The hard truth is that your success as an SEO professional in the agency world is not based solely on your SEO skills and abilities.
Effectively managing your client relationships, expectations, systems, and processes is necessary for accomplishing a host of your business responsibilities. Some of the desired outcomes include:
- Improved client retention
- Increased client lifetime value
- Increased word of mouth referrals
- Generation of upsell and cross-sell opportunities
- Getting buy-in for your recommended projects & the resources required
I've worked in multiple SEO agencies, across various roles, including client-facing positions and working behind the scenes on strategy, training, and team management.
Currently, I lead the Growth Strategy Team in a reputable B2B SaaS SEO agency, overseeing strategic planning and organizational systems for dozens of world-class SaaS brands.
I’ve witnessed both the pains of poor client management, and enjoyed the benefits of effective client management. My goal is to save you from experiencing these pains, and help you to capture the benefits.
1. A good client experience starts pre-sale
Your agency’s approach in the pre-sale conversations will set the tone and expectations for the working relationship, so it’s important that you’re professional, clear, organised, and transparent.
A fatal trap to fall into pre-sale is that of over-promising. While it may help drive the deal, this is almost guaranteed to end in stress and disappointment for both parties.
Naturally, your client will measure success based on the expectations that you set; a car salesman would be amiss to promise a Porsche in the showroom and deliver a Reno Espace.
Constantly being faced with the delta between promises and reality will ultimately lead to churn and a bitter aftertaste.
Instead, focus on creating a clear and honest proposal that is grounded in your research and abilities. Spend some time reviewing the client’s site and establishing some broad ideas for how you can help them reach their organic goals and objectives. If you don’t think that you’re able to help them, now is the time to step away.
Your proposal should give them a straightforward overview of the opportunities and the essential role that you play in capturing them.
2. Build processes to ensure a smooth onboarding & handover
Once the deal is in the bag, don’t flounder on your next step. The handover from the sales team is likely where you, as a strategist or account manager, will make your first impression.
The client will appreciate it if the context from their presale conversations is passed on to the SEO team, so that they don’t have to walk again on well-trodden ground. Having all of the necessary context is also essential for your planning.
Ask the sales team to put together a handover document to get you and your team up to speed. It should include the answers to key questions, such as:
- What is the agreed scope of work?
- Who are the point/s of contact? What are their roles?
- What is the client looking to achieve? Do they have specific goals?
- Was there any important context to the conversations? (E.g. specific requests, upcoming business or website changes, etc)
With that said, the sales team’s conversations will likely only provide a certain depth of information. SEO strategy is your wheelhouse and you will have fundamental questions that dig deeper. It’s helpful for everyone involved to establish these fundamentals ahead of this transition.
Put together a questionnaire for the client to fill out, with the goal of learning the key pieces of information that will affect your approach, conversations, and decision making. It should also specify which SEO data and properties you will need access to for analysis and reporting (like Google Analytics, for example). The sales team can ask the client to fill this out and arrange the relevant access before the handover.
Lastly, it’s worth scheduling a handover call with the client, sales POC, and strategist all in attendance. This can help to bridge the gap and set a personable atmosphere to get the ball rolling.
3. Get aligned on priorities & KPIs as soon as possible
Aligning on priorities and KPIs early on is critical. If you’re trying to catch fish while the client is counting ducks, there’s likely going to be some tension.
Ideally, your KPI metrics should measure actual business impact (based on the company’s core objectives), or the closest available proxy. Discuss what your client is looking to achieve and align on the most relevant KPIs.
It’s useful also to establish and agree on leading indicators of success. For example, if your north star KPI metric is customers (likely a lagging indicator), an increase in MQLs could give you a good early indication that you’re on the right path.
It’s less common for strategists to consider the personal goals and drivers of their client-side point of contact. While there will be some overlap, these will often differ from the business goals and KPIs – so keep them both in mind.
Think about what the person is trying to achieve and what they may be struggling with – how can you help to relieve their stressors or workload, and work towards their ambitions? They will appreciate you showing an understanding.
If you are invested in making their lives easier and helping them achieve their personal goals, they will be your champion.
This way of working puts you on the same team. It also allows you to more easily work together to build cases requesting additional resources from key decision makers, with a shared goal in mind.
4. Learn how to effectively manage expectations
The early stages of your client relationship are also critical for effective management of expectations. The sales handover call should include a clear roadmap of initial activities and the scope of work, laying out next steps openly and realistically.
In this early phase, it’s also important to align on what they expect to see in the routine reporting, as well as the reporting cadence. This allows you to fulfill these expectations, or manage them where needed, from the get go.
But the expectation management doesn’t end there. Managing expectations around deadlines, results, reporting, and deliverables is an ongoing process.
In my experience, it’s best to avoid promising exact dates for delivery deadlines, unless the task is a dependency for something that is time sensitive.
Keeping deadlines loose (e.g. this week as opposed to this day) allows space for the inevitable unexpected to occur and can relieve pressure. Clients care more about (and form firmer expectations around) deadlines when they’re given precise dates. But in reality, a matter of days is unlikely to make a meaningful difference in most cases.
When it comes to managing expectations around results, forecasting and modeling are helpful for setting expectations. Based on your experience and the data available, periodically spend some time creating a model that estimates the potential impact of the work you’re planning, on a realistic time scale.
With this, it’s essential to let the client know that the model is the best set of assumptions you can make with the best data available, but that fully accurate modeling is not realistic (due to innumerable potential factors that have an influence).
As such, the model should be used for goals and benchmarking, rather than as a promise, and should be kept conservative. Show them the logic in the modeling process so that you can align on how the figures were derived.
5. Reporting is just as important as the deliverables
Effective reporting is an opportunity to shape how your work is perceived by the client. The way that you analyze and present results can be the difference between dispondance and excitement.
Let’s take an example.
It’s been a tough month for your KPIs; results are forecast to be down across the board, and you have a routine reporting call coming up. What’s the best way to navigate the conversation?
Simply reading off the under-whelming figures and hoping for the best is unproductive, and is sure to cause some angst. Instead, put aside some time to dig into the performance drop in an attempt to develop a true understanding of the likely causes. Where possible, put together a list of actions that you believe would help to reverse the trend.
Stepping into a meeting with actionable insights (the why and how behind the what) and next steps shows your client that you’re invested and willing to put in the work to drive results. It says “things aren’t looking great this month, but luckily we’re here to help, and here’s how”.
The same is true for when results are looking positive. Your reporting time gives you the opportunity to show your client how your work is helping them achieve their goals. Wherever possible, aim to establish the link between your inputs and the desired outputs, then communicate this clearly to the client.
Note: Getting set up with the right client reporting software can help to streamline this process and more clearly show your impact.
Effective reporting will help not only to improve their view of your work, but also their confidence in your future decisions. This is crucial for getting buy-in for your strategies, as well as securing the required resources.
A key point here is that the client’s perception of results is fundamental to a healthy relationship and future success. With this in mind, another useful approach is to build excitement around the project.
You can foster a sense of excitement through sharing wins frequently, even outside of the regular reporting cadence. Take screenshots of impressive ranking improvements and traffic spikes and share these with the client. Show them that you’re curious, invested, and excited, and they're likely to start feeling the same way.
6. Systemize SEO client management to make it scalable
When looking to expand your agency’s client capacity, look first to efficiency before hiring.
Is there a way to streamline your systems and processes so that you can effectively service more clients without scaling the team?
There is likely to be inefficiency lurking in the darkness, so take time to think objectively about where you could save time. Automating processes like simple data analysis using dashboarding tools or spreadsheets is a good example. Creating templates for commonly occurring documentation, messages, and deliverables is another.
The trap to avoid, however, is to forgo quality for the sake of efficiency and rapid growth. To maintain a bespoke service, you need to keep a level of flexibility and a willingness to break free from the mold when it’s called for. This is easier when the agency is small and agile, but can become tricky as your team expands.
At a certain point, scaling requires hiring and training. With this comes more complexity, and it can become difficult to retain the essence of your service. At this point, your systems should grant efficiency while leaving room for creative problem solving. This needs to be considered not only on the level of your systems themselves, but also nurtured as a culture and mindset within the team.
Hire people whose abilities you trust, and then trust and encourage them to take the reins when they need to, rather than micromanaging or forcing them into a prescribed box.
8. Ask regularly for feedback
An excellent way of ensuring that you’re delivering a service that fulfills your client’s needs and expectations is simply to ask them for feedback. In my experience, clients are quite willing to share their thoughts openly when prompted.
In most cases, this uncovers simple, actionable insights that can help you to instantly (or over time) improve your service and relationship. It’s far better to find these opportunities for improvement as they arise, rather than letting them go unsaid and pile up.
To do this, keep an open feedback loop by asking for feedback regularly, then acting on it wherever possible. This tends to not only improve your working relationship, but can also improve your processes – clients will have ideas that you may not have thought of, so keep an open mind and be willing to adapt.
9. Look for upselling & cross-selling opportunities
If you’re managing your client’s SEO channel and your working relationship effectively, upselling or cross-selling opportunities may arise.
The best way to view these opportunities is from a point of mutual benefit. Start by identifying ways in which you can help your client achieve their goals more quickly or effectively (both business goals and personal goals).
In the best case scenarios, these opportunities will arise organically out of your routine analysis and strategy. For example, you may have published a piece of content that promises exceptional lead potential, but you see that it needs more referring domains in order to reach the top positions. If your agency offers link building as a service, you can propose an additional investment in this area.
For these types of opportunities, it’s best to use data to show the potential associated with the upsell. This could be framed along these lines:
“If we build X number of links per month to this page, we’re likely to see Y return in leads / customers / revenue by Z date”.
Quantifying an attractive ROI opportunity makes the decision a no-brainer for savvy marketers and is likely to end in a win-win – this is a positive sum game when played well and fairly.
An open feedback loop and keen eye for your point of contact’s personal ambitions can also lead to upsell opportunities. For example, the client might share that they’re happy with the service but that they’re struggling to find the capacity to implement your recommendations.
This could prompt an upsell in the form of your implementation services if this is something you offer. As a result, you could improve your working relationship, relieve some strain from your POC, and ensure that the necessary recommendations will be implemented more quickly, kick-starting a virtuous cycle.