I used to be a salesman.
I loved it.
Now, before the angry mob gets me, I was only selling services of my own company (not sure if that makes any difference but just thought I’d mention). And yes, I loved it, every aspect of the process. From prospecting, qualifying to making initial contact, presenting and closing the deal. I was good at it. Hell, I even wrote a book about it.
But I am not sure if I’d even try to sell SEO services today.
There are some fundamental challenges facing anyone trying to pitch SEO to clients. From the industry itself, being so very much oversaturated, causing some fundamental problems with quality, price and deliverability to the absolutely surreal situation with Google updates and penalties, sweeping clients right left and centre and by far, not helping with how potential clients perceive our profession.
The definition of SEO has become more blurred recently. Are we still positioning in search engines, aiding the sales teams or compliment branding strategies of the company? I am the opponent of the latter, if you ask me.
Let’s not forget our performance. Can you actually guarantee anything to your prospects? That’s what they are looking for, a solid guarantee that they will get something for their money. But what can you really tell them?
I am not sure how other sales people do it but given all of the above, I would be quite intimidated having to sell SEO services to anyone.
Yet, as an experiment I decided to pretend that I do and come up with some ideas of how I would approach it.
The Sales Process
But before I go any further, I just wanted to talk briefly about a sales process itself and how does it look like for a typical company.
A sales process is simply a set of steps a sales person takes to identify, approach a prospect and convert them into a client. Companies develop their own processes, however there are certain steps that are characteristic to all of them:
Prospecting -That’s the step in which a sales person identifies individual people or groups that might be interested in products he or she sells or services delivers.
Qualification – Those prospects need to be qualified to establish if they are worth pursuing further in the sales process. Not every prospect makes a good client, yet every requires a substantial investment in time and other resources. It is highly crucial then for every sales person to pursue only those opportunities that present the ability to turn into a sale.
Initial Contact – With a list of qualified prospects, a salesman will attempt to make initial contact with them. This is usually done through cold calling, email cold calling or networking. The goal for this step is to move the prospect further down in the sales process to a meeting / presentation stage.
Sales Presentation – That’s the part of the process during which a sales person or a representative of a company has a chance to meet with prospect and present the company to them. This is when the direct selling takes place.
Proposal – A successful sales presentation is usually followed by a proposal, outlining all the terms and conditions agreed during the meeting.
Negotiation – Not always the case but occasionally, prospects want to renegotiated the agreed terms.
Closing the Deal – The big step, this is when the prospect signs the dotted line.
Follow Up – No sales ends with a contract being signed. In fact, one of the most important processes starts right after the event. A follow up is a way for a sales person to ensure the prospect that they have made the right choice.
Sales process is one of the most crucial aspects of any companys operations, regarding how big or small it is. Thanks to those steps the company enjoys a new influx of clients and work.
So, to apply this now to selling SEO…
How I Would Try to Sell SEO Services Today
SEO is not for every business. It might have been different in the past (although I don’t think so). Today though there are some criteria a business should pass in order to be even considered a prospect.
Apart from my usual prospecting criteria (company size, revenue, industry their are in etc.), when seeking potential companies to approach with SEO services I would try to also look at the following:
What other marketing strategies they already have in place
Both online and off.
This will reveal what is their approach to promoting a business. If they don’t have anything marketing activities at all, or rely on accidental customers, chances are that they will consider SEO as the main force to expand their business through. This might not be the safest client to work with.
What is their growth engine
Every business needs a growth engine. That’s what fuels it’s expansion. It can be PPC, offline marketing or many other things. SEO was often used for that purpose in the past. These days, I believe that organic traffic is too unpredictable to build your entire business promotion on it.
Another reason to understand why knowing their growth engine might help with prospecting is the fact that SEO will most likely have to work in tandem with it.
Deep understanding of the internet processes
This pretty much ties in with the two above, a potential clients would need to understand how online marketing works. Now, I wouldn’t expect them to know the ins and outs of our profession but a knowledge big enough to allow them to trust the marketer they are going to hire would be essential.
Why would I prospect so ruthlessly here? Well, that’s a lesson I learnt from those few years of selling. One of the most important of your assets in sales is your time. And believe me, in sales it is scarce. You have to invest a lot of it in every prospect and thus, it is hugely important that you go after only those that have actually a potential to convert into paying clients.
In my old days of selling, I would qualify prospects using 3 criteria:
They had to have a problem my services are solving,
the money to pay me and,
the person I was talking to had to have the power to say yes.
These days though I feel this wouldn’t be enough. If I was to go out there an d sell today, my list would look more like this:
They had to have the problem my services are solving
They can afford my services
They are willing to be in it for a long time (6 months minimum)
They are willing to cooperate fully from the start – the amount of agencies that complain about clients not implementing their advice is astonishing.
How to find all this out? Well, here’s the catch, you really can’t. Sometimes you just have to guess based on your previous experience and the reaserch you can do on the prospect.
One of the key aspects of selling services is to clearly define what’s going to be delivered. After all, you need to be fully aware what you are selling before you begin, right? Rankings still matter, and not only as a representation of where your site is in search but also, since the famous (no provided) change, what keywords offer the immediate potential to attract visitors to the site.
With the uncertainty of SEO today and its changed role, defining the outcome of your work, and thus what you are really selling is challenging.
I would probably be very specific in terms of the role my services would play in the overall company’s marketing mix, how I would compliment it and to what result.
With deliverables so intangible and a lack of promisable results these days, providing timeliness might prove to be quite a challenge. Therefore, if I was to negotiate contracts with customers today, I’d rather focus on defining tasks, rather than outcomes and base my timelines on those.
Those defined tasks would include:
exact number of links built per month
exact number of articles posted
exact number of other, defined content types created
and so on, I am sure you know the drill.
OK, did I miss something? Or perhaps I am completely wrong in my approach? Perhaps selling SEO is not as hard as I see it? What are your thoughts on this?
Creative commons photo by Niels van Reijmersdal