Six years ago I stood in a client’s board room with a list of SEO recommendations that I was convinced would earn me big smiles, firm handshakes, and and maybe even a celebratory slap on the back. Instead I was met with icy stares and nonchalance to my suggestions.
This was despite all my preparation to understand various intricate SEO best practices, as well as the quirks of their website and CMS. I just had no idea what this team believed in, or what angle I should use to persuade them to get things done.
It was July 2008, and I decided: SEO is easy. Consulting is hard.
Every day that I’ve been at Distilled, I’ve had the pleasure of learning more about online marketing, but I’ve also been able to learn—through research, practice, observation and teaching—lots about the skills that make someone an effective consultant.
There are many many traits of a great consultant that can be developed, but one necessary skill is: getting to know your client and understanding how you can be effective for them. This knowledge is how you unlock your ability to talk to them about the problems they’re facing, discover the problems they didn’t know they had, and lets you be best set up to deliver solutions that they will actually understand and implement—and which will make a real and impactful change to their business.
Obviously this getting-to-know-you phase is important enough to invest real time into, but I’ve found there are a bunch of ‘hacks’ that can help you get up to speed on an organization and its individuals. I want to share these quick tips and tricks with you, as well as a bunch of other questions that are worth answering—either through research, by observing the client, or by asking outright.
Throughout this post, I’ve shared examples and anecdotes from my own consulting experiences. If you’d just prefer the TL;DR version, the top two or three questions in each section are highlighted, or you can see the full list of my ’50+ things to learn’ in this downloadable cheat sheet.
How much profit does the company make from each additional customer?
How are the company’s financials; are they profitable, or making a loss?
We’ll begin with this section because it’s so cut-and-dry that it’s little more than ‘business 101′. However, some of the seemingly obvious money-orientated questions can be overlooked; I met with one marketer last year who had absolutely no idea what the profit was on each sale he made, or which sales he was making or losing money on; it reminded me that sometimes you do have to make sure to ask the right questions and then go digging for the answers.
It’s worth approaching this at two distinct levels—from the perspective of individual transactions, and the overall view of the company or department.
On a transactional level, we want to know the revenue & profit. For a retailer, that usually means understanding the average revenue associated with each purchase. For some businesses, there may also be a ‘lifetime value’ (LTV) for each new customer—which takes into account repeat purchases or the average length of time a user stays signed up (for a subscription product, or a SAAS company like Moz).
For those businesses, it’s also important to understand the the ‘marginal profit’ of each purchase. (The amount made on each sale, after the cost of actually providing the product.) Since most marketing teams also have a good handle on their ‘cost per acquisition’ (the amount they spend to attract each conversion, etc) it’s particularly important to view this in the context of the marginal profit from each sale. Where marginal profit is significantly higher than CPA for a particular marketing channel or tactic, it might indicate an opportunity to increase investment in that channel.
As well as understanding profit margin, CPA, etc, for your client’s transaction, it’s worth getting to know what these look like for similar companies or others in their niche. This may take some hunting around and research online, but will give you an insight into how aggressive your client can afford to be when it comes to beating their competitors.
On a business level, it’s worth making sure you have a handle on certain financial metrics such as revenue and operating profit. For larger / public companies, I typically prefer to research these sorts of things myself. If you have the time and interest to read through financial statements, Google is usually the fastest way to find these documents. (Search for the company name plus ‘annual report’ or ‘10k’.) However, various sources have done a good job making financial information easily digestible; I’m fond of MSN Money (e.g.: their page for Yelp, showing an $7.9m loss ) or simply Wikipedia (e.g.: their page on Dell, showing a $2.3b profit.)
For anything other than a fast-growing startup, knowing the company’s current profitability is usually more interesting to me than revenue, as it can often guide their approach to marketing investment. A company with very little profit (or who is making a loss) is likely to be interested in very strategic spending, with a well understood path to return. A company that is flush with profits might be more able to include some more risky tactics in their marketing strategy.
Does your POC have more of an analytical or emotional personality type?
How does your POC prefer to communicate on project matters?
Above everything else, the relationship between a consultant and the people within a client organization is perhaps the biggest factor in determining how successful the engagement will be. Although building any relationship takes time, there are a few things I like to uncover (or just directly ask about) in order to speed up that process.
Beyond just knowing each person’s role in a team, I want to understand what they are responsible for (what do they actually do from day-to-day?) and what they are accountable for. The ‘accountability’ includes what they are measured on. (Which is the most important thing to happen or improve so that they would be celebrated/rewarded; what would they be criticized for if it didn’t happen?)
For my main point of contact inside an organization, we often phrase this as “what would make you look good to your boss?”—which can help set at least one clear objective for the engagement. Plus, helping your contact to be successful has a fantastic side-effect: as they get promoted and move up their organization, it can give you greater access, wider influence, and bigger budgets to work with.
There are many frameworks for how people view situations and make decisions, such as Myers-Briggs, the learning modalities, etc. I love the incredibly simplified approach of assessing whether someone is analytical (driven by data, talks about facts, wants to know about ROI) or emotional (driven by personal connections, talks about vision, wants to hear stories.) Although categorising people in such a binary way is clearly a gross oversimplification of human nature, I’ve found the value in this is that you can make an assessment of someone within just a few minutes of meeting them, and immediately better tailor your approach to them.
As part of ‘getting close to your client’, I also like to ask (to individuals or a team) what they have been excited about recently. When you have to start making recommendations to them, knowing what excites them gives an insight into the kind of answers they’ll respond well to, or what is most likely to get implemented quickly.
Working quickly to understand how different individuals like to communicate can reduce friction and repays the time invested very quickly. I’ve worked with people who will reply to emails within minutes, people who prefer you to pick up the phone and call them, people who are great at running meetings, even people who always respond to messages on GChat / Skype. (And conversely, some people will have an out-of-control inbox, some never listen to voicemails, and some never get anything done in meetings.)
Related to communication styles, it’s valuable to understand how people like to receive reports & updates—whether from consultants or their own team-members. Find out how often you’re expected to prepare reports, the style (lots of data, bottom line metrics, written explanations?), the formats (email, spreadsheets, slide deck format, online dashboards?) and the audience (a project lead, a whole team, executives, juniors?).
From a reporting perspective, I’ve worked with a branding guy who “left the numbers up to other people”, and was more interested in a monthly face-to-face where we recapped the status of each initiative & campaign, and I’ve known a successful CMO who reviewed a three-page spreadsheet/dashboard each morning and would chase down different team members to ask about the story behind changes in different numbers. In both cases, providing metrics & updates in a way that fit their existing process let them understand my information and respond to me more effectively.
Who will be making the decisions that affect your project?
What constraints does the team have to balance when making decisions?
Early on in my consulting career, I overlooked the value of investing time in how organizations make decisions. Naively, I would deliver ‘the right answer’ for a client, and be frustrated when they didn’t decide to immediately put all hands on deck implementing my brilliant ideas.
Through conversation with members of your client’s team, you will hear about decisions that have been made—at both the high/strategic level, and down at the tactical level. Within those stories is the information about what criteria were important, and who the influential people were. To kick-start these conversations, you can ask “which projects were big successes internally?” or “which big decisions do people still talk about?”
It’s easiest to understand the decision making process when you’re clear on how a team’s success is measured. I once worked with a marketing team who were measured and bonused on overall conversion rate of visitors. I failed to persuade them to invest in SEO because even though it would have brought a fire hose of new traffic and customers, organic visitors to their site converted at ~6%, which brought down their current ~8% average. I was gobsmacked, but once I understood their situation, I realized I had to go to the CMO instead to explain why the teams current objectives were counterproductive.
An aspect of this which can take longer to grok are the constraints, roadblocks and objections that a team faces. While some are quite easy to ask about (eg: the team that has a limited budget to invest in marketing activities), some are only uncovered throughout a project (eg: the boss who wouldn’t A/B test pricing in marketing emails, in case a customer found out that someone else was offered a deeper discount.) Effective consultants will be respectful of an organization’s history, values and beliefs—but great consultants can balance this with knowing when to challenge those things.
Finally, a great ‘hack’ I learned from one colleague at Distilled is that there’s a lot of discovery value in asking a new client “what made you hire me for this project?” This forces them to provide insight into how they made a very real, very recent decision. Plus, by exposing what they valued in making the decision, it also does a lot to set expectations and an agenda for the engagement.
What criteria are used to prioritize new tasks or projects?
How does the team tend to run / use meetings?
How risk tolerant is the team?
Beyond just how plans are made, I always want to discover how work is prioritized, the criteria for that prioritization, and how the plans are shared with the team. Occasionally, a team will perfectly implement the Agile methodology, others rely on an odd Waterfall-esqe model, many have something less formal still. Understanding their processes lets you know, for example, whether quick & easy wins can be hustled up the backlog, or whether they will have to ‘wait their turn’.
Related to processes are the tools a team uses for project management. They may rely on Trello/Basecamp/MS Project, or a wall full of sticky notes—and it’ll be up to you to integrate yourself.
I’m always fascinated by the ‘meeting culture’ at different companies. I’ve seen companies where the most effective work happens during impromptu five-minute stand up meetings, and organizations that are crippled by the archetypal ‘terrible’ meetings (too long, too many people, no agenda, no actions, etc.) Understanding whether I need to be ‘in the room’ to help make decisions, or whether to avoid any unproductive time-sinks, improves my effectiveness as much as my sanity.
There are myriad other cultural factors worth picking up on relatively quickly. How you behave with them, and the recommendations you make could be influenced by:
- a team’s degree of risk tolerance (eg: a marketing team might be happy with a PR story that raises some controversy around their brand, but wouldn’t do anything that puts their rankings at risk of a Google penalty)
- their bias to action (are they in the Facebook-esque mold of ‘move fast and break things’?)
- their hunger for success (how invested are the team members in the organization’s achievements, or to what degree is this just a job for them?)
For some cultural factors, you just need a trusted person who can give you the inside track, rather than waiting to recognize them yourself. For example: I’ve seen everything from companies that were run like non-stop frat parties, to companies where bad language was highly frowned upon—so it’s good to know which sort of team you might be talking to.
What is the company’s mission / vision?
Does the team you’re working with believe in these things?
There are bunch of very straightforward questions here, which typically don’t have simple answers. What is the company’s vision? (IE: what do they believe about the future and their place in it?) Do they have an explicit ‘mission’ or ‘purpose’? What are their stated values? (For instance Distilled, Moz and Amazon are all very public about these.) Do they have a BHAG?
Beyond these things, do they have a company strategy (or marketing strategy) that is congruent with the vision/mission/purpose?
However, beyond the presence of things like a mission statement or values, I like to understand how much the team members have bought into all of these things, or whether the CEO is alone in believing these things. This tells me how much to rely on those values in working with the team. For example: I’ve seen Amazon employees make certain decisions explicitly because “this demonstrates a bias for action”, but that ‘buy-in’ doesn’t exist at every company.
Does everyone in the the team have a good understanding of the company’s USP, customers, etc?
How much knowledge of your niche (SEO, social media, etc) does the client’s team have?
With each new client, you may have to invest time in reading and learning about an industry that you’re unfamiliar with. (The client can obviously explain lots to you, but probably shouldn’t be your only source; they may be snowblinded, or only viewing the niche through the lens of their own organization.)
But as a sense-check: don’t be afraid to get your client’s team members talking to you about the company’s work and their industry. A memorable experience was being in the room with the marketing department from a tech company, where 50% of the team admitted to not really understanding the industry, or their company’s services.
In the other direction, don’t skip over getting a sense of the team’s understanding of your industry, whether that’s marketing, social media, SEO, UX, etc. I overlooked this with one of my early clients, and realized far too late that I was talking to a room split between experienced marketing people, and product people who didn’t know the first thing about SEO. (One quote that stuck in my head, maybe 45 minutes into the session: “so you’re saying that links are good?” I learnt my lesson very quickly at that moment.)
Research senior people and your point-of-contact online to find their favorite concepts or metaphors.
Sign up to all of their marketing emails.
Beyond just asking questions or reading about the things I’ve mentioned, I also like to do a bit of stalking to see how a company’s leaders talk—for example—about their industry and how they use their values when speaking.
The company’s CEO, CMO and your point-of-contact are great people to research; Twitter feeds, blog posts and bylined articles are easy places to start, but you can usually find webinars, keynotes or presentations to watch as well. Framing concepts using their own favorite words, phrases and metaphors can be a quick route being better understood.
In terms of ongoing research of a client, there’s an old (but still worthwhile) recommendation to set up a Google Alert for their name—both to watch the organic chatter that exists around the brand, to make yourself look very on-the-ball, but also just to find out about the other marketing/PR activity that your contacts may not have known enough about to mention it to you.
In addition, I suggest signing up for all of the client’s email marketing lists, in order to see a side of their content that is hidden from the web or search engine spiders.
One of my colleagues will routinely go through the ‘customer process’ for every new client, to learn more about how they manage their funnel. (She now has everything from insurance quotes for her fake grand piano, to a contractor listing for her fake plumbing company—but always find insights that would have been missed otherwise.)
Finally, spending time in a client’s office can be an expensive, but worthwhile endeavor—particularly early on in a relationship. While trying to discover the answers to everything I’ve talked about above, it’s illuminating to have a room with a good mix of team members. While one person is talking, watch everyone else for their reactions. A nod of approval, a roll of the eyes, pursed lips, or a deep breath can all mean different things—and it’s worth catching that person later to ask their opinion, or (if you’re feeling really confident) mine for conflict there-and-then with the group.