How to Select the Most Rewarding Clients

Updated: April 17, 2023

As part of my Opportunities for 2016 and wanting to have a better quality of life, I have been going through my client roster and prospects, trying to find the optimal mix.  Complaining about a few of these wonderful clients, my wife reminded me having them was my own fault.  She further reminded me that I have solid selection criteria for clients and that I needed to be more diligent in using them.  I thought others might be able to use it as well, and writing about it would help reinforce my use of it.

Within a few months of forming Global Strategies, Andy, Jeremy, and I was facing a major challenge of more work than we could handle and needed to focus on which clients we wanted to work with and pitch until we could build a proper team and infrastructure.  Aggregating our respective individual clients, we had an assortment of global brands, large e-commerce sites, and a few smaller local companies as clients. We put them all on the whiteboard and tried to weigh them with the pros and cons of keeping them and also pitching the new opportunities.

It was hard to decide to drop a few of the companies, as these were our pet projects or companies we had worked with for several years.

I don’t remember all the details of the day but we had each of us check which client we wanted to keep/pitch and most importantly why. Once we had the final cut, I looked at why they were chosen, and they all magically had three key attributes. We summed them up as follows and in the following order.

  1. The project must be intellectually stimulating
  2. The project and client must be fun
  3. The project must be financially rewarding

Below I will try to define what we mean by each of the criteria

Intellectually Stimulating Projects

The project must excite me intellectually. If you need an audit or a garden variety SEO project, I am not the person for the job.  So what are intellectually stimulating projects?

Brain Teasers or Major Technical Challenges – this type of project is a more complex technical or rank-related problem. Often I am the 4th or 5th person they call and others have been unable to solve it.

Data Mining and Opportunity Analysis – This is my kryptonite – data challenges or data that does not make sense. The more complex the data project, the more I am typically interested in the project.

Global Expansion – This is another type of project I have difficulty turning down as it is my favorite scale project.  It often allows travel and exciting nuances and challenges.

On-Demand Crisis Management – I have a few clients that have me on speed dial, or as they call it “Bat Phone Ready” that call me when they need me.  They pay a premium for this service as I often have to drop what I am doing to focus on it. I always augment an in-house team or external agency.

Fun Projects and Clients

These are not clients that like to party but clients that respect my skill set and don’t suck as people. The goal is mutual trust and respect.  For the projects I work on I need to have grown-up conversations and often require a lot of time working with them.

What makes a not-fun project?

Clients that Don’t Listen – There is a big difference between disagreement, corporate policy, and not listening.  My approach is often vastly different than many in our industry.  If you hire me for that approach then you need to listen.  I don’t care what the latest greatest celebrity SEO posted – if you love them so much hire them.  If you hired me then listen to me. I always support all recommendations with facts, citations, or data.

Clients that have to be smarter than me – Not as bad as it sounds but if you hired me to be a Search Marketing Subject Matter Expert then let me be the expert. Clearly, if you or your team knew how to solve the problem then you would not need me. There are those people that unless a solution was their idea they are not open to it.

Bait and Switch Projects – This is where you tell me you need help and scope a project but once engage change the scope.  I had a client not long ago who wanted to do a strategic project but then later switched it to a fundamentals project.  While normally a simple project paid at a strategic rate is not a problem in this case they wanted me to do things that I did not think would work and resigned from the project.

Clients that Micromanage – When we agree on tasks and deadlines, let me do them.  You should not need to tell me what to do daily and treat me like one of your minions.

Projects that Require More Documentation than Effort – If I have to spend 60% of my time developing ppts, and having meetings to plan for meetings then that is not constructive.  I understand the challenges and I am not complaining that it takes 21 meetings to change a JavaScript. However, when we need to spend 7 hours changing the wording, formatting, and fonts in PPT for an executive meeting that is not an efficient use of my time. For one executive readout, there were 57 revisions to the presentation most were minor edits or removing things that might cause them to ask questions. In another case, I did not accept the project they expected me to do a 4-hour round trip drive three times a week during the project and expected that to be on my time. There was no need to be onsite other than for a few meetings.

Financially Rewarding Projects

Usually, this is my second criterion but I make some exceptions to “Non-Fun Clients” due to intellectual stimulation and financial reward – yes, I can be bought. The quickest way to the point here is – don’t be cheap.  If it is intellectually stimulating and a complex problem, most likely, it takes specific skills that most don’t have and that the market allows you to charge a premium for. I work in a niche where there are few people with extensive experience and I know most of them and none are cheap.

I don’t get a lot of requests for non-complex projects. I don’t even have a site that talks about general consulting, only data analysis, so that prevents many people from trying to engage me.  At conferences, I always give examples from large companies so they assume I am expensive and self-select.

I always get a laugh when I hear some of the “Celebrity Search Marketers” on stage brag that they are billing over $1,000 per hour for their time.  I am sure they have a few people that pay this, but it is typically blended into a project to hide the hourly rate.  I put my time in the “reasonably expensive category,”and the hourly vary based on a few factors.

The difficulty of the Challenge – this actually goes both ways. I charge more based on how much experience is needed – for example, when you come to me wanting to know how to get 10 billion URLs indexed or develop a global Searcher Interest Model from 30 million keywords – not many people have that experience.

The other is how cool or excited I get about a project – those where I am finding the needle in the haystack – finding out why 40% of my URLs are not indexed or why are underperforming in a few markets while dominating the rest excites me.  Also if the problem is one I had before or at a scale I have not worked with I am often willing to reduce my rate to try to solve it.

Friends and Family Discount – If I have worked with you and you are cool and bring me challenging things, I will cut a deal.  I have one person who has changed jobs five times in 15 years, and every time brings me a new cool project at his new company so he gets a great deal.

Duration of the Project – The longer the engagement, the better the deal. I like smaller engagements that pay well.  However, if there is a strategic six-month global project that is interesting to me and allows me to focus on something specific, and for that guaranteed income I am willing to adjust pricing.

People that have worked with me know I am fair with my pricing and tell me I should charge much more than I do. Although none of them ever want to pay more.  They know I don’t waste people’s time or sell them things they don’t need. Most of the time I want short-term engagements and don’t want to stay on to manage or maintain the project, which makes me more fair and impartial to the outcome.

As noted earlier, like most people, I can be bought. However, I rarely take on a project that is not intellectually stimulating, but I do sometimes take them where the client is a challenge.  I can sense how the relationship will go from the first conversation and especially once I review materials of what they are doing and/or have done.  If any of my alarms are tripped I add in one of the following “fee multipliers.”

Pain and Suffering Multiplier – this is when I know the project will be painful to work on and a major time suck.  I always add extra hours or increased the hourly rate to compensate for the challenges.

A$$hole Multiplier – This should be self-explanatory. This is often due to having to work with certain agencies.  If I leave the initial calls and am frustrated with trying to explain my process or how I would approach the problem, I typically apply this multiplier.  This is also added when my contacts are hard to work with, micromanagers, or just real assholes, but I want to work on the project anyways due to the complexity.

We Considered You Multiplier – this is completely punitive.  I have a few prospects that don’t like my approach, my personality, my rate, or that I often put demands on them in order for me to be successful.  In many cases, due to these attributes, they go to another consultant.  I have a fair number come back later wanting me to take on the project.  In some of these cases, I add in a multiplier because I have to work harder to convince them of my methods or clean up an even bigger mess after they have worked with someone else.

I don’t typically put it on the proposal. However, I did once for a project that I wanted to work on as a challenge to the client team and, most importantly, the agency was a collection of arrogant idiots and micro-managers that I added a line item with a block of hours labeled “Difficult Client Management Fee” to take into account the incremental work, stress, and possible therapy that might be required.  In the end, I had to add the time onto the main scope as the client did not think procurement would approve they understand why I added it which was cool in the end.

Repeat Clients at New Company

For the past few years, I have had a lot of business from people who have worked for me or have been a client move up the food chain to more senior roles beyond just search.  When they take on a new job as a VP or some as CMO’s they call me to come in and review the existing programs. They want to know what they are inheriting. They call me because I can be impartial since I will not be pitching to take over project management.

For most of these projects, they had met the criteria before so they tend to meet it a second time and are just cool people to work with. Unfortunately, when you start in any business, you cannot be as selective, but you can control who you pitch, the tone of the project, and the duration.  Not every project will be a mind-bender, make you rich or be a cool bunch of people to work for but if you can get at least 2 out of three the majority of the time you will have a winner.

Strays and Sad Stories

Every once in a while I meet someone that is like that frightened shivering stray at the pound.  They are great dogs but have not yet found the right home. These are business owners that are struggling with their search and digital problems.  In most cases, they have used the wrong developers, SEOs, and consultants.  It sickens me sometimes what people pass off as knowledge, especially when they find someone with a bit of money. It is worse with the paid search but not the place to rant.

This is one of the toughest clients to deal with as they often desperately try to save a failing business. They have often had half a dozen people that said they could help them but in many cases made things worse.  It is both emotionally exhausting as well as a time suck. It is tough to tell them they have been wasting money or have to restart the site or reverse thousands of dollars of link building.  That being said, since they are in need of help they are often the most willing to make the changes and if you are slightly successful they give you the keys to the kingdom to do great things for them and they become a very local source of referrals.

Divesting Unprofitable Clients

An article on picking new clients would not be complete without a quick discussion of firing them.  Similar to the meeting we had at GSI to decide who we wanted to work with, I had a similar one at Outrider.  At the time we also had too many clients. We did an analysis to see who was profitable and where we were losing money. Now, many agencies will lose money on a client as a loss leader to get a larger project, defend a core service, or to keep another agency from gaining a foothold.

In our case, we were getting complaints that we were not giving enough attention to most of our clients.  The obvious solution was to hire more people. When we ran the numbers most of the projected revenue would not cover the additional headcount as this needed to be more expensive people with better client management or strategic skills. The solution was to offload clients that were not very profitable.  We chose clients that there was no chance of increasing revenue, clients that were disproportionality needy, and as this was the peak of the dot com boom we used other criteria of potential to continue to pay.  We identified a number of clients that we thought were high maintenance and/or risky. The worse of these we referred to competing agencies as being a drag on their resources and for others we either reduced scope or gave to partner or specialty agencies with a referral fee.

Getting to the Perfect Project

While you will never find the perfect project, these criteria work for me most of the time. I suggest you review what is essential to your happiness and profitability and try to stick to it. Find companies in verticals you want to work in or people you want to work with and seek them out. Another option is rather than trying to “marry the client” and lock people in with long-term contracts, date them for longer-term engagements, and make sure the relationship is a good fit. If it is, the projects will increase. All of my clients that I have had 4 to 6-year relationships with came from small projects that lead to much richer engagements.