Is there such a thing as a bad SEO client?

I read a recent post on SEOMoz that talked about the warning signs of a bad client.  It’s a thought provoking post, and while I was reading it I found myself nodding along, thinking about all of the times where I’ve come up against a client who either didn’t get what I was doing, or simply got in the way of making any progress.  I’ve heard of agency-client relationships that have broken down entirely due to disagreements over either progress, or process.  It happens.

Ultimately, the 5 warning signs were as follows:

  1. They name-drop books, blogs, and other SEO-related materials in nearly every conversation.
  2. They insist on web design gimmicks that detract from the user experience.
  3. They demand results on an unrealistic time table.
  4. They protest your rates on the basis that there are, “tons of SEO software options available on ClickBank for $97”.
  5. They ask for keyword research and then override your findings with their “sense” of what their firm should rank for.

I’ve had clients who have done each one of the things above, and worse, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as bad clients.  I have had unreasonable clients, and I have had unpleasant clients, I’ve had clients who disagreed with every suggestion I made, and clients who questioned everything I recommended to the point where every potential piece of work I did for them took more than 9000 times longer than it should have done.  I’ve had clients who expected everything yesterday, and clients who delayed every action until some kind of Google update had made it obsolete.  I’ve had clients who were rude, clients who paid too little and clients who didn’t pay at all.  I’ve had clients who phoned up every ten minutes to ask simple questions, and clients who I spoke to once every 3 months.

But despite all of the above, I’ve never had a bad client*.

So, to answer the points above:

1: They name drop books …

Good, it means that they “get” the importance of what you’re doing.  They might not share your opinion, but to be honest, I don’t always share Rand Fishkin’s opinion.  In fact, sometimes I don’t share my own opinion.  In the words of John Power: “Don’t you think life would be a little drab if we had the same thoughts?”  Clients who read SEO blogs are not bad clients.  Clients who read SEO blogs and books are engaged clients. They might not share your point of view, but at least they have one.  We need people to challenge our thinking to help us learn.

2: They insist on web design gimmicks that detract from the user experience

I remember sitting on a train journey back from London a while ago.  I had a dreadful hangover considering it was about 4 in the afternoon, although it was entirely justified.  The train was painfully crowded and I ended up sitting next to a guy who ran a business producing one off luxury items – Think gold plated Rolls Royces and ebony tables with legs made out of elephant tusks.  Anyway, he said to me:  “clients always have taste, the fact that I don’t share it doesn’t make it bad”.  If a client insists on gimmicks that you don’t think work, it’s an opportunity to engage with them more.  Clients who add to design are often doing it to improve conversion.  You could always suggest using some AB testing or doing some conversion rate optimisation work for them.  You might even earn some money.

3: They demand results on an unrealistic time table

Don’t we all.  I get fed up waiting in a queue at the station, I hate it when it takes more than 5 minutes to get served at the bar, and that’s when I’m spending a tenner.  If I was spending ten thousand pounds on some SEO work, I’d want results.  The key is to have milestones for the campaign.  Set realistic goals for achievement that show that the project is on track, and stick to them.  A client who is informed about what is going on with their campaign and who understands the work that is being carried out on their behalf is much less likely to be unrealistic in their demands.

4: They protest your rates due to “cheap SEO” software being available.

A plumber uses a spanner that costs them £5 and charges you £100 for the knowledge of how to use it.  It’s the same with SEO.  I could probably fix my own pipes, but I wouldn’t, because someone else can do it without destroying my kitchen.  Anyone can do SEO.  There, I said it.  But, not everyone can do it well.  Not everyone understands the nuances of the subject, not everyone is able to balance the marketing and technical aspects of it.  A tool is just a tool, a means to helping you carry out a task, it won’t do the job itself.  Provided you demonstrate the added value of your work, the rates should not be a problem.  If your idea of an SEO campaign is to run reports from Web CEO and brand them with your own logo, then you are competing with software, if on the other hand, you do things that software cannot replicate because you are doing your job, then why would a client protest?

5: They overrule your keyword research

You might be a shit hot internet marketer who has ranked your clients number one for everything, but you don’t know everything.  In many cases, the person who works for a business may possibly know a little bit more about it (and their industry) than you do.  They might have done extensive market research of their own, or spent the time to examine their data before you did.  Perhaps you’re looking for volume of sales and they’re looking at conversion rates.  Perhaps their customers are different to the wider market.  Perhaps some of their products have a better margin than others.  Perhaps it’s just that they have a boss who only cares about one keyword.

Bad Clients?

Most of the time, client relationships deteriorate because of a lack of respect for each other.  Spending the time to understand what a client really wants is essential.  The biggest mistake any SEO can make is to give a client what they only think they want.

* obviously the ones who didn’t pay are bad.