at Distilled is that when a client off-handedly emails me a question, I can email all Distilled consultants and usually get an answer (or at least an educated guess) within an hour or so. If you work on your own, build a community online, through Moz or another online portal, and ask them.
  • Forecast the effects of your solution. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not good at this because it can take a long time. But if your client is resistant, it’s definitely worth the trouble. Take clients through how you worked out the forecasting so they can see how much they’ll gain by working with you.

Once you’ve got proof behind your argument, restate your position, add your new arguments, and then follow up with your position and what you recommend your client does now. Make sure that you end in an action so there’s something concrete for them to focus on. 

Practice, practice, practice delivery

You can have the perfect explanation and a great relationship with your client, but if you trip over your own words or confuse your client, you won’t be convincing.

Written reports

Edit the paper multiple times. Only include the information that directly leads to an action item, don’t include all of the information that they already know, or that just shows you did your homework. That stuff is boring, and will encourage your client to skim, which will often lead to misinterpretations. Next, have a friend who’s been in SEO for awhile and knows about this old school stuff edit it. It’s hard to know where your descriptions might break down without someone else’s perspective.

Verbal presentations 

Practice your presentation ahead of time: talk through your recommendations to a friend or coworker. Have them interrupt you, because you will definitely be interrupted when you’re talking to your client. Make sure that you’re okay with that, that you can have a separate conversation, then jump back in to the report.

For presentations that are brief and over the phone, make sure that you’ve already sent your client something written. If it’s a report, make it clear and to the point (as described above), if it’s not, outline the action items in an email or a spreadsheet, so your client has something concrete to look at as you discuss. I’ve also found clients are able to digest information much better when they’ve already read it.

For big presentations – the ones that need an accompanying PowerPoint, follow the same advice as I gave in the written report section: Edit to be succinct, and get feedback.

This is pretty much a post on good consulting

I’ve consulted clients on technical SEO, promotions / outreach, creative, and content strategy-based projects, and I’ve found that the key to being effective in every one is a) coming up with a good answer, and b) everything discussed in this post. Building respect and communicating effectively is the foundation that supports your answers in almost every relationship, consulting, in house, or even personal. The key to convincing your clients that their black hat, overly white hat, or completely UX-based solutions are wrong is all sort of the same.

So what do you think? What resistance have you come up against in your consulting projects? Share in the comments below!

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October 20, 2014  Tags: , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

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