Qualifying SEO clients; keeping Pareto at bay

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For the longest time now I have wanted to write about this topic as it’s one that has legs when I am talking to my fellow search warriors. Deciding on which clients one takes on is paramount to not only keeping your sanity, but the success of your company in general. I’d even go as far to say the process has a lot to do with the success of an SEO program.

But how does one get there? I have had great clients, not so great and bloody horrid ones over the years. How does it happen? Well, most of the time it is over before it begins. So today we’re going to talk about the process of qualifying clients. I have some of my own thoughts, also parts of this from recent group sessions I’ve held… and even some Tweeple chime in at the end.

I hope you find some points of interest and feel free to add your own 2c in the comments

What to look at

While it can vary, we need to establish some of the parameters by which we can evaluate a client prospect. You can even cover some of these elements by creating a form for clients (RFP style). How you go about it, or how much weight you give to each point can be more personal, but here’s a list to get things rolling.

Qualifying the project

The first thing we want to do is look at the project parameters such as;

  • Budget
  • Control
  • Profitability
  • Resources (client side)
  • Benchmarks

These are fairly straight forward. Is there a realistic budget in place to compete in the space? Will you have enough control to be effective? Does the site have the potential for growth? Are the benchmarks realistic?

If you aren’t scoring high on these ones, I doubt there is really a need to continue on with the process. The last thing you want is to be in a situation where success is all but impossible. You need to be realistic.


Qualifying the client/contact

If you’ve made it past the first part… then we would want to consider;

  • Business model
  • Knowledge of SEO
  • Resistance to change?
  • Relationship

Now we want to look at the people behind the contract. Do they have a sound business model? What is their level of knowledge towards SEO? How do you get along with them on a personal level?

We have to remember there are PEOPLE on the other side of that dotted line. In any relationship there are going to be situations where personal interactions come into play. In this section I can live without having high marks on aspects like understanding SEO, but would be more stringent on the relationship and their own business savvy.


Qualifying yourself

If you’ve made it past the first two, then you’re almost home free;

  • Familiarity with the market
  • Experience in setting (small/medium/corp)
  • Can you work within the budget?

This last part is all about your comfort zone. Do you know the market (query spaces)? Will you be able to adapt? Are you more comfortable working in a Corp setting? Or with SME? And of course, will you be happy with the financial terms?

We can have a great client, with a great site and wicked budget, but it can still fall apart if you’re not (or staffers) in the comfort zone. Best laid plans and all that.


Putting it together

If you manage to get through all of those with a high degree of positive factors, then you are likely entering into a situation where you can succeed. Obviously we don’t need to hit each and every one of the factors out of the park, but it should be substantial. All to often the success of the situation will be dictated right at the outset.

As an added bonus, you will also be more savvy as far as potential areas where the program might break down.


Pareto Principle for Clients

A simplified business version of the Pareto Principle;

“A business principle that holds that 80% of the impact of a problem will show up in 20% of its causes.”

Or as I like to say, 80% of your grief will come from clients worth 20% of your revenues. Anyone that has been in business for any length of time will have seen this. Not only can these ‘bad’ clients be emotionally taxing, they are also a drain on the resources of your company.

It is important from time to time to assess the clients you have and weed out the problem ones. Yes, you can ‘fire a client’. Ok, sure, you’d best have this covered in your contracts, but that’s another story. What is important is understanding that this situation is often quite destructive.

And yes, this is why it is a good reason to pre-qualify clients. Then you will hopefully never end up in this situation….


Ok? If you have additions, just leave them in the comments.


Just for fun, before I go, some feedback from the fire-hose

Tweeple Speak;

Thanks for the input to;
@joehall @cyandle@localseoguide@craiglparker
@tinywook @GrosenFriis


David Harry
David Harry is an SEO and IR geek that runs Reliable SEO, blogs on the Fire Horse Trail and is the head geek at the SEO Training Dojo.
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  • jimrudnick

    Spot-on, David! One must always qualify a client….even if you're hungry for new ones, there is a relationship tween good/bad that goes more to who you are, than what you can make….

    Like this post!



  • Dave,

    We must be on the same wavelength; I just had nearly this exact same conversation yesterday. I think the points above are crucial to follow, but there is two ingredients that I use to qualify, the intangibles, if you will.

    TRUST and SERIOUSNESS. Will they trust my expertise when the time comes to position not on the site, but the brand, properly? Or, is the client more interested in giving orders, regardless of what the data suggests? If it's the latter then, don't take the gig. Not worth it.

    How serious is the client about search / online marketing. If they're coming to you because they “know” they have to have site and have to be in the space, then I would take this as a cue that one should walk. They just want a site, aren't concerned with the possible results or revenue streams, then it's not somebody you can build a partnership with.

    Great post, man.

  • EricWerner

    Trembling already regarding a client I accepted yesterday… If only I'd read this sooner!

    It's hard to tell the whack jobs to hit the road when you need the business.

  • Pre qualifying clients is easy to do when you are your own boss… unfortunately i am not … Usually more than trying to keep bad clients at bay I try to educate them so they understand how to become “good clients”… and sometime it works!

  • @Jim – thanks man, it's a convo we've had more than a few times with my crew. It actually sucked up a large portion of the 'Business of SEO' sessions. I think you're dead on with the implication of not getting too desperate. Has to be a balance.

    @Tony – good points, comes back to the amount of control one will have, the clients understanding of SEO and the personal relationship. My partner is fond of saying “They came to us, they better godamned listen to the advice”. It is certainly one of the areas that comes with experience.

    @Eric – sadly that is often the problem. When times get tough one can be pressured into taking on less than ideal situations. I've been there… we all have. I still would encourage people to try and stay strong when the factors all point to a losing situation. This can be tough when one has a family to support. and erm… good luck with that – my next post; How to fire clients – lol

    @le-juge – well, then one might want to bring up some of these points to the sales staff at the next staff meeting lol. Even agency owners need to be concerned with the employee frustration levels that can cause internal strife. But I hear ya, more than a few agency folks I know complain about the quality of the situations they are put in.

    Thanks for the comments ya'll… a discussion worthy topic for sure

  • lorenbaker

    All magnificent points. I've had a couple of phone calls over the past month where in the first minute or two, I've unqualified the prospect based on :

    1. Them expecting everything for little, and me going over spec to get them signed. ie. Building out a proposal that includes their detailed 12 month SEO strategy and competitive intel. It's a great way for them to get me to do their work for them for free.

    2. Them going bonkers on the first call, exposing everything they've done and everyone they've worked with. And talking junk about those other companies or trying to send me the work done by those other companies (breaking their NDA). If they are going to do it to them, one day they will to me.

    3. Excessive phone calling and emails at odd hours BEFORE becoming a client. That I cannot stand. If they think that they are entitled to call my cell at 10 pm BEFORE signing a contract, wait until afterwards 🙂

    Thanks David. I think I'll do a post entitled “10 Ways to Lose a Great SEO Consultant” … you have inspired me!

  • lol… some good ones there Loren. I think one consistent stream prior and after the post went up, is that one really does need to feel them out during the sales process. I start with the emails, I think there is some hope, I move to the phone call/Skype phase where I can get to know them more and further the process. By graduating the process, I find that if I actually get to the proposal phase, there is a good likelihood that this is a winning situation.

    I like your points though, one could set a trap, I mean, seed the initial start up questions, to see what actions/answers they give to some of those (like, 'have you used other SEO companes in the past. If so, whom?') …

    As for a follow up post, lol… liking that idea. Let me know if ye want some help on that one.

  • I can “usually” tell at the first phone call as I'm very frank with what their expectations should be after reviewing their site, space and budget. I've told people flat out that they weren't going to rank for “Tier 1 Term” at the budget they have presented. 1 of 3 things happens: 1) they start asking the right questions and up the budget 2) they understand the expectations and learn the beauty of the long tail or 3) they walk away. If they walk away, you didn't want that headache/time vampire.

    Great article David!

  • Yup, I am also keen on that type of approach. One mistake in the early days was not aligning expectations and investments. One simply has to be reasonable. You can't expect silk from a sows ear nor top rankings on the cheap (unless their crap hat SEO terms that are useless).

    Quick story;

    Two sort of general (2 sentence) inquiries came in. Figured I'd do a little time management and sent the exact same response to both. Questions about things I wanted to know since the inquiry was so general.

    One guy gets back and says no thanks and tells me my sales approach sucks, (hint: I mentioned some number$ straight away). The other said he understood the kind of commitment required and answered the 6 or so questions I had asked. We progressed to voice communications and moved the relationship along.

    Sure, I wouldn't advise that approach to everyone lol. But in my case,there were two distinct responses. I found the person that I can best work with. The other, social Darwinism :0)

  • This is a topic that really deserves attention.

    The right or wrong client can make all the difference. The one point that I'd also make is the ability to implement the recommendations. Too many times you run into clients who simply can't do many of the technical aspects necessary to achieve success.

    It fits into the expectations arena but it's not just about the expectations of the results but of the work involved and whether they have the resources and ability to implement that work.

    The other compounding factor is that many prospective clients have either a) been fleeced by some SEO consultant in the past or b) have read something that makes them think SEO riches are around the corner.

    Both can lead to toxic relationships where a client is paranoid that you're just selling snake oil or that you're overcharging for something that should be simple (though it's not.)

    What is depressing are the pump and dump SEO consultants who build ephemeral links and boost SEO for a short time. The client, after seeing SEO traffic decline post engagement, then return to and retain that consultant on an on-going basis.

    Long story short, education is a huge part of any SEO engagement and if you're finding that the student is unwilling to listen or learn – you're in for trouble.

  • Great post, on a topic that many do not cover.

    I have had a number of experiences with customers and potential customers including dropping the phone on potential customers who wouldn't shut up and proceeded to tell me my job, to firing clients who tried to treat me like some employed factory worker! Very wrong approach with me as I come straight to the point!

    I am also familiar with paretos law and this is a very good way of putting. 80% of hassle will most likely come from 20% of clients. Or 80% of your SEO results come from 20% of your efforts. Can obviously be used for many other situations.

    But yep. Qualifying your clients is really important if you are to have a harmonious and successful relationship with your customers. I seem to find clients who don't give a damn, are happy to throw money at you and not work with you on a project, and those that are happy to work with you and offer suggestions and ideas. Both are good in their own right.

    Client Qualifying Tip: Avoid smaller customers who a. Want to pay “cash”. b. Do not sign an agreement. c.Want world domination in 2 weeks. d. Want you to promote illegal tanning products.

    Yes. I seem to have had them all. But hey, I do live on the Costa del Crime…I mean sol.

  • It is a very good topic, that not many have tackled until now, although it is of great importance for us. I must say that I have not always considered all these aspects, so I am happy to have read this post. Well done!

  • This kind of junk happen to me alot. I take on a client only to figure out that their website is made mostly of stolen/duplicate content. So instead of spending my time optimizing, I am having to rebuild or rewrite most of their current site. Its a major pain.

  • zozogroup

    Three cheers for this article and the contributors. We work mostly with attorneys and law firms. I can't say enough how important it is to manage expectations around their SEO, legal internet marketing and SEM campaigns. This discussion of good vs. evil SEO clients comes up regularly at our Colorado SEMPO Meetups. It is also important that your service delivers enough value to justify the cost. There are far too many, very bright and capable SEO's who are POOR! b/c they don't charge enough to actually make a living. Good SEO is not a hobby!

  • So instead of spending my time optimizing, I am having to rebuild or rewrite most of their current site. Its a major pain.

  • So instead of spending my time optimizing, I am having to rebuild or rewrite most of their current site. Its a major pain.