In October 2022, I had the pleasure of speaking at BrightonSEO where I joined Kathryn Monkcom and Billie Geena at Syndicate 3 & 4 on the Client Management track. Client management and relationship building is something I am very passionate about and having been on the receiving end of clients leaving even though results are good, I thought this would be a great topic to bring to the wider community.
You can watch the full talk live recorded at the conference, here.
In this article, I’m outlining the main points from my talk and covering why clients really leave outside of just their results.
Table of Contents
01. Why Should We Care About It?
02. So, Why Are Clients Really Leaving?
03. Poor Communication
04. Lack Of ROI
05. Changing Team Members
06. In Conclusion
Why Should We Care About It?
Before we dive into the reasons why clients leave, it’s important to understand why we should really care about this as an agency. Aside from the fact that client retainers pay the bills and the salaries for our staff, there’s a lot more to clients leaving that we need to take into consideration.
Cost of Poor Customer Service
$75 billion to $1.6 trillion every year is lost in businesses as a result of poor customer service. This isn’t specific to the digital marketing or SEO industry but is a strong indication of just how expensive it can be when you’re delivering poor customer service to your clients.
Takes Time Away From Other Things
When dealing with a client complaint or a client who is dissatisfied with any part of the service, it’s going to take you away from actually working on the campaign. And it’s likely not just the account manager who is affected. You will often find yourself trying to over-service a campaign to make the client happier again or other departments and senior members of the team are having to get involved. This is particularly the case if you’re having complex legal or contract issues that need addressing as part of this.
Acquiring Can Be 5-25x More Expensive Than Retaining
This is one of the most important factors. Acquiring new business through various sales channels can be anywhere between 5 and 25 times more expensive than retaining that existing client can be. This includes the time spent on warming up new business deals, the resources and time spent on the pitching processes and the admin and phone calls. According to research by Frederick Reichheld, Bain & Company, increasing customer retention by 5% can increase profits from anywhere between 25% and 95%.
So, Why Are Clients Really Leaving?
Alongside my own research, I put this question to the SEO / digital marketing community on Twitter and LinkedIn to see what the most common reason for clients leaving is, outside of results.
I considered 3 of the most common reasons that I had found – poor communication, lack of ROI, and changing team members – and left space for other industry experts to tell me their thoughts on any other reasons.
#SEO world – I need your help with a poll!
What do you do with your content duplication issues?
If you select ‘other’ or want to elaborate further, let me know your techniques for a shout out in my deck at @brightonseo 👀🤩
— Sophie Brannon (@SophieBrannon) August 18, 2021
In both polls, lack of ROI was the topmost voted-for reason for clients leaving, with poor communication following closely behind. Throughout the rest of this article, I’ll be addressing each of these points and giving some actionable ways that you can address this within your teams and your own way of working.
I have handled customer dissatisfaction calls and client feedback calls on many an occasion and there were some quite shocking statements that came from these such as:
- I don’t know who my account manager is
- I get a monthly report call, but I don’t understand it
- I feel like just a number
The first top tip I can give with poor communication is to stop assuming no news is good news. This isn’t always the case and just because a client is quiet doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happy. Often, it means that they’re disengaged.
Now, it can be difficult to find the balance with this at times, particularly if you’re dealing with directors of businesses who don’t have a marketing manager in place to help them navigate this space and are quite frankly too busy to deal with you day to day. But if you leave it too long when they’re being quiet, they may start to think that they don’t need your input any longer.
How Can You Improve Communication
If you’re identifying that poor communication is a leading cause for clients looking to cancel their contracts, then there are a few steps that you can take.
You can find new ways to interact with your clients – if the current processes or the current channels aren’t working as effectively as you’d hoped, then consider looking at alternatives. Some agencies, including Absolute Digital, like to use Instant Messaging platforms such as Slack (along with clear boundaries to protect our staff and to properly manage expectations). This has helped us to be more responsive to our clients and maintain a better connection with them, particularly for quick chats or urgent clarifications that don’t require a big email chain or call.
For other agencies, a project management system that all clients are inducted into allows them to keep track of task progress step by step in multiple views. Finding the right way to communicate with your clients based on what works best for you and for them, without putting additional stress on the relationship and on your account management team is important. Set appropriate boundaries but be as responsive as possible to clients within the outlined timeframes to better manage their expectations.
It’s not just about how frequently you communicate, but how you communicate. And there is a strong framework that you can put in place to help maintain solid communication with clients:
Remaining transparent, open and honest can help customers to trust you properly. Not every day is going to be perfect and not everything you try is going to have the right results. Many SEOs seem to be afraid of things not going right all of the time but even in an ideal world, this isn’t going to happen. People who work in businesses aren’t stupid – if you tried something but it didn’t work and that helped to shape your ongoing strategy then simply outline what you did, what you learnt from it and how you have adapted. When things are always in the green, clients may think that you’re not being 100% honest with them.
Being empathetic and properly understanding your client’s situation can help to drive a relationship and also a conversation. Your client is only human. Connect with that!
Be aware when you’re speaking to a client if you’re talking at them rather than with them. Be aware if what you’re saying does or doesn’t make sense to them. Be aware of your mannerisms and how you’re leading the conversation (or if they are, how you’re responding to them). If you’re on camera or in a face-to-face meeting, be aware of your body language. Little tells and little things like simply asking ‘is this all making sense so far’ when you know that the client doesn’t have an overly strong understanding of what you’re doing can help to keep them engaged rather than seeing them disconnect.
Give Proper Context
You more than likely live, sleep, and breathe SEO. Your client isn’t necessarily going to be the same, and they may have a little understanding of what you’re even talking about. Give proper context to the conversation, not just within your remit but within the wider business context and tie it all back to the original KPIs – whether you’re speaking to the director of the business or a marketing manager.
You may have an outlined agenda for the call (you should for every call to make the meeting purposeful) but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be flexible. There may be some big news that the client needs to tell you that will shape the call. Or your client may be focused on one part of the agenda far more than others and fill up the time slot with this. Remain flexible based on what the client wants to know about but make sure to try and steer the conversation also towards what they need to know.
Lack Of ROI
Now before we dive into this section, it’s important to remember that a lack of ROI is often more than just results. And it is often more than the results that we see as SEO’s. Some examples of when a client may be feeling that they’re not seeing good return of investment include:
- I feel like I’m overpaying
- I don’t care about the results you’re showing me
These two points are the most common and a lot of this ties back to poor reporting. The client may feel like they’re overpaying because they don’t fully understand the value that you’re bringing or what you’ve achieved. And if you’re showing them results that they don’t care about and that don’t mean anything to them (i.e. reporting on revenue when they are more interested in individual unit sales) then you’re going to quickly burn the relationship even without meaning to.
How Can We Prove ROI?
Some channels including SEO are going to be more difficult ot prove than others. Where channels such as PPC have the advantage is that it is very easy to see what you’re putting in, how much each click and conversion is costing on a particular campaign, what you’re getting out of it and even the return on ad spend all as standard metrics. SEO isn’t quite that simple as we’re driving both branded and unbranded and SEO can often be attributed to the success of multiple channels and be impacted by lots of elements such as additional offline marketing, Google algorithm updates, large site changes etc.
Firstly, it’s important to set expectations from the offset – from as early as the sales process. Setting expectations can help to make sure that you know exactly what your clients are looking for from the campaign and what metrics they’re using to measure your success. You can then tailor your reporting around this. Ask the question ‘what does success mean to you’.
In addition, some initial projections may be able to help you track and measure the expected performance of the campaign. A template I’ve used regularly for this is the Google Sheets SEO Forecasting template from Tom Capper at Moz. There are a few different ways that you can forecast in SEO – an optimistic % estimate based on previous campaigns in the same industry (although this is often a dangerous move), a keyword / CTR model for some of the main target terms or a statistical forecast based on historic performance which takes into account seasonality and trends. The template provided fits into the statistical forecast providing upper bound, lower bound and forecast lines. It’s not perfect, due to the non-deterministic nature of SEO, but it can give you a rough idea.
Your reporting will be vital to properly showcase ROI. Your reporting shouldn’t just revolve around SEO metrics like so many do. To clients, the % share of keyword visibility may not mean anything at all. Moving from page 2 to page 1 could be trivial to them. Tie your reporting back to real business impact and specifically back to the metrics that they themselves defined when asked the question ‘what does success mean to you’ when setting those expectations.
Communicating your reports is just as important. If your client doesn’t understand their report, that’s on you. You should aim to run through the report with the client directly at least the first few times (ideally every month) and ensure that they can clearly see what impact the SEO is having and the value that you’re bringing.
Another easy way to cripple a relationship is with recurring errors, mistakes and typos. We’re all human and bound to make mistakes, but if you’re sending across templates with other client’s names or even worse their data on it, then it could easily lead to mistrust as it shows a lack of quality control and potentially even data protection issues – you may think this doesn’t happen but I’ve seen and heard of this happening a lot in the industry.
Changing Team Members
Changing team members can be a two-way street. You may experience employee churn within an agency for example, which is very common. Or a main point of contact may end up leaving the business you’re working with, only to be replaced by someone who wants to bring in the agency / freelancer that they have an existing relationship with.
When looking at agency side – employee churn is often unavoidable but it doesn’t have to impact your clients. Ensuring you have the following in place can help to make the process as seamless as possible:
- Provide detailed handovers
- Bring in the new contact as early as possible within the relationship to minimise turbulence
- Give proper introductions and ensure the new point of contact is fully up to date
- Build relationships within the wider team – i.e. not just the account manager but also the SEO manager/content writer/Head of SEO etc. so there’s more than one person for the client to lean on.
If you’re dealing with churn from the client’s side, then there are a few things you can do:
- Make their transition into the role as easy as possible – have all of the background information, previous comms with the point of contact that was there before them and all documents to get them up to date as quickly as possible. They’ll thank you for it later.
- Have a strong relationship not just with your main point of contact but if you can, anyone in a more senior position to them. Solidify that relationship with the business not just with the person. This is particularly key in corporate businesses where they will often have different levels within the marketing team.
- Tailor the reporting and strategy again based on the new point of contact while showcasing your expertise. Give real detailed insights, recommendations and also background and develop it alongside the new point of contact so they can really make their mark on the campaign and feel included rather than that you’re running away with the campaign.
To summarise – clients are always going to leave. But don’t take it personally. Remember that your reporting can make or break the relationship with a client, and it can be the portal for strong communication, to showcase ROI and to ease new points of contact into the relationship with minimal friction.
Take communication seriously, not just in terms of quantity but in terms of quality. Don’t forget that your clients are human. They want to talk about themselves, their business and their achievements. You may not always get to a personal level with some clients (although the best relationships are maintained as you end up speaking about partners/kids/activities), but the chit-chat before you get into the SEO is important to build strong relationships.
Minimise risk as much as you can across all of these areas by building in proper frameworks and processes that can help you to improve communication, improve reporting and even improve employee churn within the business. Understand patterns and use these trends to adapt your approaches. We will undertake feedback calls with clients during their time with us, after their initial onboarding experience and after they leave us to get a real understanding of what they’re feeling.
Ultimately communication is key to strong client relationships and even when results aren’t on your side, if you have a strong client relationship, you’re honest and transparent and offer a clear report that showcases what means the most to them, clients are more likely to stay onside.