As much as I love learning new SEO skills, in the last two years I’ve become more and more interested in what I’d call consulting skills. I learnt a while ago that whilst you can know everything about SEO, it doesn’t mean anything if nothing ever gets done.
This is where additional, non-SEO skills come into play and can make a big difference to the effectiveness of your work. Yes you need to know your stuff when making recommendations for clients, however there is a huge difference between knowing how to do SEO and getting SEO done. I’m hoping to bridge that gap a little with this blog post.
The Typical Consultant Career Path
I want to start by going back to basics a little and sharing some diagrams that I presented to my colleagues at Distilled a few weeks ago. The following are the broad steps in the career of a consultant.
1. You’re not close to clients and you’re not close to problems
We’ve all been here. This is where you are when you’re a total noob and you don’t know much at all. You’re not close to problems because you don’t know how to fix them yet and you’re not allowed anywhere near clients because you haven’t got any experience.
2. You’re close to problems but you’re still not close to clients
Here you’ve spent some time learning new skills and you now know how to solve problems such as fixing technical issues or doing keyword research. However you’re still not experienced enough to be totally client facing and may just attend a few meetings but not lead projects.
3. You’re close to clients and leading projects but delegate the problem solving
Here you’ve become a lot more experienced at solving problems. You’re so good that you now lead your own projects and work closely with clients. However you have a team of less-experienced people around you who you delegate work to so that you can focus on things like strategy and spending time with clients.
This isn’t the end of the world and I’ve followed this path myself, however I’d suggest that there is a better route.
Here you are close to the problems and close to the client
In this case, you’re an effective consultant because not only are you close to the problems, but you’re close to the client. These two are linked very tightly because to get problems solved in a timely manner, you need to be close to the client so that they do what you want.
How To Become An Effective Consultant
I’m not going to lie, I have made a bunch of mistakes over the last few years. I’ve learnt a lot along the way and I still have a long way to go, but I think I can share a few tips and ideas for taking steps towards becoming an effective consultant that I want to share here.
Fundamentally, it comes down to the following steps:
- Get close to the client
- Deliver change, not documents
- Structure documents correctly
- Understand perceived value
I want to go through some practical tips for each of these so that you have some takeaways that you can hopefully use on your own clients.
Get Close To The Client
By this, I mean getting close to them so that you know exactly how to work with them and get things done. Everyone is different and everyone has different triggers that get them excited and make them more likely to do something or sign something off. When you get close to clients and learn more about them, you understand what these triggers are, what internal problems they have to overcome and how to get stuff done.
Find out what type of person they are – analytical or emotional
Even though most of us will have traits that cover both of these, broadly speaking, you can bucket people into being either analytical or emotional. Once you discover which one they fit into, you can shape the way you work to cater to their traits.
Here are a few character traits of each type of person:
When you take note of these traits, you can easily see how you’d change the way you deal with that person and try to get things done. For example, if you’re pitching a big vision for the future of the website to an analytical person, you need to backup what you’re saying with data. If you’re pitching to an emotional person, you can play on their ego and pitch the big vision for the website as being a way to dominate their industry.
Arrange meetings for 11am or 4pm
If you arrange a meeting with a client for 11am, take them for lunch straight afterwards. If you arrange it for 4pm, take them for a beer after work. This time spent with them out of the office can be invaluable to getting to know them because people are so much open when you get them out of the office environment. I once took a difficult client for a beer to discuss the project and how I was really frustrated with not getting stuff done, it turned out that the client shared my frustrations and it was actually the people above them who were causing the problems. So from then on-wards, I focused on trying to help him pitch internally to get stuff done – rather than thinking it was him who was the problem. Yes we still struggled, but our relationship improved massively and it became a much nicer project for both of us.
Pick up the phone
I hate using the phone, I’d much rather email or text someone. I’d actually rather commute across London and speak to a client face to face than pick up the phone.
I had to get over this thanks to my old boss who made me pick up the phone to clients at least once a week. The effect on client relationships was huge and even though I still hate using the phone, I understand it’s value massively. Just randomly picking up the phone and making an unscheduled call to a client can have massive value for them – even if it doesn’t feel very valuable to you. I’ll talk a little more shortly about perceived value but essentially, just letting clients know that you’re thinking about them can have a great impact and means they don’t always have to be the ones who call you.
Work from their office and sit in on meetings
This is probably my favourite (apart from taking clients for a beer or three). Spending some time working in a clients office can also add a huge amount of value to them. You don’t even have to be working on their project the whole time, you can do other client stuff too. But just making yourself readily available and putting your face to your name for the wider team is a huge win.
I used to do this for a London based client where I was providing technical support. I’d go to the weekly planning meeting where tasks would be given to the developers and then stick around for a few hours so that the developers could come over and ask me questions about the SEO tasks and allow them to get them done as soon as possible. This led to a bunch of SEO tasks being done within a week that had previously been sitting around for a few weeks.
Another benefit from this is that you can directly observe the culture that your client has and overhear conversations. This is another way of getting to know how to get stuff done. You can pick upon the little dynamics that happen and get a good idea for how things work.
Deliver Change, Not Documents
Whilst delivering documents is a natural part of what we do, I don’t feel that delivering a document to a client is a sign that our job is done. I know that there are different opinions on this, but I feel that a client is paying us to change something in their company. Let’s look at a common example.
Client x comes to you and asks for your help in improving their website because it has various technical problems that they believe are holding it back in organic search.
The standard response would be – you need a technical site audit.
I’d agree with that, sounds logical. However I feel that a mistake is made at this point and we can often take the decision that in order to help this client, we need to deliver a huge document that lists a bunch of technical problems and how to fix them. It could be 50, 75, 100+ pages long and go into all sorts of detail.
Who is going to sit there and read a 50 page document?
Some clients will, most won’t. Some clients will want this in order to feel like they’ve got value for money.
What I’d propose instead is to spend some time reviewing your clients website and pick the top five things that, if fixed, could have a positive impact on their business. A good technical SEO will be able to spot the biggest problems with a website in less than an hour. I sometimes get nervous because I tend to find if I haven’t spotted anything big in the first fifteen minutes, I’m probably not going to find anything big!
From here, I’d suggest sending a quick email to the client outlining these problems and then picking up the phone to ask them about them. You may find that they already know about a couple of them and there is a reason that it can’t be fixed or the developers have already scheduled in the time to make the fixes. Either way, you’ve probably just saved yourself a bunch of time and pre-delivered your findings to the client. So the next steps you take can focus on showing the client how to make the fixes instead of bombarding them with tons of small problems.
By taking this approach, the changes you recommend are far more likely to get done that if you mixed them in with twenty other problems in a fifty page document. Sure these other things may also need fixing, but by focusing on the top five problems, you’re making the most impact and actually effecting change. As opposed to sending over a huge document that doesn’t get read and no one ends up happy.
Do you even need a document?
I’m not going to argue that documents are not needed, they are and they can be very useful. But sometimes you need to ask the question of whether a document is the best way to effect change. Sometimes, an in person presentation may do the trick instead and you follow up with a five-page spec document instead. Other times you may just need to get in the same room as someone else and guide them towards the changes. I once delivered an entire project over a few emails, a few phone calls and Skype chats – no documents at all – and the client was happy. Remember that perceived value can be huge and don’t thing that delivering a huge document is the only way to show tangible value.
Ask yourself why you’re delivering this document – what is the desired effect or what is the action that you want the client to take as a result of reading it? Once you’ve done this, it is far easier to make a judgement call on whether a written document is the best way to effect change. Related to this, I’d recommend the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek which talks a lot about asking “why” and getting to the root of driving action in people and companies.
His Ted talk on the same topic is also well worth a watch:
Think big, but start small
We have this saying internally at Distilled and it has helped guide me on many occasions. The idea is that there is nothing wrong with thinking of big idea and getting clients to buy into them, but big ideas are hard to make happen. So break the big idea down into smaller steps and start there. Ask yourself what the first step is towards the big change and just focus on that. Then define the next small step and do that. Before you know it, you’ve made significant steps towards the big vision and not met as much resistance as you would have done by starting with the big idea first.
On this point, I’d highly recommend the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath who go into huge detail on effecting change. They are big evangelists of making the path towards change easy to follow and have loads of great tips on how to do this.
You need trust
Leading on from this, in order to make big changes to your clients website and business, they need to trust you. Even though they are paying you to be their consultant, don’t be fooled into thinking that this means they trust you 100%. You still need to earn their trust and starting small and getting small things done can go a long way towards doing this.
Understand client processes and work cycles
Another integral part of effecting change is understand how internal processes and sign off work for your client. This goes hand in hand with what we talked about earlier on getting close to clients. If you can get to know them well and find out what their internal processes look like, you can tailor your recommendations to fit within those processes which increase the chances of them being done.
For example, when it comes to development teams and their work cycles, some teams work on scrum and sprint methodology. This means that the development teams probably work in timeboxes, there tend to be anywhere from a week to a few weeks long. The work for a given timebox is planned out in advance and usually once a timebox starts, it is near impossible to add in new tasks unless they are absolutely critical.
What this means for you is that once a timebox has started, you have pretty much zero chance of getting your SEO tasks done. You may actually need to reserve time in a future timebox in order to stand a chance of getting them done. If you’re not close to the client and are unaware of this, it probably means you’ll be waiting a very long time for stuff to get done!
Structure Documents Correctly
As I mentioned earlier, documents are often needed in order to get stuff done. Therefore you want them to stand as much chance as possible of causing the desired change to happen. Here are some tips for structuring documents in order to do this.
Always include a short exec summary – and make it good
The point of an exec summary is to tell the reader everything they need to know. So even if they don’t read the rest of the document, they will know exactly what the core problems are and what the next steps / actions are.
I’d also suggest copying and pasting the exec summary into the email you send so that the client doesn’t even have to open the attachment in order to see the exec summary.
Don’t convince AND show in the same document
This is a big one for me and can potentially save you a bunch of wasted time.
If you’re pitching the client with a new idea, convince them that it is a good idea – then show write a spec document showing how they actually implement it. If you do both in the same document at the same time and they don’t like the idea, then you’ve wasted the time you spent showing them how to do the idea too.
Quality of the document
I learnt this the hard way. I made a mistake on a presentation slide once and the Marketing Director of the client company picked me up on it. Given that spelling and grammar mistakes were a pet peeve, my mistake really stuck with them. This pretty much rendered the next few slides useless because they’d lost trust in me – if I can’t do a spelling and grammar check, then why should they listen to me talk about big changes to their business?
The same goes for overall presentation – if fonts are inconsistent or images look low quality, the overall document will suffer, even if you’re presenting fantastic ideas. Remember that trust is everything and you need to do everything you can to earn that trust.
Put data / supplemental info in an Appendix
As part of your work, you’re probably going to capture a bunch of data that is relevant to the document. For example if you do some link analysis, you probably have loads of relevant information that the client may find useful. However remember the point of what you’re trying to do – effect change. Only include the numbers and information that let you do that. By all means include the rest of the information – but put it in an Appendix at the end of the document. This means that the client has the information if they need it and you’re backing up your findings – but it doesn’t distract from the core issues and recommendations.
Include an action item list
I recommend including a list of action items that relate to any document that you create. This makes it very clear what needs to be done and means that the action list becomes the focus of attention – not the document itself. Here is an example of how this may look, sorry I’ve had to blur these out as they were quite specific to this particular client!
This was well received by the developers who liked the simple approach and were happy with me providing extra support for them as they did these tasks. They had the technical audit to refer to if they needed, but essentially they could focus on ticking off these items. For some clients with more limited developer resources, I’ve also added extra columns for “Priority” and “Impact” which allow for better prioritisation of tasks.
It really isn’t all about knowing SEO, if you can start using some of the principles above alongside your SEO knowledge, you’ll not only get more stuff done but you’ll also end up with happier clients because they will see the change that is happening as a result of your work. As always, I’d love your feedback in the comments.