5 Tips For Avoiding a Client Horror Story

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Adria Saracino
Adria Saracino
5 Tips For Avoiding a Client Horror Story

This post is written by Caitlin Krumdieck, the Head of Sales at Distilled. Here she shows you how to avoid accepting work from a horror clients by taking you through Distilled’s pre-sale process.

I started working in sales at Distilled when our founder, Will Critchlow, was still doing 99% of the sales and almost all of our leads were based on referrals. Life was easier then. Almost all of clients came from people who knew us and what we were about. In my first month we had 10 leads and that was amazing.

Fast forward 3 years. Distilled has 3 offices and I am now heading up a sales team of 3 other people with about 100+ leads per month. This kind of growth can be great, but as we all know along with the increase in leads comes an increase in bad leads and potentially toxic projects. Unfortunately, not all of them are as easy to spot as the guy with no budget asking to be number 1 in a week for his top 20 highly competitive terms.

Like every one, we have had our fair share of projects that didn’t go to plan and clients that ended up not being the right fit. SEO’s got stressed and the office got a bit tense. To solve the situation we decided to look at the sales process to see what changes we could make to improve things. The challenge is how do you pick the good clients and great projects? We have put into place a few tactics that so far have had great results.

1) Grade Clients and Project

We decided to grade both clients and leads as early as possible in the pitch process. These grades are assigned by the sales team and confirmed by the SEO’s. It means we are confident we are all on the same page when signing up new clients and that we feel the client and the project is a good fit for Distilled. The grading is simple: A-C for clients and 1-3 for projects. A1 projects are truly awesome and projects the team know we want to spend a lot of time winning. C3 projects don’t move past the pitch stage.

Crucially things that make people A-clients are more based on how we will work together rather than the size of the company or how well known they are. We are looking for clients that will implement our recommendations and will allow us the freedom to push projects in the direction we believe will bring them the most benefit.

We also regularly review these grades once the project has started to make sure that the sales team are accurately assessing a new project and that things are staying on track.

2) Ask A LOT of Questions

Like most agencies, we get a large number of basic briefs. We have made a rule to push back on this and get as much information as possible both about the project and the client. A few of the questions we ask include:

  • Who will we be working with on this project? Will we have access to the departments we need to implement our recommendations?
  • Could we have access to your Analytics and webmaster central?
  • What inbound marketing work have you done in the past year?
  • Why are you looking for a new agency?
  • What is the level of SEO knowledge within the company? What is the internal perception of SEO? Is it a priority?
  • Is there any major issues we should be aware of that might impact this project?
  • What does a really big win look like for you?

Not only does this help us form a better brief, we also get to see the level of commitment from the client. Most clients we are excited to work with have no problem coming back to us with questions and in fact are usually impressed that we are so keen to get to know them and their situation better. How they answer the questions also give us a much better idea of their approach and if we will be a good fit for them.

3) Get the Team Delivering the Project Involved

When the team is extremely busy and every moment is dedicated to delivering great results for clients, it can be hard to get consultants time dedicated to putting together a proposal. This can lead to a sales team sometimes doing the entire pitch without ever talking to a consultant about the solution. This is a great way to sell a bad project or fail to manage expectations. I could see we were starting to fall into that trap last year. While our sales team are extremely well-trained in SEO, they are not the ones who will be delivering the project and it was crucial for us to get the project leads involved in the sales process.

We started by assigning a consultant to leads before the contract was signed. This means that the person who will be working with the client is working on the proposal from the start, advising on what the solution should look like and meeting the client prior to the project kicking off. This is huge for catching situations where the client/project again might not be a great fit as the consultants tend to be more critical than the sales team on new projects. It also means we started pitching more focused and tailored projects with clear project plans and a realistic vision for what the project should look like.

I also created a Proposal Question template that allowed the sales team to get the core issues for proposals while not taking up too much of the consultant’s time. Some of the top questions from there included:

– If you were the in-house SEO for this company, what are the first 3 things you would do?
– Do you see any risks with this client or project?
– What will the client need to do for this project to be a success?

These questions help us to continue to qualify the project and allow us to provide the client with a realistic assessment of where we think the project can go and what they might need to do to see success. Managing expectations is crucial to preventing nightmare clients.

4) Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

When you are trying to grow it’s easy to get tempted by large brands and big budgets, especially when you have targets to hit. However, if you look closely at the brief and know you are not the right fit – walk away. I have had to say no to a number of amazing opportunities this year. As a sales person, walking away from a large pitch for a big name brand can be crushing. However, it is important to remember that you will put a huge amount of resource, time, effort, and hope into the pitch process – make sure it’s all spent for a project that your team want to win. A big brand client logo looks amazing on the website, but if you sign up a toxic client then the whole company will suffer.

5) We Have a Break Clause in Month 3

In an ideal world every project lasts for years and the relationship stays strong and continues to grow. While we have been lucky to have a number of clients like this, sometimes things don’t go to plan. I love our policy of 30-days notice after the first 3 months for all clients. This means that should anything start to move into a negative direction we can end the relationship before too much time is wasted. This is beneficial to clients who know we have to work hard to keep their business and for our team who know that they have the ability to end a project that they think isn’t going well.
Ending a project is an extremely difficult thing. No one wants to fail. But trying to make something last that is not the right solution or not a great relationship is worse. The client won’t be happy, the SEO will be miserable, and the whole situation will be toxic. It’s much better to be upfront and honest with the client when you know it’s not going to work and move forward.

Hopefully these tips help. Being picky can be difficult when you are trying to grow a business, but in the long run it means you have projects you are excited about and clients who you work well with. Everybody wins.

Adria Saracino

Adria Saracino

Adria Saracino is the Head of Outreach at Distilled. When not connecting with interesting people on the web, you can ... [Read full bio]