The agency-client relationship can be fragile.
This can be especially true of SEO agencies, given the long-term commitment required to see optimal results. A lot can change during that time and, sometimes, a client decides it would be best to part ways.
However, this really doesn’t have to be the case. There are some predictable, avoidable reasons clients decide to split with their agency.
I spent more than seven years working at digital marketing agencies and learned (sometimes the hard way) to sense when clients were unsatisfied. There were some common patterns that played out over time.
The good news? A bit of honesty, clarity, and some positive results can save your agency-client relationship.
Here are five reasons clients choose to fire their SEO agency and some actions you can take to avoid getting fired.
1. “We Can’t Implement Your Recommendations”
SEO is fundamental to increase visibility, but it is harder to achieve this if you don’t control the website. As a result, hefty tomes filled with SEO recommendations can end up gathering dust in the client’s inbox.
With some larger clients, I’ve seen thousands of technical recommendations go unimplemented. The clients’ (quite valid) argument has been that these only have a value as they relate to website improvements. Without seeing the light of day, the recommendations are essentially worthless.
There are numerous reasons why this occurs. If the client isn’t in a position to give the agency direct access to the site, it usually means going through a web development queue every time a change is suggested. Should other recommendations take precedence over yours, you may find that SEO gets lost in the crowd.
How to Avoid This:
- Present a business case for your recommendations. Communicate, in terms everyone can relate to, why it’s good for the client’s business to follow your team’s advice.
- Get to know the hurdles your client faces when implementing SEO updates. Work together to overcome them.
- Set targets for everyone. It takes a team effort to improve a site for SEO, so it’s worth creating a dashboard to track how many changes have been seen through and where the bottlenecks are. This helps to quantify and visualize any issues.
- Build relationships with senior leaders at the client’s business. Sometimes the client requires an organizational change to get SEO bumped up the priority list. Without senior-level approval, that is unlikely to happen.
- Add a caveat in contracts (in some cases). This can state simply that should the agency’s SEO recommendations not be implemented within a reasonable time frame, any agreed performance targets need to be revised.
2. “SEO Isn’t Delivering Like Our Other Channels”
The gift and the curse of SEO can be its long-term effectiveness as a performance channel. In theory, everyone is on board with the fact that SEO takes longer than PPC to bring positive returns.
In practice, it’s easy to grow impatient when you see how SEO stacks up against PPC or even paid social in the immediate short term.
The agreement between agency and client about how long SEO takes to work becomes particularly fraught if things start to trend downwards. Even a slight week-on-week dip in visibility can be cause for concern.
To marketers accustomed to paid search, it can be difficult to shift mindsets and accept that there are rarely instant fixes in SEO. Barring a serious technical problem, in SEO these dips can’t be reversed so readily. They must be put into a wider context and investigated in detail before actions are taken.
How to Avoid This:
- SEO isn’t supposed to deliver like other channels, so the best way to avoid this scenario is to work on developing trust in your approach. Set expectations appropriately at the outset and provide frequent updates.
- Make sure your team identifies any performance changes. If the client notices it first, you can seem either negligent or keen to hide something. If you feel the client may be concerned with what they see, get in touch first to allay any fears.
- Offer to educate your client’s team if they aren’t so familiar with SEO. Clients are usually open to learning more about digital marketing.
- If things simply aren’t turning out like you thought they would, be honest. Performance won’t improve without everyone getting on board with a new approach. That starts with an up-front conversation about what’s gone to plan, what hasn’t, and what you need to do to turn things around. Clients appreciate a bit of integrity more than anything else.
3. “We’re Not Sure What We’re Getting for Our Money”
A lot of SEO work goes on in the background. We spend a huge amount of our time analyzing trends, identifying opportunities, and preparing documents.
We have to put this time in if we want to compile an effective strategy. However, the client rarely sees this. Our processes can be hidden, with only the outputs to show.
Some clients have had a bad experience with an agency, too. I’ve seen plenty of clients approach a new agency with a paid link penalty in tow. It’s understandable that this causes a certain guardedness about SEO agency practices in general.
If we keep our processes out of sight, that skepticism will only increase. From there, the relationship is hard to retain.
How to Avoid This:
- Spend time going through your statement of work with the client. Make sure they understand what each item is, how long it will take, and why you think it’s the best use of their budget. That way, there should be no surprises and they are free to amend things as they see fit.
- Stick to your project plan. If there are any deviations from this, discuss them with your client and confirm the changes in writing.
- Use a shared project management tool like Basecamp or Teamwork. This provides visibility into your team’s daily tasks and helps to assign items to the client, too.
4. “You Haven’t Delivered on Your Promises”
This one stereotypically befalls the salespeople who promise incremental, oftentimes stratospheric, improvements in performance — up and to the right to infinity. This can help get the sale, but then it’s the SEO account team that has to make good on the promise of triple-digit growth.
However, this isn’t the exclusive domain of the over-eager salesperson.
We can all get a little carried away just through the desire to please a new client.
This can leave us with performance targets that loom large on the horizon once the honeymoon period is over.
Additionally, this applies to the account team you provide for the client. I’ve seen agencies put forward an account team in a pitch document, then deliver an entirely different set of people once the ink dries on the contract. This makes the client feel like they are being taken advantage of from day one.
How to Avoid This:
- Make it clear what exactly is being promised to a client. Performance projections, for example, can be viewed as legally binding. Clients can feel that they are buying that traffic by signing with your agency. Your methodology for calculating a forecast (if you do decide to supply one) and all caveats to this must be provided in a transparent manner.
- As an agency, it is essential to have a clear code of conduct, both internally and in your interactions with clients. Make this explicit in your initial written agreements with a client so they feel assured that you’ll stick to your word.
- Let your client meet their account team during the pitch phase. Often, an agency will send their best salespeople to try and seal the deal, but all the clients I’ve met really want to meet the people who will be working on their account.
5. “We Feel Like We Can Take It From Here”
“What will your SEO agency provide after month three?” Many clients have been asking this question of their agencies lately.
The perception is that the heavy lifting of technical SEO and on-site implementations will be done within this period. After that, surely it’s just about occasional maintenance and some reporting, right?
This can lead some clients to feel like, after they’ve received the initial audits and strategy documents, they’ve got all they need from an SEO agency. Basically, they think they can “take it from here.”
We know they’re wrong (obviously). But the onus is on us to make the case.
An SEO specialist can add to any conversation that relates to a client’s website. This is as valid in month 12 of the contract as it is in month one – perhaps even more so.
Our efforts have a cumulative effect. SEO practices provide more value through their application over time. This applies to our technical SEO work, content marketing, and digital PR.
The full impact of our work is lost if the relationship is severed after just a few months.
How to Avoid This:
- Provide case studies that show the positive effect your SEO team has on a client’s business over time. This should demonstrate that you need at least six months to make a real difference.
- When preparing a service-level agreement, make reference to specific time frames. Clients may feel that they are getting everything up front, but some of our work only really kicks into action in month four or later.
- A lot of clients have good reasons for believing they can take up the mantle from their agency. Perhaps they have hired an in-house SEO specialist, for example. In this case, offer to transition your activities over to their team and make sure the client is in the best possible shape for success.
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