What Are the Common Reasons Clients Leave Their SEO Agency?
As an SEO agency, you’re going to thrive on client retention. The cost of acquiring a new client is far more than simply retaining one who’s already under contract with you, not to mention it’s logistically simpler to keep your current client base on board than it is to try and adapt to a new company on a regular basis.
The threat of a client leaving is ever-present, regardless of how good your products or services are. Sometimes, it will stem from a slow decline, and sometimes, it will come from out of the blue. Either way, it can range from annoying to devastating, and it will take your agency considerable time and effort to fully recover.
If you want to prevent this scenario, or mitigate it as much as possible, you have to understand why clients might leave you in the first place, and work proactively to prevent those motivations from ever fully forming.
Who’s to Blame?
The first step is to realize that, even though some clients may be difficult to work with or naturally predisposed to leave, the vast majority of client departures are preventable. Even tough, unpredictable situations, such as new ownership taking over your client’s company, can at least be mitigated if you know how to address their potential concerns.
This consideration is all about accountability. You, and by extension your team, need to take it upon yourselves to do whatever it takes to keep your clients on board or else take responsibility when they leave.
With that accountability in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most significant reasons clients leave SEO agencies—and what you can do to prevent those departures.
Unmet Promises and Expectations
The first, and oftentimes the biggest motivation for leaving is some kind of unmet promise or expectation in your service. On a large scale, such as not being able to deliver the results of a year-long campaign you were promising the whole time, this could fracture your partnership in one incident. However, in most cases, it takes repeated incidents before it escalates to a breaking point. For example, you may not deliver a content draft on time, then fail to meet reporting expectations, etc., until the client starts to doubt you.
Unmet promises and expectations are destructive for three reasons:
- It spurs a “let down” feeling. First, and perhaps most obviously, an incident like this leaves your client with a negative feeling. Negative feelings have consequences, especially when compounded over time. You need your clients to stay feeling good about you.
- It demonstrates a performance failure. Even if you tried hard and got great results, if those results are less than what you originally promised (or what the client expected), it’s still going to be an indication that you aren’t able to perform as well as you “should” be able to.
- It compromises your trust. This is especially true for unmet promises specifically; if you’re unable to deliver on this promise, that probably means you’re unable to deliver on your future promises. That fractured trust is hard to repair.
This is all about perspective; if you set better expectations, you’re going to have happier clients.
(Image Source: Psychology Today)
There are two approaches to keep in mind here, and both of them have to do with communication. The first addresses unmet expectations; oftentimes your client will form an expectation of how a campaign will go, or of what you’re able to accomplish, without any real grounding in fact. This is unfortunate, but entirely preventable. You have to go the extra mile to make sure your client is informed, completely, up front if you want their expectations to be reasonable. Assume they have unrealistic expectations, and work to correct them back to reality by leaving no detail unexplored.
The second approach has more to do with the unmet promises side of things. The solution here is very simple, and can be explained with a common piece of advice, to “under-promise and over-deliver.” The concept is simple; always promise less than you think you’ll be able to achieve, either with a more flexible deadline, a weaker product, or a smaller quantity, then execute more than you said you would. It gives you more wiggle room in case things go wrong, and make you seem like a superstar if things go right.
Unaligned Goals and Vision
Partnerships are tricky things, in the business world as they are in personal relationships. You have two different entities, with different worldviews, expectations, and approaches, trying to work together for a common cause. Your agency has a certain way of doing things, a certain idea of what your client’s business is, and a certain strategy for execution—all this may be relatively accurate, and a solid plan of attack to achieve your baseline goals, but do all these factors align with your client’s ideals, or the vision in their head?
If you seriously depart from the image your client has of themselves, and of their vision of how things will play out, they won’t want to work with you. They may feel like you aren’t listening to them, or that you don’t really “know” them, or even worse, that you’re misrepresenting their brand. Brand consistency is everything, and is why the most popular brands in the world have achieved the position they have:
(Image Source: North Star Marketing)
If there’s a serious discrepancy between you and your client in terms of goals, vision, or even basic understanding of their products and services, there may not be a chance for recovery.
Some of these problems are easy to prevent, but others are more complex. Let’s take them one at a time:
- Misunderstanding the client’s brand. The solution to this is simple—spend more time up front getting to know your client well, and learning their brand inside and out. This isn’t always a fun process, but it is a necessary one if you want to maintain a healthy relationship.
- Setting different goals. This one’s a little harder, because there’s room for more of a discrepancy. What happens if the goals you want to set for your client are different from the goals they want to set, or have set internally? Communication is the key to correcting these potential discrepancies; explain your motivations early on in the process, and work together to find goals you can both agree on.
- Using a different strategy than what the client had in mind. This is almost always the product of a simple miscommunication. Either you weren’t up front about the strategies you were going to use or the client simply didn’t understand them—in either case, proactive and detailed communication (and working agreements) prevent this problem from occurring.
If you can work around these three main facets—brand identity, goals, and strategy—and find yourself in alignment with your client, you should be able to avoid this potential departure point.
No Proof of Results
The first two departure points I covered were more on the emotional and relationship side of things; this one is more of a logical dispute. As an SEO and/or content marketing agency, you’re going to live or die by your results. Clients are paying you as an investment, expecting to see some measurable and positive return on investment. If they end up paying you more money than they’re making back, you can’t blame them for wanting to leave.
There are two big potential problems here. The first is that you haven’t produced any meaningful results, and is a sign that something is wrong with your approach as an agency. This is rare, as most agencies that don’t know what they’re doing end up collapsing before they get too far into the process.
What’s more common is that agencies don’t know how to report their performance in a way that’s meaningful to their clients, and that proves, somewhat objectively, that they’re getting a return on their investment. This is a shame, because we have access to hundreds of tools, many of them free, that give us all the data we need to make our case:
I’ve written an extensive post on this subject, covering the 11 most important metrics for agencies to report, so I won’t get too into the details here. But I do want to cover some important principles in metric reporting that you’ll need to keep in mind:
- Stay focused on the bottom-line value. Try your best to tie everything to bottom-line figures—numbers. Your efforts brought your client 1,000 new visitors this month, but what does that translate to? What is the value of each of those visitors? Your clients need to see dollar values here or it won’t make logical sense to them.
- Be consistent. Try to maintain the same reporting styles and formats, and maintain your focus on the same group of metrics. This will help your clients track your progress more accurately and have a better understanding of the work you’ve done over time.
- Find as much value as you can. Don’t be afraid to turn over some rocks to find additional values your agency provides. For example, brand visibility is hard to measure, but don’t rule it out as a monetary benefit of your services.
With these fundamentals, and of course, with your reporting the right metrics in the first place, you should have no trouble proving your value objectively.
Lack of Communication
Though some of the earlier motivations do have elements of communication breakdown, a general “lack” of communication can also be destructive in your client relationships. Everything else could be going well—you might be seeing great results, be perfectly aligned in terms of goals and visions, but if you aren’t communicating frequently or effectively enough, your client isn’t going to remain satisfied.
There are a handful of potential communication problems, all of which are damaging:
- Infrequent communication. You aren’t talking to your client enough. It’s tempting to go longer periods without communicating because SEO and content marketing are such long-term strategies, but if your brand doesn’t stay top-of-mind, it may seem like you aren’t doing anything at all.
- Irregular communication. Just as bad as infrequent communication is irregular communication, in which case your updates are sent at unpredictable intervals; for example, you might send your monthly report on different days, or your conference call meetings may be inconsistent.
- Reactive communication. Reactive is the opposite of proactive. With this problem, you’ll only communicate when prompted, or you’ll only address a potential problem after it’s already started to develop.
- Incomplete communication. You may be leaving out details, or you may not be providing enough information for the client to be satisfied.
- Inefficient communication. This is what happens when you use the wrong mediums, speak incoherently, or otherwise compromise the integrity of your message.
Unfortunately, there’s no single solution for this. You just have to become a better communicator.
There are a handful of strategies you can use to make this easier on you, inspired by the root problems I mentioned above:
- Set up a regular schedule, and stick to it. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do this, but you and your client should agree on some kind of regular meeting, like a weekly conference call or monthly in-person meeting. Once established, don’t break this schedule, and reach out in between meetings for periodic check-ins to stay top-of-mind.
- Be proactive and transparent. These two concepts go hand-in-hand for marketing agencies. If there’s a potential problem developing, don’t try to hide it; come out and say what’s on the horizon, even if it’s bad. Transparency will earn you more trust, and you’ll never have to backpedal with reactive communication.
- Communicate completely and efficiently. This is a hard skill to learn by force, but you’ll need it if you want to keep your clients happy. Be as thorough as possible, and always think carefully about your formatting.
- Include an interactive element. It helps to get your client as hands-on as possible with your strategy. It helps them feel like they’re an active part of the process. This could include walking them through their report documents or meeting them in person.
(Image Source: My Site Auditor)
There are a few types of financial strain, and none of them are good for your business relationship.
First, your client may be struggling to maintain sufficient revenue, regardless of how well your marketing strategy is working—sometimes, industries go through slow periods. Whatever the case, the company is facing budget cuts across the board, and unfortunately, marketing and advertising expenditures are usually the first to go. Your client will tell you they can no longer afford your services, at least as a temporary measure, and there isn’t much you can say in response; this isn’t debatable, and you have no control over your client’s revenue beyond your current efforts.
Second, your client may feel pressure to reallocate their budget to different strategies; for example, they may decide to pull money away from SEO and content marketing and put it into a more traditional form of advertising like billboards.
Again, it’s hard to argue with financial concerns. Budget constraints are very real, and unless you can come up with the money for them to spend on you, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince them to continue.
There are two paths you can take here, however, especially if your client is merely considering allocation, or isn’t in any dire straits. The first is to convince them of the power of marketing as an investment tool, rather than an expenditure. It’s an important distinction you’ll need to illustrate if you want your client to continue working with you. An expenditure is a mere cost—an item to include on your outgoing cost sheet—but an investment is a tangible, semi-permanent asset that will return value to you over time. Every dollar they spend with you should earn them more than a dollar in return; this is why so many big businesses invest so much in their marketing and advertising campaigns. It’s because they know its tremendous potential return.
(Image Source: VTL Design)
Just keep in mind this strategy only works if you’re consistently proving your value.
The second option is to work out some kind of compromise. For example, you may be willing to lower the cost of your services as a special accommodation if your client has been around for a long time and you’re looking to repay their loyalty. You may also cut away certain services, offering a smaller package until they can figure out what to do next.
Doubt of Expertise
Your client doesn’t want to work with just any marketing agency; they want to work with a thought leader in the industry, who has a reasonable level of expertise in this niche. If you come across as unknowledgeable, or if you aren’t consistently working to make your client’s campaign better, your client may lose interest and seek a competitor who can offer those things.
There are a few fundamental areas where this can apply:
- Not knowing the market. If you seem unfamiliar with key challenges or norms of the industry, your client will start losing faith in your ability to perform.
- Not offering the latest. SEO and content marketing are areas that change frequently. If your client catches wind of a new strategy that you aren’t using, or if they’re told one of your existing strategies is obsolete, they may lose trust in your judgment and seek help elsewhere.
- Reputation and thought leadership. Though some clients won’t care much where you stand in the broader world of online marketing, some will leave if they find out you don’t have a reputation, or at least some measure of authority that outside sources recognize.
There are a handful of strategies to help you overcome these obstacles:
- Make lots of new suggestions. Come up with ways to make your client’s strategy better, all the time. Suggest taking out strategies that aren’t working and putting in new strategies that ride on the latest trends. It shows your investment in the client, your proactivity, and how up-to-date you are with industry norms.
- Seek more information. You want all your team members to be as well informed as possible, but if any of them get stuck with a tough question, take a step back. Tell the client you’ll get back to them, then research the answer thoroughly rather than giving a fake or misleading response. Beyond that, stay educated and keep reading the latest news in the industry.
- Bolster your reputation. The best ways to do this are through external guest posts on high authorities, engagements with influencers, and of course, regular activity on social media.
These “main” reasons aren’t the only ones that can affect a client’s potential departure—they’re just some of the most common and preventable. Consider also these peripheral reasons:
- Personnel changes. Your client may grow accustomed to the account manager you have on your team, especially if it’s usually a one-on-one conversation. On one hand, this is a good thing—it means your vendor-client relationship is stronger and more personal, which makes it harder for clients to leave during their tenure. But what happens when your account manager decides to leave your company? Or when they’re transferred to another department and are no longer able to handle responsibilities? Your client may be tempted to leave. Your best course of action here is to be proactive—recognize the strength of the relationship, acknowledge the difficulty of transition, and find an equally amiable account manager to bring in as a replacement.
- New management. Personnel shifts can happen on the other side of the fence, too. For example, your client’s company may be taken over by new management, or your main contact may leave and be replaced. Whatever the transition is, new decision makers have been put in charge of managing your relationship, and they may decide that the partnership is no longer valuable. Assuming you’ve done an exemplary job so far, the new decision maker won’t have a reason to get rid of you—but they still might not have all the necessary information. Get in front of the problem proactively by acknowledging their authority, expressing gratitude for their continued business, and making yourself transparent and available for any questions or requests they might have for your partnership.
- Competition. Don’t forget that you aren’t the only company in the world that offers your unique lineup of marketing services. What happens if a new competitor comes along, offering a nearly identical package for a lower price? Your first hurdle here is to find out what’s actually happening. If you’ve built a good rapport with your client, they’ll likely explain the situation to you and give you a chance to respond. At that point, you’ll either have to justify your cost basis or lower your prices if the client is worth retaining—the cost-benefit analysis is solely on you, since every situation will be different. You may also bring up your thought leadership and unique differentiators here. If your client doesn’t explain the situation to you, you might not get the chance to fight for their continued business—and it’s out of your hands at that point.
- Internalizing. Since marketing and advertising is a departmental niche, there’s a chance your client may withdraw their patronage to bring the work in-house. They may have hired some new specialists to handle the work in order to cancel their subscription services with you. If they’ve already made the move, there isn’t anything you can do, but if they’re thinking about the transition, you have a chance. Your position should be to demonstrate, as objectively as possible, the financial and strategic advantages of continuing to work with an agency—better access to experts and cost efficiency are key angles to play up.
You may find other strange or rare motivations for departure as well, but these are some of the most common reasons aside from the pillars I outlined in the main section.
If a client has signed up for your services, it’s clear they already trust you on some level and see enough value in your offers to go through with the deal. With that established, the only things that can damage your relationship are missteps, which are almost entirely preventable. This isn’t to say that you should have a 100 percent client retention rate—I don’t think anyone does—but with the right acknowledgements and strategies in place, you can maximize your client retention and satisfaction, and keep your company operating profitably for the foreseeable future.
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