There's a great thread going on over at Webmaster World that outlines the "three warning signs of a bad client." I don't usually link to forum threads in the blog, but I couldn't pass this one up. Partly because we have a lot of small business readers that run small SEO shops and I want to help them avoid these types of clients...but also because we have a lot of small businesses that are looking to hire SEO shops and I want them to know how not to BE one of these types of clients. So listen, and learn...

Sign #1: I need to do this as cheap as possible

First off, I'm going to put a qualifier on this one because I totally understand that no one wants to spend more money than they need to. Thus, the qualifier isn't that it's bad to have a budget, it's that it's bad to go into something with the mindset of "cheap" rather than the mindset of "this is my budget, what can we do with it."

Why this is a bad sign for SEO firms:

Clients that want everything done as "cheaply" as possible will push and push to get you to cut corners. They'll question every suggestion and decision you make before they'll let you do it. The companies that say these things are also far more likely to abandon ship or to not pay their bills. Also, if price comes up time and time again during early conversations, it's a great way to realize that this client is "price-driven" and not "results-driven."

A good search marketer will always turn up more in ultimate profits than it cost to hire them, so for forward thinking businesses, the issue shouldn't be about keeping prices down, it should be about your track record of ROI and what your plan of action is to maximize it.

Why this is a bad sign if you need an SEO firm:

For many of the same reasons that I listed above...though from the client side it goes beyond this. You see, many small businesses still see search marketing as nothing more than a line on the marketing expense report. They view it as a cost rather than an investment. This shows a lack of understanding on the small business owners' part about what they are actually spending their money on.

If you want to start working with an SEO firm, it's important to understand that good work in this field does not come cheap. It's also important to understand that expensive work doesn't necessarily equate with good work. That's why the best way for a small business to approach an SEO firm is to talk to them about building a realistic budget. Most search marketing consultants will work with you to help you find the best use of your funds for your site. That may mean that you need to take on some of the work yourself, or that you may need to pick and choose where to put your focus. Thus, come at it from the standpoint of building a realistic plan based on your budget and not on getting the "cheapest" service possible.

Sign #2: "I need it yesterday"

Again, it's not the phrase itself that is a bad sign, it's the intent behind it. Most companies obviously want to start work as soon as possible, but every now and then you will run into a client that has this sense of urgency that goes beyond "let's get moving" and ends up in "foot-tapping" territory.

Why this is a bad sign for SEO firms:

Companies that focus on the foot-tapping side of "get it done and get it done now" can quickly turn into nightmare clients for shops of any size...but this is especially true for the small shop and solo consultant. Every company wants to believe that they are the absolute most important client on your roster and the types of clients that focus on how quickly the work gets done usually believes that all other clients should be sacrificed in order to get their work done first.

As with sign #1, the "foot-tapper" mentality also tends to have a hard time grasping the concepts that lie behind search marketing. That means that even once the work is done, you're likely going to have daily (even hourly) calls from the client asking why their site isn't ranking yet. Having dealt with one of two of these types early in my career, I can assure you that the "foot-tapper" is bad news and will ultimately cost you far more than you'll earn from them because you can NEVER add enough margin on to cover the constant pestering that they'll bombard you with.

Why this is a bad sign if you need an SEO firm:

One of my favorite quotes from The Princess Bride is "You try to rush a miracle, you get a rotten miracle." I think this holds true for business services as well. It's certainly understandable to have a time frame that you want to work within and it's certainly understandable to hold your search marketer to the deadlines that they agree to meet...but it's essential to be realistic about the initial time frames that you want to setup for a project.

A 5,000 page dynamic site hidden behind layers of coding issues that isn't even indexed in Google is NOT going to be magically fixed overnight. Likewise a site in a highly competitive arena is going to take time to build its reputation via links and content. It's essential to be willing to work with your consultant to come up with reasonable expectations and to remain patient while you work through the plan that you agree on together.

Sign #3: "My current web designer won't call me back"

While this one can be qualified a bit, it's important to note the exact way that this statement is phrased. It's not "I had to fire my old designer" or "I'm not happy with my designer." It's "my designer won't call me." Sure, there are some instances in which someone is getting bad service from a provider that ignores requests, but usually, this statement tips off a bigger issue.

Why this is a bad sign for SEO firms:

If it's the service provider that breaks the relationship rather than the client, you need to stop and do some serious analysis to find out what happened to cause the split. It's generally a good idea to pick up the phone and call the original provider in order to find out what the problem was. It may be that the designer was getting daily calls with pestering questions. It may be that the client was so demanding and unrealistic that the provider simply didn't want to talk to them anymore. It may be that the client doesn't pay bills on time or that they follow along behind the service provider making changes to the work that was completed.

Basically, there's no set reason why this issue might happen, but it's essential to find out why both sides THINK it happened so that you can make a realistic decision about whether or not you're willing to take this new client on.

Why this is a bad sign if you need an SEO firm:

If you've got a company that won't answer your calls, you need to ask yourself what's going on. As with any relationship, it's likely time for a little self-analysis if one party suddenly stops returning calls. Sure, you could have been dating a jerk that's simply decided to vanish from the face of the earth, but there's also a chance that the whole "it's not me, it's YOU" line applies here.

Were you being a good client? Were you paying bills on time? Did you have realistic expectations on the project? Was there anything that you could have done differently to avoid this type of outcome? It's important to ask yourself these questions, even if it ends up that the situation was no fault of your own. By doing a little self-analysis, you can usually work things out to have a much better relationship with your next provider.

Working it out on both ends...

The thread is worth a read for both a few laughs and some sobering insight. Both providers and clients can learn a lot about themselves and their expectations by looking at the mistakes made by others. So if you're a provider, take a read to get an idea of both how to avoid these clients and how to deal with them if you've already got one. If you're a small business, take a read of the thread to get some insight into how providers work and what they expect from a client in order to be able to do the best job possible.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

June 27, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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