When the Client Is Wrong: How to Handle Difficult SEO Customers

The phrase “The customer is always right” gets bandied about so often in the business world that it’s practically accepted as a de facto, without question truth.  But in my opinion, this sentiment sets a dangerous precedent.  Really, no group of people is ever “always” right – and capitulating to the demands of an unreasonable customer can spell disaster for your business.

Of course, in most businesses, there’s a trade-off to be made between responding to client demands and doing what’s best for your company.  However, there’s no business rule that says you need to compromise your integrity or your company’s financial stability to accommodate excessive customer requests.

If you find yourself feeling stuck between the rock of a challenging customer and the hard place of potential negative rules, consider the following step-by-step process for handling challenging SEO clients:

1 – Prevent future issues by setting clear guidelines

When it comes to SEO projects, the old saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rings true.  The first step to handling difficult clients comes from setting clear expectations that prevent these disagreements from occurring in the first place.

At Single Grain, every new SEO client contact starts out with a proposal that details exactly what our service provides – as well as what it doesn’t.  Depending on the customer, we may also follow up this initial proposal with a presentation and/or kick-off call – all of which explicitly state what clients can expect from working with us and when they can expect to receive it.

And while there are a number of different reasons that we do this, one of the biggest motivators is that we’ve found that establishing clear guidelines from the beginning minimizes the risk that clients will be unsatisfied with the work we complete.  After all, if customers know what’s coming and when, the only thing they have to be upset about is the eventual result of the work – giving our team much more control over the situation.

Whenever possible, go the extra mile to let future customers know what they can expect from doing business with you.  Doing so prevents the confusion that can prevent an SEO project from being completed successfully.

2 – Get to the root of the problem

Unfortunately, no matter how clearly you lay out your guidelines and expectations for an SEO project, you’re bound to encounter dissatisfied customers – simply because people exist everywhere (the SEO industry included) who won’t be happy until you’ve bent over backwards to accommodate their every need.

For this reason, it’s imperative that SEO agencies and consultancies get in the habit of nipping client problems in the bud.  And since what customers say they’re upset about and what they’re actually mad about are often two very different things entirely, the best way to do that is to start by getting to the root of the problem.

When you encounter an upset SEO client, ask him to clearly state what he’s angry about.  Resist the urge to fire back with quips and asides that will only make the situation worse (you are a professional, right?), and ask probing questions when needed to clarify exactly what’s gone wrong within your relationship.  Eventually, you should be able to identify the root of the problem, which will help you to determine what potential solutions may be appropriate for your client.

3 – Put yourself in the client’s shoes

Now, even if you’ve been lucky enough to work with only top-notch SEO clients, chances are you’ve been involved in at least one “customer service gone wrong” situation before in your life.  As such, you know how frustrating it can be to have the force of right on your side – only to be continually pummeled by an angry customer seeking vengeance for some perceived misstep.

At the same time, though, you’ve probably been on the other side of the fence before as well.  You’ve likely had more than one experience where you’ve felt personally wronged by a transaction gone sour – and the company’s attempt at making things right probably played a big role in your current perception of the brand and your willingness to recommend them to others.

So while I’m not yet saying that you need to bend over backwards to please even the most frustrating of customers, what you absolutely must do is to keep your cool while interacting with SEO clients who believe they’ve been wronged.  By remaining calm – no matter how difficult – you’ll prevent an uncomfortable situation from escalating into something more challenging to resolve.

4 – Consider all your reparation options

Again, the common wisdom throughout the customer service industry is that you need to do whatever it takes to make the client happy – even if his demands are entirely unreasonable.  I don’t think that that should necessarily be the case in the field of SEO.

Here’s why…

SEO contracts aren’t trinkets that sell for $20 at any store around town.  Often, they’re business deals worth tens of thousands of dollars or more – which makes the stakes very high for both SEO agencies and their customers.

In these cases, giving away free perks to a customer who expects results that go above and beyond the guidelines clarified in both SEO proposals and contracts risks the financial stability of the SEO agency itself.  You wouldn’t walk into a car dealership and demand thousands of dollars in free labor because the car you bought there broke down unexpectedly (warranty issues, notwithstanding) – nor could the shop give these repairs away for free without risking its ability to pay its highly-trained workers.

Giving away excessive incentives to disgruntled customers also risks setting a precedent that gives future customers more leeway in challenging the results your agency provides.  Think about it…  If Company A makes a fuss, gets a month’s worth of free SEO work and then tells Companies B, C and D about how willing your agency was to offer this incentive, how likely do you think these future clients will be to experience issues of their own?

Maybe that’s a cynical view of the world to take, but it’s worth considering in today’s highly-competitive SEO field.

Of course, I’m not saying that you should bend over backwards to accommodate clients who are clearly in the wrong, just because they threaten bad publicity or negative recommendations.  Only you can decide where the right place to draw the line between remedying legitimate customer concerns and capitulating to excessive demands is for your business.

However, instead of cowering at the threat of bad reviews, consider carefully what impact either decision will have on your business’s reputation and future financial stability.  Take the time to lay out your expectations appropriately from the beginning, work with frustrated customers to identify the issues that are truly driving their anger and then take the action that’s right for your company – without allowing yourself to be swayed by clients who are clearly in the wrong.

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