It was my first day at my new gig as a federal government IT consultant in Washington, D.C. I was slogging through the typical onboarding paperwork when a senior partner dropped by, introduced himself, and handed me a paperback book.
“Read and implement this,” he said. The cover read The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister, a book with a sole focus on “the ability to earn the trust and confidence of clients.”
“Client management must be important,” I thought.
This encounter occurred more than 10 years ago, in my previous profession. Before doing search marketing or SEO, I was a government IT consultant. I navigated bloated systems and untangled red tape. In the time I spent consulting at the FBI, ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and the CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection), I learned quite a few lessons that apply directly to the SEO industry.
The most important lessons I learned, perhaps, were about the art and science of effective client management. Many of those lessons learned have become standard operating procedure at Go Fish Digital. What follows is the codification of our client management approach. It isn’t a sexy new link building strategy or a mind-blowing algorithm update, but it’s just as critical to the success of a project.
Overarching client management principles
To start, the following overarching principles help set team expectations. The three core areas that guide our client engagements are:
- Transparency: The majority of our tasks and communication take place in a project management tool (Basecamp) that the client has access to. We want them to see and participate in our discussions, questions, and decisions. By not having this process behind closed doors, we can always go back to when and why a decision was made within Basecamp.
- Continuous communication: We communicate at the pace the client prefers, but we err toward over-communicating. To a client, radio silence means no work is being done, even if that isn’t truly the case.
- Alignment: What are your client’s key performance indicators (KPIs)? What problems keep them up at night? We make sure to align our work and reporting with what is important to the client, rather than only pushing what we think is most important.
The following nine principles are built out of these three core areas, highlighting how you put these principles to work in day-to-day interactions with clients.
It should be noted that these aren’t hard and fast rules, but rather a philosophy to guide our team (and hopefully other agencies) on how to become trusted partners with your clients. It is hard to be perfect all the time (I sure as hell am not), but the more often these nine items are standard operating procedure, the better. So let’s dive in, Star Wars-style.
1. Take the time to learn the industry
I got the call from a team member to let me know a new referral had come our way. He was excited because it was a strong referral and very likely to become a client soon. I asked him about the project and what industry they were in. “Plastics machine manufacturing” was his response. Interesting… I knew next to nothing about that industry. Yet, we were very likely to have them as a client to help them market their products online. The first thing we needed to do was understand the industry, and we did this by diving in head first to learn everything we could about the plastics manufacturing lifecycle.
To make sure we have a solid foundation for a client’s niche, the team conducts a lot of discovery in the first month, such as:
- Reviewing the client’s website
- Identifying industry publications and blogs and reading them consistently
- Scheduling an in-person visit (if possible) to see how they work and meet the team
- Requesting any documentation they have about their products or services
- Watching online videos highlighting the industry, their products, and their team
- Building a lexicon document that includes jargon and definitions of words commonly used in their industry
- Purchasing and using the product or service ourselves (if reasonable and feasible)
As an SEO and marketing consultant, you will not be an expert in every client’s industry. But, it is important that you learn their space. This builds their confidence in you, helps you learn their language, and establishes trust.
2. Crush it on the kickoff call
We were kicking off an online reputation management (ORM) project with a celebrity’s publicist and assistant. Prior to the call, we gathered everyone in the company that was a fan of this celeb and did a quick research session so we were all up to speed with his movies, causes, friends, and issues. For the kick-off call, we built a detailed agenda which contained specific topics and questions. The call left the client team feeling at ease that we understood the issue and how to fix it. As a team, we were pleased that all of our early legwork (and TMZ watching) paid off.
After the sales process, the project gets handed over to a client manager like myself. The first thing I do is get a kick-off call scheduled quickly with the client and anyone from their side who will be on the project. Since this is one of your earliest communications with the client, it sets the tone for the entire engagement, so you want to be organized and responsive in getting this meeting set up.
We include on the call anyone from our team who might touch the project. This way, they hear everything from the client at the start, and the client feels good because so many people are working hard on their project.
We always build an agenda for the kick-off call, and I make sure that there is at least one item that each person on our team can speak to. This allows each employee to demonstrate their expertise in the beginning and build a relationship with the client. If it’s a phone call, the client may forget just how many people we have working on the account if only one or two people speak during the meeting.
3. Have open, visible tasks and team discussions
We’ve been working with Amy for several years now, and she continually expresses her gratefulness for our transparency. Amy is a senior employee at a data security firm and is often traveling and working on other projects. By keeping track of every task on Basecamp and looping her into our work, she is able to quickly skim through completed tasks and see exactly where we stand on every project. She sees not only what we’ve accomplished in her absence, but also what’s on the horizon. Additionally, she can be directly emailed with any pertinent messages and chime in with a response to keep everything moving forward.
The goal here is to show everything except how the sausage is made. Why would you want to hide all of the time-consuming, difficult, and sometimes menial tasks you’re doing? Showing the client everything we are doing for them helps drive home the value of our service and keeps them from getting antsy about the occasional slow result.
The only place where we hold back a little is on drafts of deliverable reports. We keep those in our team Dropbox and simply reference the folder path when discussing them on Basecamp. We’ve found it keeps clients from getting hung up on things that we haven’t quite finished.
4. Respond within 24 hours
I was just breaking into online marketing when I heard something on the radio that caught my attention. My favorite show, The Sports Junkies in Washington, D.C., were looking to build a website for a new venture. They talked about how annoying it was to work with web designers because things always get difficult. In a moment of inspiration, I sent them a short pitch email that ended with, “Messages don’t sit around in my inbox. I respond immediately.” The next morning, someone from the show emailed me back, saying “I’m not sure why exactly, but I think I can work with you.” I’ve worked closely with them ever since, and that relationship has helped springboard the Go Fish Digital brand in D.C.
From that original encounter on, I’ve always placed a high value on responsiveness. You know that person in your life who feels like you’re late if you’re on time? That’s how we are with this 24-hour response time rule. If you truly take 24 hours to acknowledge a client’s request, it may be within the time frame, but it isn’t honoring the spirit of the rule itself (37 pieces of flair, anyone?). It doesn’t take much to send a note saying, “We are on it”.
This is another area in which we err on the side of overdoing things. Even if the client sends an email that might not normally warrant a response, we still ping them back to let them know it was received.
One of the chief complaints about service-based companies is a lack of responsiveness. Counteract that by being committed to quick responses.
5. Be organized
The director of marketing at a large financial organization likes to meet with our team weekly. We review the previous week’s progress and talk through our tasks for the next few days. This client is especially chatty, so without a formal agenda in place, there was the potential for the calls to devolve into a free-for-all, which would be inefficient for everyone. Because of situations like this, we always send a formal agenda ahead of time, which keeps us all on track and demonstrates to the client that we understand their goals and respect their time. Of course, we always allow our clients to ask questions or bring new things up. For the most part, though, we try to stick to the agenda.
Disorganization is frustrating. Sometimes you just have to deal with it. A spouse or child who misplaces everything, a friend who can’t remember an appointment, or a co-worker that never replies to important emails. While in these instances there is nothing you can do, a client who’s fed up with her vendor’s disorganization can simply get a new vendor. So we stress the importance of being ultra-organized on the project.
Have well thought-out agendas. Follow those up with meeting notes and action items if appropriate. Keep Basecamp organized with to-dos and messages. Communicate clearly. Always use calendar appointments. It’s the little things that show you are professional.
6. Be flexible and adaptable
We work with a large car sales website that aggregates all car listings from across the web. When you’re dealing with a site that has over 3 million pages, it’s important to focus on optimization opportunities that scale. We identified site speed as one of these optimization opportunities. The site had been particularly laggy, and I was doing my best to get to the bottom of the issues with their CDN. Alas, I was stuck.
Fortunately, one of our other team members is Akamai certified and has configured CDNs for multiple large government websites. I looped him in; he started throwing around big words like “nodes” and “end points.” Some magic happened, I assume, and everything was fixed. The site was now blazing-fast and the client happy that his SEO team resolved an issue he didn’t even know they could help with.
No project is ever the same, which is great. How boring would it be if you applied the exact same strategy and principles to different projects, over and over?
We’re always looking for ways to show additional value to the client. Whether it’s by helping them with something out-of-scope or helping with deliverables that they have to pass on to senior management, there are always ways for us to contribute value. Although there’s nothing wrong with up-selling, we don’t often like to say “that is out of scope” for a task that wouldn’t take us too long or be too difficult.
Additionally, we’re very flexible in terms of how we work with a client. Is the client a phone person or email person? Are they hands-off, or intimately involved in the details? We try to get a good feel for this, and then adjust how we work with them based on their preferences.
7. Be in front of the technological curve, not behind it
Our new yacht charter client had just finished their first month with us and we were reviewing everything that had been done thus far. It was all very positive, and during the call, the CEO casually said, “I love the internal communication tool (Slack) so much that I’ve started using it at my other company.” Clients want to feel like you are doing things efficiently, effectively, and with the latest technology.
In our field, change is the norm. Every time Google launches an algorithm update, it can mean that a tactic that’s worked for us for months or even years is suddenly obsolete. We’ve found that one of the best ways to avoid any surprises here is to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to strategies and tools.
I’ve mentioned our project management tool, Basecamp, a few times now. It may not have all the bells and whistles of others, but it’s dead simple to learn and our clients pick it up without any help from us.
We also use Slack both internally and with clients for brainstorming sessions. Slack provides quick access to the entire team, which is helpful for most of our day-to-day communication.
In addition to tools, we’ve found that everyone on the team needs to be comfortable with a core set of tech-savvy tasks:
- Reviewing and editing HTML and CSS
- Testing, installing, and configuring WordPress plugins
- Editing a WordPress theme
- Running ScreamingFrog against a site and reviewing the results
- Performing more advanced Excel functions like vLookups and pivot tables
- Examining a website’s DNS and understanding each element
Being tech-savvy in all areas of our business reinforces their trust that they are with the best team. Clients expect us to be tech-savvy, so we don’t want to let them down by looking like noobs.
8. Have an escalation path to turn to
While project work was underway for one of our financial sector clients, a reputation crisis popped up that went beyond our defined scope of work. We had worked with Google in the past to get certain defamatory web pages removed, but this particular case required some legal expertise. Luckily, we had a highly specialized ORM attorney in our network who was equipped to handle situations exactly like this. The client was grateful that we had a trusted expert on call and felt like their issue was being handled by an elite team that could deftly handle any issue that arose.
If things aren’t working, clients like when you have options to turn to. Bring in an expert from your team or even an outside consultant, but be sure to sell it as a unique offering or connection that you have. Being able to escalate situations to special people and processes when the initial solution doesn’t work keeps the project moving forward and prevents clients from seeking solutions from other agencies.
9. Show you care on a personal level
Our client was having his first child, a baby girl. That is certainly a time to celebrate, so we made a nice card and sent it to his family along with an edible arrangement when his bundle of joy arrived. It went over great, both with the client and his wife.
I hesitate to call this a tactic, since caring should never be manipulative. Let’s just call this a reminder to care. Small talk at the top of calls, for example, can go a long way in establishing a more personal connection than the robotic client/agency relationship. It’s hard for introverts like me, but I force myself to do it because it gives the relationship more depth and meaning. At the end of the day, your reputation as a person is more important than building brands or making money.
We do our best to instill these values in our organization and make it clear up front what our expectations are of every employee. Over time, these nine principles have evolved and will continue to do so as we work to continue building a good agency with a strong reputation.
Maintaining a positive relationship with the client is everything. Delivering on the results you sell and adhering to these nine principles will help both you and your client achieve success.
Do you disagree with any of these principles? Or are there others that are important to you, either as a provider or as a client? Let us know in the comments!