There isn’t much I dislike about Web marketing, but dealing with clients whose expectations don’t align with reality has to top the list. While many might gripe and complain that the client “just doesn’t get it” (often a true statement), the client’s absence of reality often has more to do with the marketing team than it does with the client themselves.

Translation: It’s you (the marketer/agency) not them (the client).expect results

There are three types of expectations that clients often have when they engage in Web marketing services:

  1. Rankings: “We’ll be on the first page by [insert date here].”
  2. Growth: “Our leads/sales will increase by xx% by the end of the year.”
  3. Client Involvement: “I hired you to do it;  just let me know when it’s done.”

As Web marketers, we know that the client’s expectations are very often unfounded. But where did they get those expectations? What made them believe the wrong thing in the first place?

I’m sure, if you were to ask, most Web marketers will tell you that they laid out the expectations with the client well in advance. Despite that, the client continues to believe what they want to believe. Is the client delusional, or is the SEO full of crap?

Probably neither, but the problem still remains. The gap between what the client expects and what the SEO knows to be true are about as far apart as Jar Jar Binks’ chances of becoming chancellor of the Klingon Empire.

(Note to you sci-fi purists: Yes, I know. I crossed universes. Get over it.)

Overcoming The Expectation Gap

The question is, how do we get Jar Jar into the same universe as the Klingons, and what does he have to do to navigate his way through unfamiliar — and merciless — Klingon military and political ranks?

While I hope and pray that no such thing ever happens on the big screen (Jar Jar wouldn’t even have a fighting chance!), I do think there is potential for closing the expectation gap between the client and the Web marketer here in the real world.

It Starts With First Contact

Setting the expectations of the results of your Web marketing services starts at the very beginning. As Web marketers, we don’t want to sell clients on the idea that they are buying rankings. Instead, talk to them about building their Web presence. There are many ways to grow your business, and while rankings can be a nice traffic generator, they don’t produce sales. Ultimately, sales are what the client should want.

As soon as the client starts talking about rankings, bring them back to their goals. Is their goal to be ranked #1 or to grow their business? My guess is that it’s the second option. You just need to have the conversation.

You know, that conversation — the one about how rankings matter, but not as much as they used to; the one about how personalization and geo-targeting are dominating the search results; the one about how everybody sees a different set of results. Give them the lowdown so they understand that rankings are not the goal. Growing the business is.

Lay Out A Timeline Of The Future

To really get ahead of the expectation issue, it’s a good idea to lay out a timeline for both deliverables and expected results. This should definitely be done once the client signs a contract; but, it’s probably a good idea to issue this timeline as early in the sales process as possible. With our clients, we break things down into phases. We outline exactly what we’ll be delivering in each phase, how long each phase lasts, and what the client can expect in terms of results.

It helps that we start the conversation with potential clients by talking about their goals (which is just a more passive word for “expectations”). By understanding their goals, we are able to create a Web marketing campaign designed specifically to help them achieve those goals, assuming their budget matches their desires.

By getting so specific with the goals and the deliverables needed to achieve them, our clients have a good understanding of what’s going on with their campaign and what kind of results will be seen as it progresses.

Keep The Com Links Open

One of the biggest problems I’ve noticed over my years of performing Web marketing services is lack of client involvement. Sure, clients like to talk a good game about being involved and some of them actually are, at least for a while. But far too often, clients tend to drop out of communication range shortly after work begins. This can be a huge problem.

Not everything can be done by an SEO. There are just some things that fall outside of the scope of work and/or skill of the SEO. Many clients have their own developers, and all back-end changes must flow through them. That’s fine, so long as there is someone approving the recommendations being put forth by the SEO. When a client stops communicating, they need to understand that their results will suffer.

We’ve seen this happen time and time again. The client wants results but is negligent in providing us the feedback needed to do the job they hired us to do. Sure, we can optimize for keywords they have not approved if it comes to that; but, many times the implementation of optimization and site architecture can only be done by someone on the client’s side. This is important stuff if you want results!

The best thing you can do is to clearly communicate the need to stay involved in the process to the client. Make this clear up front and every step along the way. If the client goes into hiding, keep a record of all communications and recommendations. That might come in handy when they ask why your timeline for success didn’t pan out as planned.

Prioritize Your Battle Strategies

Not all strategies are created equal, nor are all the recommendations you send to the client equal in the results they will achieve. We keep a running spreadsheet of all the recommendations we present to our clients so we can keep track of progress and completions. However, even clients that are good at staying on top of the recommendations occasionally fall behind.

When this happens, it’s helpful to prioritize all recommendations so the client can easily sort through the critical, important and low-priority items. This allows them to focus on what will give them the most value first without getting bogged down in changes that will have lesser impact. That’s not to say that any particular recommendation isn’t valuable; you just want to make it easy to hit those that will provide the highest value first.

Report Your Progress To Headquarters

No Web marketing campaign is complete without the proof that what you do is working. And this is the biggest boon for the SEO who’s trying to move the client away from measuring rankings. Digging into analytics and reporting progress, traffic growth, conversion rate increases and new revenue can do wonders for getting a client out of the “only rankings matter” mindset.

Regular reporting allows you to show the client that you are on right track with the goals you laid out before the campaign even began; and hopefully, it will show them where they are starting to see some ROI from the money they have invested with you.

In this process, don’t shy away from bad news or reporting failures. An honest approach will lend you credibility when you may inevitably have to tell the client that the optimization is sound, it’s them that’s holding you back. That’s not a conversation anyone wants to have, but sometimes it’s necessary. Honesty in your reporting grants you the credibility to have that “tough love” conversation.

Unfortunately, there will always be those clients who insist on believing what they want to believe. You could tell them the world isn’t flat, J. J. Abrams isn’t a god and #1 rankings don’t happen in a day; but, all they’ll ever hear is, “You promised me I’d be number one in 30 days!”

I can’t help you with those. But with the rest of the more reasonable clients out there, taking an early, aggressive and ongoing approach to laying out expectations can help you close that expectation gap considerably. You may not be able to eliminate it completely, but at least you won’t be light years apart.

(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO

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About The Author: is president of Pole Position Marketing, a leading online marketing strategy company established in 1998 and currently based in Canton, Ohio.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    The key is to just keep on having “that” conversation again and again. Every time a client comes to be with a specific number and a specific deadline we have “that conversation” again. I have even walked away from a client that would not back down. They demanded a certain increase in traffic within 3 months and I said I would not and could not guarantee their results.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    The key is to just keep on having “that” conversation again and again. Every time a client comes to be with a specific number and a specific deadline we have “that conversation” again. I have even walked away from a client that would not back down. They demanded a certain increase in traffic within 3 months and I said I would not and could not guarantee their results.

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    The key is to just keep on having “that” conversation again and again. Every time a client comes to be with a specific number and a specific deadline we have “that conversation” again. I have even walked away from a client that would not back down. They demanded a certain increase in traffic within 3 months and I said I would not and could not guarantee their results.

  • http://localreachlabs.com/ Russell Hayes

    Setting expectations is a fundamental part of the sales process which is also where you determine the ground rules for the relationship. I often find that using something from my prospects space as an example of unreasonable expectations they might experience with clients gets the point across. Hope that makes sense. Vote for Jar Jar!

  • http://localreachlabs.com/ Russell Hayes

    Setting expectations is a fundamental part of the sales process which is also where you determine the ground rules for the relationship. I often find that using something from my prospects space as an example of unreasonable expectations they might experience with clients gets the point across. Hope that makes sense. Vote for Jar Jar!

  • Pat Grady

    We focus on SMBs, they are often run by dreamers and those who aim to do the impossible. “Overcome” isn’t what we look for, it’s more like “accepting”. We’ve done the impossible many times, only to hear them say “great, here’s what’s next” – you can’t overcome that, you just focus on climbing, continual climbing. Swallow, breathe, and keep climbing.

  • Pat Grady

    We focus on SMBs, they are often run by dreamers and those who aim to do the impossible. “Overcome” isn’t what we look for, it’s more like “accepting”. We’ve done the impossible many times, only to hear them say “great, here’s what’s next” – you can’t overcome that, you just focus on climbing, continual climbing. Swallow, breathe, and keep climbing.

  • Jayne Reddyhoff

    Lots of really good advice here for dealing with clients and their expectations, which applies to more than just SEO.

    We specialise in AdWords and conversion optimisation for online retailers and, in theory, it is much easier to demonstrate how successful we have been for them than in the SEO game – after all, success just equals more sales doesn’t it?
    But we have experienced the same issues that you describe.

    After the initial expectation setting (“that” conversation), the most important thing in our experience is regular, valuable communication in addition to standard reporting. For our key clients, we have a policy of providing:
    - One boast – look at how well we are doing for you
    - One question – something we need to know from you to do our job even better
    - One observation or recommendation in response to asking ourselves the question “if money were no object, how could we help you to grow your business (or meet any other key objective) faster?”

    This helps keep us focused on what we are trying to achieve for our customer and increases their trust and confidence in us. Which in turn makes things much easier to deal with if there is a problem or some of that tough love is required!

  • Jayne Reddyhoff

    Lots of really good advice here for dealing with clients and their expectations, which applies to more than just SEO.

    We specialise in AdWords and conversion optimisation for online retailers and, in theory, it is much easier to demonstrate how successful we have been for them than in the SEO game – after all, success just equals more sales doesn’t it?
    But we have experienced the same issues that you describe.

    After the initial expectation setting (“that” conversation), the most important thing in our experience is regular, valuable communication in addition to standard reporting. For our key clients, we have a policy of providing:
    - One boast – look at how well we are doing for you
    - One question – something we need to know from you to do our job even better
    - One observation or recommendation in response to asking ourselves the question “if money were no object, how could we help you to grow your business (or meet any other key objective) faster?”

    This helps keep us focused on what we are trying to achieve for our customer and increases their trust and confidence in us. Which in turn makes things much easier to deal with if there is a problem or some of that tough love is required!

  • http://www.astralwebinc.com/ Ori Tzvielli

    nice article. for us the most difficult part is client involvement. at least for small businesses that we have worked with, they expect to pay and get results with no more involvement that a monthly check. after much learning, now we add to our contracts minimum of time, projects and expected tasks that the clients need to provide. we have even for one of our clients, specified a penalty fee if there one specific monthly task was not provided. This fee went not to our company but to more content creation.

  • http://www.astralwebinc.com/ Ori Tzvielli

    nice article. for us the most difficult part is client involvement. at least for small businesses that we have worked with, they expect to pay and get results with no more involvement that a monthly check. after much learning, now we add to our contracts minimum of time, projects and expected tasks that the clients need to provide. we have even for one of our clients, specified a penalty fee if there one specific monthly task was not provided. This fee went not to our company but to more content creation.

  • http://dannypryor.com/ Daniel Thomas Pryor

    Thank you! I am a developer who also handles the SEO/SEM portion of things for many clients, and the most difficult things I encounter are the disappearing client and the ones that throw me all the SEO email spam they receive, thinking I should do something with it. As an old colleague has put it to me, there’s a huge difference in targeting people versus search rankings, and that’s the fallacy of SEO for some. The expectations that clients have probably comes from all those promises to get people “listed on the first page of Google”, which nobody, in my not-so-humble opinion, can every credibly promise. The question becomes, how do we translate this stuff in a nice way without finally biting off the heads of the clients who don’t ever get it? ;-)

  • http://dannypryor.com/ Daniel Thomas Pryor

    Thank you! I am a developer who also handles the SEO/SEM portion of things for many clients, and the most difficult things I encounter are the disappearing client and the ones that throw me all the SEO email spam they receive, thinking I should do something with it. As an old colleague has put it to me, there’s a huge difference in targeting people versus search rankings, and that’s the fallacy of SEO for some. The expectations that clients have probably comes from all those promises to get people “listed on the first page of Google”, which nobody, in my not-so-humble opinion, can every credibly promise. The question becomes, how do we translate this stuff in a nice way without finally biting off the heads of the clients who don’t ever get it? ;-)

  • Andrea Bosoni

    The average client knows nothing about SEO. The only thing that matters to him is to become no.1 in less than one month for some ultra generic keyword that thinks will make him rich overnight. I always spend some hours at the beginning trying to educate him but sometimes it’s so difficult that is discouraging.

  • Andrea Bosoni

    The average client knows nothing about SEO. The only thing that matters to him is to become no.1 in less than one month for some ultra generic keyword that thinks will make him rich overnight. I always spend some hours at the beginning trying to educate him but sometimes it’s so difficult that is discouraging.

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    You’re right, but you certainly have to make sure to have that conversation before the contract begins so it doesn’t come as a shock when you keep having it later! But, yes, it’s a continuous conversation!

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    You’re right, but you certainly have to make sure to have that conversation before the contract begins so it doesn’t come as a shock when you keep having it later! But, yes, it’s a continuous conversation!

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    Good strategy Russell. It’s definitely needed in the sales process. The problem is, most sales people want to over-promise. But I always prefer the Scotty Principle. Under promise, over deliver.

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    Good strategy Russell. It’s definitely needed in the sales process. The problem is, most sales people want to over-promise. But I always prefer the Scotty Principle. Under promise, over deliver.

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    We’ve run across this too. You go the extra mile just to get the clients what they want and soon they come to expect it. Next thing you know you’ve provided double the amount of work from what they purchased and they’re still not completely happy!

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    We’ve run across this too. You go the extra mile just to get the clients what they want and soon they come to expect it. Next thing you know you’ve provided double the amount of work from what they purchased and they’re still not completely happy!

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    That’s certainly a unique approach. We are trying to figure out how best to manage the difference between deliverables (ours and theirs) and the hours we put in doing their deliverables!

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    Some never will. We are battling that now with a client. In emails they “understand” that rankings don’t come by SEO only, but in reality, they have given us ONLY the “SEO” portion and have badly mishandled the content and social strategy and refuse to do conversion testing. But they complain to use when rankings start to fall. The SEO is good, but they think rankings are all our responsibility. Sigh.

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    My sales guy, who comes from a fundraising background is often surprised by the amount of education that goes into each sale. You can’t just throw out a proposal, you have to ensure the client understands the value of each service they are getting. All they want is rankings, but it takes the whole pie to get them that. It’s a long, arduous process.

  • http://localreachlabs.com/ Russell Hayes

    I’m given you all she’s got Captain! Over promising is a symptom of poor sales ability and it’s a cover up for not understanding how to communicate the value of the service your selling, or not caring enough to communicate that value.

  • http://www.polepositionmarketing.com/ Stoney deGeyter

    I definitely agree! It takes a good salesman to be able to keep the client’s expectations grounded to reality!

  • http://www.lapeerwebsitedesign.com/ Michigan SEO Company

    Stoney, great article on setting and keeping expectations with your clients. I agree that this NEEDS to be set right up front with your client. Even better, while the client is still a prospect.

    One way I do that, is by targeting those SMB’s that I would like to work with and then having them fill out a document of their goals for their marketing – sorta lik a marketing audit. The big two I look for are the:

    1. Decision maker, and
    2. What their allotted marketing budget is

    Once I know those, I can then determine if their budget “expectations” are on target with their marketing goal “expactations”. If those look good, I proceed by putting together a proposal for that particular project.

    In that proposal I will re-iterate their goals they outlined in the marketing audit and will clearly layout a timeline to accomplish those goals. I also include in the proposal a section named “SEO Expectations”, which explains to them that this is a strategy to build your online presence and that it is not something that is a one and done type of thing, but that it takes time to build that up.

    I found that this process can save a bundle of time and money before even getting to the proposal, and if you do create a proposal, your are hitting the expectation right up front so that atleast they know going in you are not “over promising” SERP domination in 30 days.

    Hope that helps those who are struggling with client expectations.

  • http://www.lapeerwebsitedesign.com/ Michigan SEO Company

    Stoney, great article on setting and keeping expectations with your clients. I agree that this NEEDS to be set right up front with your client. Even better, while the client is still a prospect.

    One way I do that, is by targeting those SMB’s that I would like to work with and then having them fill out a document of their goals for their marketing – sorta lik a marketing audit. The big two I look for are the:

    1. Decision maker, and
    2. What their allotted marketing budget is

    Once I know those, I can then determine if their budget “expectations” are on target with their marketing goal “expactations”. If those look good, I proceed by putting together a proposal for that particular project.

    In that proposal I will re-iterate their goals they outlined in the marketing audit and will clearly layout a timeline to accomplish those goals. I also include in the proposal a section named “SEO Expectations”, which explains to them that this is a strategy to build your online presence and that it is not something that is a one and done type of thing, but that it takes time to build that up.

    I found that this process can save a bundle of time and money before even getting to the proposal, and if you do create a proposal, your are hitting the expectation right up front so that atleast they know going in you are not “over promising” SERP domination in 30 days.

    Hope that helps those who are struggling with client expectations.

 

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