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When to say no to clients

It happens every year -- those urgent last-minute requests that come as clients realize the holidays are approaching. Recently an online retailer was referred to me, and the conversation went something like this:

"Can you design and build a new online storefront for me in two weeks under a new web address? I need it done in time for the holiday shopping season, and I need a GREAT store."

"No, that's not advisable."

"Okay, then I'll go to one of your competitors -- I'll just get a template site. But can you do the SEO work to drive traffic to the store in time for the holidays?"

"No. For the kind of store you're developing, and for the kind of results you seek, SEO is not the right approach. You need to hold off."

It's a classic problem every agency owner faces -- when to say no. The question takes on special dimensions in the search engine optimization (SEO) field, where the problem of agencies over-promising and under-delivering is an all too frequent occurrence.

Very often, clients come to us after they've had bad experiences with other internet marketing firms, or have tried and failed to do the project "on the cheap" using someone's friend or cousin, making their projects even more urgent, their time frames shorter, and their skepticism, frustration and mistrust of our business even higher.

Saying no is the ultimate test of an agency's ethical posture. Especially in a high-demand industry, it's all the more tempting for some agencies to just take the client's money and hope for the best. But deciding whether and when to take on a new client is a lot more complex than gauging your bandwidth; it's not just about whether you have the time and staff to do the client justice. In the SEO space, it's about understanding what is possible, what is advisable, and what is in the client's best interest, which, by the way, is in your own best interest at the same time.

An effective SEO campaign is very different from buying an ad. It's a long-range process. The goals of three stakeholders are at play, and all three interconnect:

  1. The search engine, which employs an algorithm to present relevant search results.

  2. The client, who wants high search rankings, traffic and online sales.

  3. The searcher, who seeks informative, usable and easy-to-navigate content.

A search engine like Google establishes site rankings based on trust and relevance. Trust is measured by how long your site has been around and who is linking to your site. That's why the benefits of an SEO campaign don't materialize overnight, and why we said no to the client who wanted fast results. Even if we do a rush job and throw together an online storefront, it won't deliver the kind of search engine rankings the client wants within a matter of weeks or a couple months.

So, when do you say no?

It depends.

If the client were an established online brand, or had a website that has been around for a while, the answer might have been different. For an established retailer, we would conduct an analysis to see how the online store is performing, and based on that research, we might have taken on the project. But for the client in question, we were looking at the prospect of creating a new online presence with zero market recognition and no history in Google. We advised the client that an SEO campaign might take six months or more before producing real results. Other options, like pay-per-click (PPC), could certainly produce faster results, and these are some of the alternatives that an ethical agency will present to the client, so the client knows what to expect, and what it will cost.

A checklist for screening clients
Clients sometimes want to charge ahead into SEO, believing all they need is a handful of well-chosen keywords -- as if there were a magic formula for optimizing a website. We try to temper their expectations. A more thoughtful approach begins with asking some fundamental questions before deciding when to say no -- or yes -- to a new client or project:

  1. Who is the intended customer or market? If it's a narrow, well-defined niche, the task is more straightforward.

  2. What is the competitive advantage? If it's price, a faster ramp-up may be okay.

  3. What content resources are available? For an SEO campaign, we need to know the quality of a site's content and the quality and quantity of sites linking to it. If you don't have time to develop this content and the right links, keywords won't matter.

  4. Are you thinking strategically, not tactically, about your marketing goals? The most successful online sites are not the ones that were slapped together overnight, but have been researched and planned appropriately.

Put simply, when an agency gets a call for new business, the question should not be, "What can we sell you?" It should be, "What do you need -- and are we the right partner to fill that need?"

Implicit in these questions is a precept that comes from my company's own mission statement that we've posted very publicly on our website. It states, "Make clients aware of the risks." If you don't do that, you risk losing much more than a project fee. You risk losing your reputation.

An ethical platform in the form of a written mission statement or code of values can be a powerful tool, as long as your entire organization and customer base are aware of it and you adhere to it consistently. It's the line in the sand you draw that helps you determine which clients will be the right fit, and which ones will be successful relationships. Any time a client asks you to cross that line and compromise your principles; you'll know what to say.

Having the courage to say no has long-range business benefits, both for internal morale and for your external credibility.

Remember that merchant who wanted the online store in two weeks? Here's what he ultimately decided:

"Screw it. I know your reputation. I still want you guys to develop the site. If you do it, I know it will get done right."

Scott Smigler is principal and founder of Exclusive Concepts, a Waltham, MA-based internet marketing firm with expertise in SEO and driving online sales. .

Scott Smigler is principal and founder of Exclusive Concepts, a Waltham-MA-based Internet marketing firm with expertise in SEO and driving online sales. Scott founded his firm in 1996 – at the age of 15 – and was one of the first Internet marketing...

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