You’re good at getting customers for your clients, but are you good at getting clients for yourself?
SEO agencies spend a lot of their time understanding what their clients’ customers are searching for, but many don’t spend as much time finding out what their own clients want.
Recently, we interviewed Mark Wright from Climb Online and Mindy Weinstein from Market Mindshift, who shared key insights to how agencies can close more contracts. In Mark’s and other agency founders’ experience (and in ours at SEOmonitor), we find it largely comes down to the pre-sales process. Plus, as Mindy highlights, it’s also about speaking the client’s language from the get go and educating them on the SEO process in connection to their business.
Let’s picture the following scenario:
You’ve done your research, had several positive meetings, yet there’s still no firm “yes” from your potential client.
This leaves your agency in limbo.
Do you stick it out with this client that you’ve already invested time in, or do you move on to focus on other leads?
What’s making the client hesitate, anyways?
What else can you do to turn this lead into a conversion?
The key to solving situations like these is to have an in-depth pre-sales process that helps you pre-qualify leads and get to know your clients’ short- and long-term goals inside and out.
Adapt your offer to their objectives, and you’re much more likely to close the deal.
From our research, this is the main difference for agencies that close a lot of deals: having a deep understanding of their clients’ industries and business goals.
So, how can you achieve that level of understanding and avoid getting a silent no from your prospective customers?
Pre-qualifying your leads will determine how compatible your potential clients are with your agency’s particular offering. If they don’t fit your target customer archetype, they’re less likely to convert to a long-term client, so chasing them could be a lot less efficient than going after companies that do fit your ideal client profile.
Pre-qualifying is part of a bigger process that we call pre-sales activities. The goal of the overall process is to help you identify and focus on only the clients who are most worth your time, energy, and resources. If your targeting is done right, this process should attract the right clients for your agency (in other words, those most likely to convert and remain with you for years to come).
The first step is to figure out who your ideal clients are, and then use your knowledge of their business to help close the deal.
Mark Wright shared a great tip with us when it comes to targeting potential SEO clients: “I think most SEO agencies make a fundamental mistake by selling to everyone. What we have done is to study our own SEO agency. Most of my SEO team is entrepreneurial.”
What Mark realized is that Climb Online is composed mostly of entrepreneurial people. Because of that, the agency typically does better acquiring (and retaining) entrepreneurial-minded clients, since those are the people who Climb Online understands the best.
The moral of the story? Find clients who are like you.
It’s not just about understanding their industry - it’s about understanding what appeals to key decision makers as human beings. If you can empathize with their mindset when talking about their business, you set the stage for building a strong client relationship in the future.
Talking about mindset, Mindy Weinstein also points out that it’s important to assess the potential client’s views on the project to see if you’re setting yourself up for success. After all, you want to make sure you’re on the same page when it comes to expectations, business processes and results:
Don’t be afraid to educate them, she says. Explaining how your SEO process works in their language will offer opportunities to clarify expectations from the first interaction. For instance, Market Mindshift works in phases, with a technical audit as a foundational first step — an approach that helps clients “trial” the first phase and understand the agency’s impact on business results.
What if you’re looking for new industries to target, which you don’t already have clients within? How can SEOs identify which opportunities they should pursue?
For instance, Climb Online looks through the Virgin 500 or 30 Under 30 lists to find young, rapidly-growing companies. You can also discover these fast-scaling businesses and industries by looking at recent accelerator graduates, VC-funded startups, and household brands entering new markets.
These types of clients are in a growth phase, are gaining momentum (especially if they’ve just been funded), and have the need and budget for marketing efforts to fuel further growth. This makes them low-hanging fruits for agencies.
According to IBISWorld, these are some of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S., for example:
Once you’ve found the specific companies or industries you want to target, how exactly do you approach them?
Mark Wright points out that, after they gathered the contact information of key decision-makers, they present targeted case studies, with relevant data to their industries to help seal the deal.
Mindy Weinstein also underlines the importance of case studies and specific explanations, especially when dealing with skeptical clients who had less fortunate experience with SEO before. "I'm not afraid to give away information", she explains, knowing that sharing knowledge is an instant trust builder.
Once you’ve figured out your preferred client types whether by type of business, vertical or other specific criteria, the pre-sales process continues in a mix of data gathering and highlighting your agency DNA as being the right fit:
That being said, demonstrating knowledge of clients’ industries is crucial to the pre-sales process, too. Mark Wright says that, at Climb Online, “Demonstrating industry insight is the first thing we do.”
Showing business-specific knowledge is crucial for gaining clients’ trust when pitching and nurturing leads. It can make all the difference between a “silent no” and a closed deal.
Here’s how you can go about gaining that understanding (and impressing your potential clients with your insight):
Knowing their industry inside and out can help lead to a successful pre-sales process.
If your potential client is in the dental industry, for example, look across all your dentistry clients to present industry-specific results when pitching. Then show how these kinds of SEO efforts can drive results for the client’s individual business goals.
Apart from targeted case studies to pinpoint ways you can help them, deeply understand their KPIs and don’t hesitate to educate them on each phase of the partnership they’re about to enter.
Weinstein explains that she always starts with listening closely to the client, while gleaning data about the pain points of the business and how the customer journey looks like. Understanding their language and their problems is a first step in educating them about where SEO fits. For instance, a client who went through a website redesign came to her because they were losing traffic, so she quickly evaluated the website and identified some of the key issues — a good start for a productive conversation.
Read up on news from the client’s industry as well, to understand the types of things that could impact their business goals or campaigns.
When speaking with dentistry clients, Wright says they may ask things like, “Did you see the GDC update from November?” to demonstrate their awareness of these important, industry-specific changes. Showing this kind of attention to detail goes a long way towards building trust in your agency.
Weinstein adds that having clients from various industries is a constant challenge and the business strategy she chose for her boutique, because it means constantly learning not just about SEO, but a specific vertical and its current status. For her, as an SEO consultant and trainer, constantly learning is key to closing the deal.
You should use preliminary keyword research tools to actively look for industry-specific opportunities, too.
Year over Year search data tools can help identify changes in your chosen industry. Through collections of keywords that top websites in a specific industry rank for, and their exploding or tanking trends, you can do quick checks on what can be a growth opportunity.
You can also investigate specific client websites or their competition and spot promising keywords and low hanging fruits. Let’s say you have a home&deco potential client and want to see how “outdoor heater“ has shifted in demand. You’ll have a good starting point for your pitch.
To find more untapped opportunities, you can use tools which allow you to look at your keyword alongside other interesting or related queries. This is useful when a client’s current keywords are either shrinking or playing in a competitive segment.
These tools help you create reports that highlight whatever matters most to your client.
Most CMOs have their budgets under strict scrutiny right now. They will keep an eye particularly on their ROI and revenue performance as a result of SEO campaigns, so understanding the nuances of their industry and how these might impact ROI is key when pitching to new clients.
If you can demonstrate this, you’re helping the CMO look good, and all the key decision-makers within a company better appreciate the value you bring to their marketing mix.
If you ask your leads, they’ll likely say that they know who their competitors are.
However, they might be basing it on things like market share, household penetration, or retail availability - not on the things that necessarily matter in SEO. This is the difference between offline and online competitors. Which may come as a surprise sometimes for decision makers.
Using competitor analysis and a reliable visibility metric to spot the truth of online market share can also make the case for a solid business proposal. This lets you look at competitors on a campaign-wide level, as well as sorted by individual keywords, so you can analyze insights as granular as you need — spotting the differences in desktop vs. mobile visibility, the number of keywords each competitor ranks for and the percentage of them that are in common for your client or the competitors’ domain rating based on number of backlinks.
With all these insights ready, you’ll be able to prove that you really get their business and vertical.
This kind of hyper-targeted, industry-specific approach is made possible by having a strong pre-sales process, but there’s another thing which can help set your agency apart when it comes to understanding clients’ needs: commercial knowledge.
In fact, Wright says that making business training mandatory for all of their staff is the single “biggest thing” that sets them apart in terms of selling successfully.
At Climb Online, they give all their SEO staff essential business training through their own Climb Academy and other business know-how courses. All new hires go through this training during the onboarding process, but employees also continue to receive regular commercial education on a weekly basis. From understanding profit margins and P&Ls, to knowing how to spot opportunities or how to handle a refusal — all the important parts of running a business are covered.
This ensures that everyone in Climb Online’s client-facing teams has commercial knowledge.
Because having their people be knowledgeable about the things that matter most to business decision-makers enables them to directly communicate the relationship between the client’s marketing budget and business objectives, and talk in terms of results and financials.
For the same reason, SEOmonitor has developed a module to help SEOs assess realistic vs. ambitious campaign objectives, and present them to clients in a way that correlates to their overall business objectives.
This makes a big difference in how clients will see your worth, as they can understand it as a measurable, valuable return.
Instead of hearing about the importance of metadata (something which is interesting to SEOs, but not to dentists), they’ll hear how you’ll increase their revenues (something which is interesting to all business owners, including dentists).
The numbers won’t be exact, of course, but give them projected percentages based on achieving a specific ranking, and they’ll be able to do the math themselves.
This is why those who are business-minded generally sell better - because they can speak in terms that clients relate to.
Being as thorough as possible with your pre-sales activities - so you can match your proposal to the client’s unique business objectives - is often what sets successful, deal-closing SEO agencies apart from those who get stuck with a frustrating amount of silent no’s.
The key to this process is to understand your customer’s needs, allowing you to form and maintain strong client relationships from the get-go.
To do this, SEOs should: