Early in my SEO career I watched this Whiteboard Friday video on SEOmoz, presented by Tom Critchlow. In the video he said something that resonated with me, so much so that I wrote it on a post-it note and stuck it on the wall behind my monitor, where it stayed for about a year until I left that company (I still have it in a file somewhere). He said, simply:
I adopted that simple phrase as a mantra and worked hard to build the strongest relationships I could: with clients, with industry peers and with colleagues. I took comfort on the days that weren’t good that I was working towards something that would matter, that would make a difference, even if it wasn’t immediately apparent that I was going in the right direction. And yet, for all my positive energy and enthusiasm, the changes I wanted to see were simply not happening. I attributed it to being impatient – I was headstrong and probably intoxicated a little by the freedom and opportunity afforded to me in that role. I suspected I might just be getting ahead of myself. I was wrong.
Change – positive, strategic, valuable, worthwhile change – doesn’t happen when people like you; it happens when people trust you.
Ironically this realisation came to me as I was dealing with clients with whom I did not have a sufficient level of trust to get the work they needed doing, done. Working for a client without building and sustaining a sufficient level of trust is like an athlete trying to run with their ankles tied together. The skill and ability to do what needs done exists, but the external limiting factor is too great to overcome.
There is a certain level of trust required to deliver change and many clients will be willing to offer that trust on the basis of your sales and qualification process. If, however, you don’t back up your words with competence that they can recognise then the trust you have been gifted initially can swiftly evaporate. Once that point is reached trust is difficult to rebuild. Because I am a lover of alliteration I call the level of trust below which it is hard to get things done ‘The Trust Threshold’.
What I recognise now, but did not see at the time, is that many of the clients I was struggling to make headway with were not being obtuse or difficult on purpose. They were not hell-bent on making my job more difficult and they didn’t dislike me. They simply didn’t trust that my recommendations (which would involve time and effort on their part) would make a difference or at least enough of a difference for it to be worth their while. The service they had been sold was not the service I was offering and the disconnect was troubling for them.
Trouble often arises where the sales team and the SEO team do not work in harmony. Phrases like “You should start to see results in about three months” when presented without context, without supporting research and without any bespoke analysis creates a certain expectation for the client. Selling SEO as a means of improving rankings creates a certain expectation for the client. Maybe these guarantees deliver contracts that would otherwise have landed elsewhere, but presenting to an SEO team a client complete with generic, unrealistic expectations is a simple path to the breakdown of whatever trust the client has granted the company on the basis of the sales team’s persuasive promises. When the trust is gone there is a very strong possibility of the client following before long.
Another situation that can lead to trouble is where there is a change of key personnel or in philosophy at the provider’s end. Clients are not always able to pivot quite as suddenly as an agency may desire. No matter how much effort is put in to explaining changes in approach there is a risk that they will struggle with the new direction. This is understandable given their decision to commit to the expenditure of the campaign was based on the previous set of assumptions and advice. A common question is likely to be “Why are you doing this now?” and it is not uncommon for a client to wonder if the money they have spent up until that point has been wasted. Such a change in personnel or philosophy can cause difficulties in implementing a new strategy and may stymie the process altogether.
On occasion it can be things done in good faith to win a contract that can ultimately undermine the trust between client and provider. Pricing, in particular, can weigh heavily in the thought-process of a client with business concerns to consider. Charge too little and there is a risk that your work will be seen as unimportant or unworthy of the time and effort you are asking the client to commit to the project. On the other hand, services which are priced at the extreme high end of a client’s budget or perhaps to which they have committed but no longer have the means to sustain can cause exaggerated concerns: “This is supposed to be paying for itself,” or “We aren’t seeing the level of returns we anticipated,” for example. The concerned client can be overbearing or withdrawn, but without confidence in the provider’s ability to deliver, the relationship is in significant danger.
Not all trust issues – in truth very few trust issues indeed – are squarely the fault of one party. The client will generally not distinguish between the sales team and the SEO team at a company, all considered part of one – collectively responsible – entity. As SEOs we know that it is very much part of our responsibility to educate clients and potential clients as to the whys and wherefores of our processes and our approach. It isn’t good enough to say one thing and do another, or to gloss over specifics and offer a service the client either does not or cannot understand. If we adopt an “I’m the expert, they’ll like it when it works” approach we really ought not to be surprised when we receive pushback. Beyond this, it simply makes too much sense to include clients in the process. It is their business that stands to benefit (or otherwise) from the success (or otherwise) of the campaign. It is their expertise that adds the value for the ultimate users and their understanding that underpins the trust we as providers need to maximise the success of our campaigns.
I was fortunate enough to visit distilled’s London HQ last year where they believe communication solves all problems. I would perhaps add the word ‘timely’ to the start of that proposition, but then I guess it wouldn’t be quite so catchy. It is certainly true that an absence of communication can exacerbate or even cause problems, particularly in dealings with clients. Sometimes it can be tempting to ignore problems, bury your head in the sand and hope they go away or the issues magically fix themselves, but the easy option is not going to get the job done when it comes to our line of work.
Google’s Penguin update threw a lot of people for a loop and created schisms between providers and clients around the world. In many cases it resulted in a ludicrous shuffling of clients between link-buying agencies in a single location as each vowed to undo the skulduggery of the others. Those agencies professed their innocence of all such shenanigans, which would have been comical were it not real businesses and real livelihoods on the line thanks to the recklessness and over-aggressiveness of agencies engaged on a good faith basis.
More troubling were the stories of clients who didn’t complain, perhaps didn’t notice, who went ignored, un-serviced, for as long as their payments kept coming in and their provider’s inbox was untroubled; relationships, built up over many years in some cases, left to wither and die to avoid the challenging prospect of honest communication in a difficult moment. For certain there were instances where no amount of communication would have resolved matters, but to not even make the effort or to do the bare minimum could serve only to eradicate what little trust may have remained.
One other way to disrupt the trust of a client is to get things wrong, particularly if this happens spectacularly on a big investment. When this kind of mistake is compounded by poor communication, either in the build-up or the aftermath, the damage done to that trust can be irreparable. If the mistake is egregious or spectacular enough it might be that communication is not enough to salve the client’s anger or disappointment, but in many cases a clear and open dialogue can strengthen trust, even where the outcomes are not as anticipated or as desired. There is no mistake so terrible as to engage in some form of cover-up.
Mistakes are not the only issues that can be aided by a strong line of communication between client and vendor. Problems with expectations, understanding and education can be identified before they become problematic and addressed in a timely and appropriate manner. Confusion can be cleared up and disagreements settled if those involved work to build and sustain the trust that forms the central pillar of any successful client:provider relationship.
There is no way to trick a client into a fruitful long-term relationship. Certainly it is possible to pull the hood over somebody’s eyes – fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me – but all you can achieve is a stay, a delay before the inevitable occurs. Like the loveless couple giving things one more go when both know the other cannot make them happy, an extension to misery borne out of a fear of finality. Clients aren’t pet projects adopted by SEOs to kill boredom. These are real people with real businesses and real pressures, financial or otherwise. They deserve honesty and transparency in their dealings with providers, regardless of what may have gone wrong. Ultimately it is treating people like people that will allow trust to exist and to develop in such relationships.
On a practical level one critical measure is to ensure the SEO team is involved in the sales process at the earliest possible stage. If a client is being asked to part with their funds in exchange for expertise it stands to reason that the experts are included when matters of scope, budget and expectation are being discussed and determined. Building a solid foundation for the relationship between client and provider which is grounded in reality and based on specialist knowledge is vital. This will carry both parties beyond the Trust Threshold at the outset of the engagement and provide the best opportunity to maintain that position.
Do you recognise this Trust Threshold from your own relationships with clients? Do you agree that it is crossing this barrier that opens up possibilities and opportunities, or are there other, more important, factors to consider?