How Many Clients is Too Many? A Look at the Industry

Juggling Robot image“Can you believe it?” my friend – a fellow SEO – asked me, referring to an SEO freelancer that we’d just spoken to at an event. “He’s currently juggling 6 clients. Six! That’s way too many.”

“Pfft, yeah…” I replied, through partially gritted teeth.

I was juggling 8 at the time. And I’m working with 10 at the moment (albeit a couple of them are one-off projects, but still…)

The subject of ‘how many clients is too many clients?’ has always interested me, especially as a solo consultant. There’s certainly pros and cons on both sides. Is there a magic number? Who knows. Is it possible to have too many? Most likely, yes. But does that mean that only having a few is a good idea? Probably not.

In this post I weigh up both sides (having lots vs. only having a few), while referring to recent studies conducted by BrightLocal and the mighty Rand Fishkin.

The state of the industry

What’s interesting is that when I started drafting this post, I had a rough idea of how many clients a freelancer might take on at once, or that might be given to an agency worker by their boss, but what I had in my mind was actually lower than what recent studies have shown – especially when it came to agencies.

In their Local SEO Industry Survey, BrightLocal estimated the average at 14 clients, based on the graph below:

BrightLocal graph 1
They argue that this is “quite the handful,” resulting in “workloads [that might] be difficult to handle.”

In a separate write-up for Search Engine Land, which highlights some different stats from the main study, they broke it down by looking at the number of clients depending on the type of operation – different types/sizes of agencies and freelancers:

BrightLocal's graph 2
While freelancers are taking on about 9 clients per average (similar to me), individuals at agencies admitted to taking on 15-20! At first I thought this meant agencies as a whole (i.e. the whole agency would have 15-20 clients), but given that the question asked how many clients the respondents “personally handle,” and that Myles (the author and survey giver) reiterates it in his summary/analysis, it actually seems to be the number per agency individual. That’s… a lot. As Myles points out, it’s “almost double the number of clients as a freelance SEO, which makes you consider what types of tasks are being tackled day to day.”

Admittedly, it might be the case that an agency individual dabbles in a little bit of work for multiple clients (e.g. s/he might be the individual at the agency in charge of doing Google My Business listing optimisation or keyword research, and therefore does that task for a variety of clients), which would make sense, but even so… it’s a high number, and a lot to juggle.

Rand Fishkin recently ran an SEO Consultant/Agency Survey, which also asked the question of how many clients an SEO might juggle, split between solo SEOs and agencies – although this time the latter was targeting agency owners, so it would be asking the question as a whole (i.e. how many clients an agency has in total, not what an agency employee his/herself). It also only tackles US & Canada respondents… A follow-up – that’d include UK & Europe – is in-the-works, but (as I type this) it’s not yet been published. Rand told me that he’d been busy but that he’d try to publish it soon.

Here’s the answer when the solo consultant crowd were asked:

Rand Fishkin's graph 1
Meanwhile, here’s the agency verdict:

Rand Fishkin's graph 2
Again, the 6-10 mark was the most popular option for both solo consultants and agencies – especially so for the former. Be that as it may, for the agencies, nearly 13% of them (c. 1 in 8) had over a hundred clients. Wow. Of course if they’re big agencies with dozens of employees then that’s fine, but if they’re small agencies then… well…

Speaking of employees, for both types of respondent, part-time and contract employee numbers were asked (here are the links to solo consultants and agencies in each instance), while the latter were asked how many employees they have:

Rand Fishkin's graph 3
So going back to the previous graph, if most agencies have 6-10 clients and also 2-5 employees, then that’s roughly anything between 1-5 clients per agency employee. Roughly. Let’s hope some of those 2-5 employee-sized agencies aren’t tackling 100+ clients between them eh? Yowza.

The pros & cons of having lots of clients

So Rand’s study suggested that most people have 6-10 clients, while BrightLocal’s study suggested that it might be as high as 14 on average. Let’s say that it works out to about 10 between them. I appreciate that you might be thinking that there’s some ‘fag-packet maths’ style guesswork going on here, but it’s hard to combine the data of two separate studies – especially when one of them was more focused towards Local SEO providers while the other was more general.

I think that having a lot of clients is a good thing… but I can appreciate the argument either way, and that clients – and other marketers – might be sceptical of that statement.

Let’s start with the cons…

(Note: I won’t bother listing the pros and cons of having too few clients as well, as they’re pretty much the polar opposite of the pros and cons of having lots.)

The cons of having lots of clients

Juggling too much could mean spreading yourself too thin – This is the obvious one. If you only have 2-3 clients then you can give them your full attention pretty equally and fairly. However if you have 10 clients then there’s the risk that you’ll struggle to keep on top of them all, get them mixed up, forget what you’re doing for them, etc. – and risk making mistakes or not giving each of them 100%. However the more organised you are and better at managing the workload you are, the less this is likely to be an issue.

It could be a turn-off for clients – If clients know that they’re 1 of 10 then that might put them off working with you, especially if there are times when they feel that you’re not giving them your full attention. Again, good organisation and effective workload management are key, and I feel that it’s always important to be proactive rather than reactive. If you have 10 clients but you’re doing good work for them and they all feel looked after all the time then what’s the problem?

If you operate a one-client-per-industry rule… – …then it can make things a lot harder. I do this, as I feel that it wouldn’t be ethical or moral for me to work with two clients who want to rank for the same keyword at the same time. Obviously if you are mainly providing services to one industry then the work is likely to be easier as you’ll be familiar with the industry, the type of work needed, and so on. Having a client who operates in a completely different industry each time can be hard work for us as freelancers/agencies.

The pros of having lots of clients

More financial security – This is the primary pro for me. At the end of the day, if you only have 2-3 clients and either the work stops for one of them or they don’t pay you, it can be seriously harmful to your cash-flow. The more clients you have, the less of a ‘dent’ it makes when one leaves or doesn’t pay. There was a really interesting article on the Guardian recently about a digital marketing agency owner who wasn’t paid by a client that was responsible for 20% of the agency’s income, and the effect that that’d on her business and her health. And I’ve heard horror stories of agencies who have had that ‘one big client’ who one day leaves and the agency folds shortly afterwards. Don’t let it happen to you.

More variety of work – At the risk of sounding unprofessional, if I only had one or two clients at one time then I think I’d go mad from boredom (which explains why my only in-house stint was a 3-month contract role)! I love having a variety of different work on the go, whether that’s working with a variety of different industries or a variety of different types of work (or both). As an added bonus, I’ve been in situations when working on one client has given me a ‘light-bulb moment’ that has helped out another client. So I’d argue that it helps to keep the brain juices in good flow – nice and active.

More potential referrals – If you do a good job for someone, they’ll be more inclined to refer you on. So if you do a good job for lots of people, you could potentially get referred to quite a few people. Keeping your pipeline full can be a heck of a challenge – I’ve personally experienced ‘dips’ a couple of times throughout my freelancing career when projects have ended but I’ve not replaced them with other work straight away. So it can help to keep that sales pipeline nice n’ healthy. Similarly…

More potential testimonials(!) – This is a really cheeky one, but the more clients you have, the more potential you have to get testimonials and LinkedIn recommendations. After all, if you only have a couple of clients and either a) it’s not going amazingly well (or at least not testimonial-worthy) or b) you’ve done a good job but the client’s been rubbish at actually giving you a testimonial, then that might not be good…

It shows that you’re busy (and popular) – Admittedly you can be busy with just a small number of clients, if they’re big contracts that give you a lot of hours, but having lots of clients shows that you’re popular. This can be really powerful on the sales front, especially if you’re growing your business and hiring employees in order to take on even more.

Too many or too few? Over to you…

What do you reckon? Is having lots of clients a good thing, or is it better to stick to only having a few on the go at any time? I’d love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment below or tweet me or State of Digital with your perspective.

[Image credits – juggling man, juggling robot]

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About Steve Morgan

CIM-qualified Online Marketing & SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) Consultant with over 9 years of online marketing experience: 4 years' agency experience; around 6 months' experience working in-house for a national household name in the insurance industry; now freelancing full-time.