Selling SEO

Over the years there’s been a huge increase in the number of agencies and the competition for SEO work. Sometimes it feels like brands just switch between a series of 4 or 5 agencies, so if you want to break into that market then you need to know how to sell yourself.

Here I’ll talk through the typical sales process we see and top tips for improving your success rate if you’re not comfortable pitching yet.

The Pitch Process

Once you know what people want to buy, the next step is understanding how they do it. The most common process we see happening time and time again is:

  1. Enquiry/Cold Call
  2. Needs Discovery
  3. Initial Pitch
  4. Follow-Up
  5. Kicking off the Project

For each stage here there are specific considerations to be made. Briefly, here are some of the most common points where the process can breakdown.

Enquiry – If you contacted the client directly or if they approached you, the initial enquiry is when you can immediately gauge their understanding of the topic and want they’re looking for. Occasionally an enquiry will ask for a ‘free audit’ or ‘strategy example’ before the initial meeting. These ones tend to be someone looking for free work. From my perspective, this sets a precedent for devaluing your work all the way through the process so is not something I would do. A good client, and one you’d want to work with, will understand your objections to this and help find a compromise so don’t be afraid to explain why an initial enquiry may not be what you want.

Needs Discovery – Following the initial enquiry, it’s time to think about the additional information you need. Start your own prep process and the strategy you want to pitch, but also make sure you ask the client for their information. Find out agencies they’ve worked with in the past, and why it didn’t work out. Understand their interest in a new agency, and what it is they’re hoping to achieve. This is an opportunity to really tailor your pitch to suit the client so is the most important part prior to meeting them.

Initial Pitch – For this, it’s all about sending the right people and covering the right information. It’s a huge topic so I’ll go into more detail on it shortly.

Follow-Up – Regardless of how the pitch went, it’s important to know how to follow up and when. If you’re pitching in the afternoon, then make sure you send the client through the presentation and any additional information the next day. Ask them when they’ll have had time to review and discuss with their team, and when they’ll be seeing other agencies then follow up again to see how this process is progressing. If you go quiet, you risk being forgotten. If you message/call every day, you risk being an annoyance. The best thing to do is to chase your sales leads in the same way you would a client who is not doing their side of the work. This will get the potential client to understand how you normally work and start the project as you mean to go on.

Kicking off the Project – It is an instant red flag to a client if the person who sold to them then disappears off the project. Try to ensure those who will be working on the project are involved early in the process, but if it’s not possible then at least make sure the sales representative stays involved for the initial months of the project. These processes can go on for some time which means often a good relationship is developed between the individuals involved, this will give them an advantage in getting the client to implement work and cooperate with timelines for feedback.

signing contract

Who’s Doing the Selling?

It can be difficult to know who to send to a pitch; not only do you want to send the most suitable people for the client, but also ensure that those on your team have good chemistry too. You need a pitching team that compliment each other, demonstrate each others’ strengths and cover for their weaknesses. You also need to decide if you’re going to build a sales team or let the account managers & SEO specialists doing the selling themselves.

The Death of the Sales Team

They say that knowledge is power, but inversely, a small amount of knowledge quite often is more dangerous. In various roles I’ve held, I’ve worked with some amazing sales people – they take the time to learn the product, they understand when to step back and the limit of their knowledge and they’re charismatic.

Often there’s conflict between the delivery team and the sales team, though. There’s a risk that the sales guys may over-promise or mis-sell a detail of the delivery team’s work. Meanwhile, those who have qualified to be the experts in the delivery will be fiercely protective of the work that they do and how it is described. Hearing someone misrepresent that to a potential client – whether that’s through the results they describe or an explanation of the process – can instantly taint a whole project. As a result, I’m a strong advocate of letting the specialists doing the work sell (with the support of an experienced sales team member if necessary).

Letting the Specialists Sell

Whilst there are some incredible people in the digital industry, it would be fair to say that expecting individuals to be fantastic at technical, creatively brilliant and also know how to make a human connection and be able to sell the product is a little unreasonable. The skills and characteristics required to become a specialist with a high attention to detail in technical SEO is often very different to those to be a good salesperson.

Currently, I’m involved in the majority of pitches we do as an agency and was in my previous role too. We have a relatively high success rate for signing new clients and being able to make a connection in those face-to-face pitches. But it doesn’t come naturally. Socially awkward and nervous around new people, I am 100 times more comfortable behind a screen so it seems an odd juxtaposition that I’m the one who spends so much of my time in these meetings. However, there are ways around this and some simple processes to make yourself perform so much better – here are my top 3 tips.

3 Steps to Improve your Pitching

Step 1: Get out of your head & re-approach
If you aren’t confident in a ‘hard sell’ environment, especially with a group of new people then you need to think about the entire experience in a different way. View the meeting as a training opportunity instead. Each time you walk into a pitch, you’re educating the potential clients on your approach to SEO and how you think your strategy could support their site. Most of us will be used to taking internal training sessions and even teaching others outside our businesses in how to deliver SEO. Instead of feeling the pressure to sell and make the client sign, focus on making them understand what you’re saying and believe in your expertise.

Viewing each meeting and pitch as an education piece instead will shift the emphasise to your own knowledge and skills, rather than being in an uncomfortable environment.

Thinking

Step 2: Know who you are as well as what you sell
Whether you’re selling as a freelancer or as an agency, it’s indisputable that you need to know the finer details of what you’re selling – but possibly more important to that is knowing who you are. My favourite book, The Human Brand, talks about how we build relationships with brands the same way we do with other people. That means you need to know the personality traits and characteristics of the brand you represent as a person too.

Some agencies pride themselves on being the smartest people in the room, so pitching needs to focus on the details and demonstrating that extra piece of knowledge. Others want to be the relatable friend to their clients, ensuring that the client feels secure working with you. Whatever your persona as an agency is, you need to demonstrate that throughout the entire sales process.

This also helps if you’re less confident in the pitching environment, realising that you’re trying to get buy-in for the business and the business’ personality. Separating out your own personality to that of the business will help you to take the whole process less personally. It’s easier to be more resilient to pitching, and the inevitable ones you do not win if you understand that it is related to the chemistry with the agency, not the individuals.

Step 3: Prepare, prepare, prepare
The final element is to prepare as much as possible- there is no such thing as over-preparing when it comes to a pitch. Make sure you prepare the information that you want to portray, find ways to visualise the story you are trying to tell and put together detailed slides. Add more information into the notes if you’re the type of person who might go blank.

To feel extra confident, also do research on the individuals who will be in the room. How long have they been with the company? Are they passionate about the sector or just want to work in marketing in general? Do they have social profiles & how do they come across? Not only will this help you gauge the depth you should talk to them in, but it will also support you in finding ways to relate. Never fake a common interest, but understanding what makes the people in the room tick will ensure you don’t put your foot in it and help you to be more prepared walking into the meeting.

Final Thoughts

To conclude, we can see that the way in which SEO is sold has significantly changed over the years. Gone are the days where ‘5 links a month and page 1 rankings’ will work to get clients to buy-in. As agencies have been around for longer and have a clearer definition of themselves, the way we sell needs to change to include this. Knowing your USPs and what makes you stand out as an agency will support you throughout the sales process in finding the right brands to work with. It’s important to understand that that also means sometimes a client simply won’t be the right fit – it can be better for your agency-wellbeing as a whole to say no to the ones which don’t align with your brand.

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Hannah Thorpe

About Hannah Thorpe

Hannah Thorpe is a Director at White.net, with 3 years’ experience in content marketing and technical SEO so far. White.net is a digital marketing agency which works across SEO, PPC, Content Marketing and Digital PR.

  • studiumcirclus

    I think this is a great guide to selling SEO or any intangible (invisible) service based product, to be honest. Like you Hannah I do not gravitate towards a sales-esque role but on the other hand, that can be exactly what makes me very effective at selling my own work. The soft-sell, the honest sell, is MUCH underrated. Besides I have really pushed myself in that area. I have actually given a presentation (along with the ex head of PPC of my company) on paid / organic search synergies at one of Google’s many HQs in London. It wasn’t their event though, we just put it on there. Still: lots of people came up to talk to me afterwards. It was really good, it helped me to grow as a person. There are two types of people, those who will accelerate towards new challenges and rise to them, who want to be ‘good at all’. There are also those who will outwardly reflect that this is their desire, yet reflect in their every action and fall-back that really, they just want to be comfortable. SEO pays pretty well these days, a lot of us are doing well for ourselves. I think it’s our obligation to do the best job we can in all areas of agency / in-house life, rather than wussing out. I am glad that you are pushing people to make the most of themselves, we need a lot MORE of that attitude in this industry (sadly it’s often distinctly lacking)