How to pitch a client without putting them on the defensive
Written by Arienne Holland and published
You missed your daughter’s school fall festival.
You missed half the vacation that was supposed to relax you.
Hell, you missed most of your 30s.
All for the sake of the business you pumped life into.
And now some kid tells you that your website has serious problems? And you have to fix them right away? And it’s going to cost you how much money?
Does he really think he knows more about your business than you do? It really can’t be that bad or you would have noticed. You’re doing just fine, thank you very much.
As a person who generally pulls no punches, the best advice I can give is to never put a client on the defensive.
— Courtenay Rogers, business development and account management
That’s exactly how business owners and stakeholders can feel when you’re pitching your services. Defensive.
As an online marketer, you know that your work on their website can improve their business and help them make money. You even have proof in the form of research and reports about their website and their competitors’ websites.
But if you put your potential client on the defensive, chances are that you’ll be escorted politely to the door even if they’re the ones who asked for a proposal in the first place. Instead, when you’re thinking of how to pitch a client, anticipate the reasons that they might feel defensive and try to prevent it.
Get the background
Feel out how they feel about the website. If they admit that it’s a mess, it’s easier to dive in and start making changes.
— Rob Woods, SEO and marketing consultant
First, ask these general questions of your business owner or stakeholder.
1. What do you like about your website?
2. What would you improve about your website, if you could?
3. Who designed the website? Who wrote it? Are those people still with your company?
4. What does your website do for your business now?
5. What do you think your website should be doing for your business?
Most importantly, listen to their answers without comment. Simply jot notes for use later. Refer to those notes as you discuss individual components of your proposed campaign.
Prepare your delivery
I generally find that just telling people something sucks doesn’t work well.
— Ben Cook, SEO and reputation management
It’s obvious that you shouldn’t criticize the person that you’re pitching.
It’s less obvious that criticizing their website can feel personal to them. They may know it’s crap, but it’s still crap they have invested in. Financially at the least. Maybe even emotionally.
Your criticism + their emotion = major defensiveness.
For each scenario below, see if anything sounds familiar about how not to pitch a client. Have you fallen into any of those bad habits? If so, take the advice of the pros and pitch clients the right way.
Scenario 1: So. Many. Problems.
An audit of a potential client’s website reveals thousands of onsite issues to address before you even think about offsite SEO.
- How not to pitch a client: “According to my audit, your website needs serious help. You have visibility issues, meta issues, image issues — not to mention all of the link problems.”
- How to pitch a client instead: “There are a few strategies I would recommend for promoting your website. But according to a neutral website auditor, several areas on your website need attention first. All of the problems have simple solutions, though some might take longer to solve than others. Let me explain what they are and why they’re important to fix, both for your customers and for your business goals.”
- Why this pitch is better: 1. Instead of “my audit,” you make it clear this is an independent audit and not just your opinion. 2. Instead of presenting the potential client with a list of complicated problems, you have focused the conversation on meeting business goals.
- Pro tip: “There have been many, many times that I have looked a potential client in the eye and said, ‘I would prefer you don’t spend any money with me and put your money into fixing this website. I would rather not make any money and your site function properly because that is what is best for your business.’ Then they listen.” — Melissa Fach, SEO consultant and writer
Scenario 2: Link quality is not a focus.
You used Raven’s Research Central to find out the number and quality of backlinks of the potential client’s website. Turns out they’re low in quantity and quality.
- How not to pitch a client: “Your backlinks are shoddy with pretty low quality scores. That’s bad for SEO.”
- How to pitch a client instead: “You have a quality product, and quality websites could be helping spread the word about it. What I would focus on is finding good websites that might send you quality leads by linking to your website. Those kinds of links also can help your website get more exposure on search engines. You have a couple of good ones now, but with effort and time, you could have many, many more. That will pay off exponentially.”
- Why this pitch is better: You don’t get mired in explaining the ins and outs of various quality scores. Instead, you focus on the results of link building — referral and organic traffic — without ever having to use those words.
- Pro tip: “I have found that talking about best practices, reframing why they asked us for a proposal (probably the most important), and then selling the benefits of each change helps potential clients convince themselves. In most cases, it eliminates pushback.” — Greg Shuey, digital marketer
Scenario 3: The competition is better. Way better.
You’ve done some basic social monitoring for your potential client’s brand and competitor keywords. It turns out that their competitors have much bigger share of voice and more positive sentiment in social spaces.
- How not to pitch a client: “I have been researching for a couple of weeks, and I can already tell that people generally don’t have nice things to say about your brand. Plus they like your competitors much more. We need to work on your social media strategy.”
- How to pitch a client instead: “Social monitoring tools helped give me a rough idea of what people have been saying in social spaces about your brand over the past couple of weeks. Generally, they talked about your competitors more often and had nicer things to say about them when they did. Here are a few examples across the board. But that’s a pretty short time frame for social monitoring. To understand what’s really at play here, I recommend more social monitoring before taking any action.”
- Why this pitch is better: It’s good to play the competitor card at some point. It’s bad to play the competitor card while slamming their brand. Put things in terms of quantity and quality (“more often” and “nicer things”), and support your statements with examples. Plus, leave them curious enough to want to hire you to do more.
- Pro tip: “If Competitor XYZ is doing something a certain way (and they’re kicking your client’s booty), your client may be more motivated to make changes. Make it clear this isn’t just your opinion. Back up your suggestions with concrete examples, like case studies or research.” — Kerry Jones, freelance writer, editor and social media strategist
Scenario 4: The blog is all over the map.
Their blog content has no consistency. No one is sharing it socially. And when you run a few of their blog posts through Scribe, the scores are low.
- How not to pitch a client: “OK, now we need to talk about your blog. What you’re doing now is a waste of time. No one is sharing your content on social media or linking to it. So either they don’t like it or they can’t find it. Maybe they can’t find it because the way you’re writing it is bad for SEO.”
- How to pitch a client instead: “What is your strategy for your blog?” [Listen to answer.] “Is there one person who’s in charge of the blog? Do a variety of people do day-to-day writing?” [Listen to answer.] “Based on what you have told me, you want to share news about your business via the blog. That’s a good objective. Did you know that your blog can also help bring more qualified visitors and leads to your website? There’s one technique in particular that I would like to try first. We can test the results over time and go from there.”
- Why this pitch is better: 1. You get a better idea of which stakeholder is most invested in the blog. Is it the person you’re talking to, or does someone else need to be in the room for this conversation? 2. The blog could predate any other online marketing this business has done. That’s good: they’re used to doing it. That’s bad: they might be attached to the way they do it, even if they have no clue what they’re doing. If you gently suggest that their blog could attain measurable business results — and that you want to move one step at a time — they might be more open to change.
- Pro tip: “If I’m recommending a change to something, I’ll first ask their opinion on it, how they settled on that and what their reasons were. I then present them with what I’d like to try and explain what I hope to achieve. This lets me avoid criticizing what’s there — possibly offending whoever created it — and still allows me to explain what I would like to change and why. Being able to track the results of the change is also extremely helpful as the more tests you get ‘right’ the more they’ll trust your recommendations in the future.” — Ben Cook, SEO and reputation management
Scenario 5: Things are good, but they could be better.
The overall online marketing of your potential client’s website is in pretty good shape. Their forms and landing pages need work, though, and you want to pitch conversion optimization services.
- How not to pitch a client: “Red buttons on forms convert better than green buttons. Your landing pages have orange buttons now, but they should probably use red buttons. We’ll need to test that, though, because that might or might not be true for your website. Either way, if you test, you’ll make more money.”
- How to pitch a client instead: “Did you know that tiny factors on forms and certain website pages can make a big difference in sales? Have you ever tested whether or not you could be making more money if you made a simple change on your forms? Look at these two examples. Which do you think won? With industry best practices like these in mind, I have identified several forms and pages of yours that, with small changes, might do a better job at getting you more customers. There are several conversion optimization tools that can help us run neutral tests on them. We might both be surprised by the results.”
- Why this pitch is better: You mention sales. You give them a little test that piques their interest. You tell them little tests like this could make them more money.What you don’t tell them is something oversimplified, confusing and too-good-to-be-true sounding.
- Pro tip: “The best approach is to be very factual and back up your assertions with statistics. If all you have is your opinion, suggest some A/B testing with some newer approaches that are known best practices in the industry to ensure the site is more efficient at driving business metrics.” — Jason Falls, digital strategist
Expect defensiveness anyway
You practice in advance. You eliminate any defense-triggering words from your vocabulary. But when you make the actual client pitch, you’re still met with resistance.
People getting defensive is a part of the game, especially when you explain to them that they will need to spend money to fix things. You have to expect and be ready to explain and defend your recommendations.
— Melissa Fach, SEO consultant and writer
No one likes to spend money without knowing exactly what they will get in return, especially business owners with small budgets. What can you provide in the way of documentation that might allay their fears? Come prepared with it. If you don’t have it on hand, make a note — in writing, so that they can see you’re taking a note — and promise to get it to them right away. You’ll know better next time. Every pitch is a learning experience.
It’s also possible that your potential client is throwing up barrier after barrier because they don’t really want to do the hard work. In that case, is this a client you’re willing to take on?
Or it could be you. Are you too passionate about your recommendations? Even if you get all the words right, is your delivery off-putting or sales-y? Practice in front of someone who feels free enough to be honest with you. Take their advice, because this is true:
If you detach your own emotion from it, the client will likely not attach theirs.
— Jason Falls, digital strategist