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You’ve probably heard the old saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters.”

For years I resisted this and emphatically believed that the content of my communication was the only thing that mattered.

Over time my stubbornness softened, and I started altering how I said what I wanted to say and found that I could gain greater acceptance and less resistance to my communications.

This is especially true than when working with clients in digital marketing.

When delivering Search Engine Optimization (SEO) recommendations, you, the SEO specialist, often face an uphill struggle to get those recommendations implemented client-side.

At first this seemed strange to me: clients hire a company and pay good money for SEO consulting work, and then don’t implement the SEO recommendations.

But I quickly realized that this is for “good reasons”: often your clients don’t have dedicated employees who have nothing else to do and are standing by waiting for SEO recommendations to execute – it’s more likely those who will execute already have a full to-do list.

Your recommendations may be “just more stuff on their plate” to get done, and therefore not warmly welcomed.

And there are myriad other reasons SEO recommendations may not get implemented.

Just a few examples include:

  • A full queue client-side (as I just mentioned)
  • Internal bureaucracy
  • Resistance to change
  • Lack of internal team agreement regarding the nature of certain SEO recommendations
  • Conflicting or shifting priorities

I’m sure you could easily add five or 10 more examples from your own experience.

While it’s true that in most SEO consulting relationships, your client’s team will be responsible for implementing your SEO recommendations, I’d like to suggest that how you communicate your recommendations plays a huge part in whether those recommendations get completed.

In other words, very often it’s not what you say but how you say it that matters.

So sure – your client is probably responsible for actual recommendation execution, but you are responsible for communicating the need and importance of those recommendations in such a way as to make execution more likely.

I’d like to share with you seven key communication skills to help you get your recommendations implemented – and, as a bonus, create a strong rapport with your clients that results in more likely long-term retention.

But Wait – Isn’t All of This Just Blatant Manipulation?

That’s a fair question, so before we get to the seven key skills, let’s talk about that.

If you use communication skills, aren’t you just “being manipulative” – that is, just trying to get your way?

First, I would ask you to consider the fact that all communication is influence and/or “manipulation.”

You cannot not influence when communicating.

Think about if you visited another country where you don’t speak the local language – how will you communicate?

Should you insist that everyone speak your language?

That’s arrogant and short-sighted.

Instead, if you alter your communication – for example, learn some of their language – then you’re more likely to have positive outcomes (like finding your way around, or just locating a bathroom).

Because communication by its very nature influences others (“manipulation”), you are demonstrating behavioral flexibility and a willingness to get outside of your comfort zone, just like the foreign language example I just mentioned.

So, forget about “manipulation” and be more flexible in your communication, and the result will be better outcomes both for your client and your agency.

The 7 Key Communication Skills

1. And vs. But

Gauge your internal response to these 2 statements:

“That hat looks good on you, but…”

“That hat looks good on you, and…”

Didn’t the first one make you feel like maybe some kind of criticism is coming next?

Get them on your side, not braced for something bad to come.

“That hat looks good on you but…” – after hearing that ,you’re waiting to hear what’s after the “but”, aren’t you? But what??

You can feel yourself bracing for what comes after the but, because “but” is an eraser – it erases everything before it.

Here’s another example:

“I love this new recipe you made, but…”

Don’t you feel yourself tightening up waiting for what comes after the “but” part?

“I love this new recipe you made, and…”

You don’t tighten up after the “and.”

“And” is a linker, “but” is an eraser.

“And” links the first part with the second part.

“I love this new recipe, but I wonder if you’ll try to improve it next time.”

“I love this new recipe, and I wonder if you’ll try to improve it next time.”

You can see the second example is softer, creates less resistance.

How about with SEO recommendations?

“I realize you don’t have the internal resources to execute on these SEO recommendations right now, but they’re very important so if we can get these completed soon, I forecast the following positive results…”

Versus:

“I realize you don’t have the internal resources to execute on these SEO recommendations right now, and they’re very important and so if we can get these completed soon, I forecast the following positive results…”

That’s just one example – try using “and” instead of “but” to soften your communication and reduce resistance.

2. Redefine the Issue

When making SEO recommendations, the real question is not whether your clients execute them, it’s whether you are communicating well enough to get your clients to execute them.

When you look more closely at the above sentence, you’ll realize that I just taught you the “Redefine the Issue” pattern!

The pattern is: “the question isn’t this, it’s that.”

Here’s an example working with your client:

“I agree that resources are tight right now, and the important question is whether we can really afford to not execute these very soon, because if we don’t, here’s how our organic performance will suffer.”

Notice the “and” after the “I agree that resources are tight right now” (instead of using “but,” which increases resistance).

I also packed into that example the next key communication skill for you, which we’ll get to in a minute.

But first, go back and re-read that sentence.

Notice how it shifts the focus from “no resources” to “if we don’t, we’ll have XYZ problem.”

That helps to communicate the importance – if not outright urgency if applicable – of completing the SEO recommendations.

3. Agreement Frame

Disagreement is, well, disagreeable.

Some people do relish a debate or argument, but it’s agreement that gets work done.

If we don’t agree on something, forward movement is halted.

Notice your internal response to these two statements:

I don’t agree that resources are tight right now.

I agree that resources are tight right now.

Like “but vs. and,” agreement reduces resistance.

Here’s the example I used in the previous key skill; notice how it starts with agreement:

“I agree that resources are tight right now, and the important question is whether we can really afford to not execute these very soon, because if we don’t, here’s how our organic performance will suffer.”

Another way the agreement frame can be used is when conflicting priorities come into play.

Let’s say you’ve identified a critical set of SEO recommendations that are very high priority, but your client suddenly announces they want to focus on something that’s not really a high priority SEO-wise.

You could say something like this:

“I agree that that is an important priority and we need to get to work on that, and I’d like to suggest that we get to that immediately after we fix this other burning priority because this problem is negatively affecting organic performance right now….”

Once again, notice the use of “but vs. and.”

Agreement means you’re aligning with your client, not opposing them.

Opposition creates resistance.

Resistance means it’s less likely your recommendations will be completed.

Agreement also builds rapport and helps with long-term client retention.

4. If > Then

If you don’t use improved communication skills in your work, then you’ll never see better results with your clients.

The simple pattern here is “if this, then that.”

The variations here are:

  • If this, then that
  • If not this, then that
  • If this, then not that
  • If not this, then not that

Examples:

  • If we complete XYZ, then we’ll get ABC
  • If we don’t complete XYZ, then we won’t get ABC

You get the idea.

Another good use of If > Then is gaining commitment; here’s an example.

“We’re projecting completion of this optimization project in 10 days. If we can meet that deadline, then can the team there commit to implementing the recommendations within 10 business days after we deliver?”

If you can start working If > Then into your natural communication style, then you and your client are going to reap the benefits of the increased likelihood that SEO recommendations get completed.

5. We vs. You

Working with clients is truly a collaborative effort.

If you ever find yourself feeling like you’re struggling against your client, I invite you to change your thinking from “me and them” to “us.”

That puts you on the same side of the rope as your client, and you’re pulling with them, not against them.

A good way to use We vs. You is when talking about past and future performance. Here are some examples:

  • “Last month our numbers were down year over year, but that was because of XYZ. Now our performance is up because we got ABC recommendations implemented so quickly.”
  • “Right now, our low-hanging fruit opportunities are….”
  • “If we can get XYZ SEO recommendations implemented ASAP, then that’s going to fix the problem causing our ABC performance issues.”
  • “We’ve seen decent organic performance increases in XYZ section of our site after the recommendations for that section were completed, and if we can quickly get to optimizing ABC section of our site, then we should see as good or better performance increases there.”

Collaborative words to use are “we, our, us, the team,” and so on.

I’m sure you can easily see how we can improve our communication skills by using “We vs. You” in our client communications, can’t you?

6. Meaning Reframe

In a perfect world, every SEO recommendation implemented causes immediate and measurable benefit.

If only we lived in a perfect world!

The reality is that SEO is a marathon and not a sprint.

SEO is not like paid search or paid social, where you can turn on traffic or conversions just by spending money.

But it’s not infrequent that the people client-side who are not particularly familiar with SEO think that results will be immediate.

Managing expectations is part of our job.

And that’s where Meaning Reframe can be a key communication skill to master.

It’s also helpful to realize that the meaning that’s attached to some circumstance or situation influences how you and others feel about that situation.

Changing meaning changes your perceptions, and how you feel.

For example, let’s say you’re stuck in an unexpected traffic jam. What does that mean?

If it means your precious time is wasting away stuck on the road, you might feel frustrated or angry.

But what if instead it means you have time to listen to that podcast you’ve been eager to get to, but haven’t found the time until now? Then you might feel at ease with, or even grateful for, the traffic delay.

Changing meaning changes perspective, and feelings.

So, what if organic performance is suffering? What does that mean?

Or what if a set of SEO recommendations have been executed, but there’s no performance increase yet? What does that mean?

What if a client says, “It’s been a week since we implemented XYZ SEO recommendations and nothing has happened. What’s going on?”

From their perspective, it means SEO is not working. Or that you’re wasting their time. Or other not-positive things.

It’s up to you to manage the meaning of this situation, you might say something like this:

“I agree that it’s been a week since implementation and nothing has happened, and that means we need more time for Google to fully detect and process the changes we’ve made. In the past we’ve usually seen it take XYZ amount of time for this, and so I suggest that while we give Google more time, I’ll keep a close eye on the situation and report back to you how things are progressing.”

You can see that we’re using the Agreement Frame and “And vs. But” here as well.

7. What’s Important?

I’ve got a question for you: what’s important to you when it comes to SEO?

  • Higher rankings?
  • More traffic?
  • Increased conversions?
  • Better organic click-thru rate?
  • Outpacing the competition?
  • Fixing a giant technical mess preventing better organic performance?

If you’re an SEO, you probably said all of the above.

But, have you asked your client what’s important to them when it comes to SEO?

If not, you may be focusing on something they don’t see as important.

If you’re focusing on things they see as unimportant, whatever results you do get are likely not going to be met with the uncorking of champagne bottles by your client.

And, your client is also not likely to want to stick with you or your agency since you can’t seem to focus on what’s important to them.

So how do you find out?

Ask them.

Here are some examples for you:

  • “What’s important to you when it comes to SEO?”
  • “What constitutes SEO success to you?”
  • “What are the most important results you want to see from our SEO efforts?”

This is especially useful at the start of an SEO engagement for several reasons.

  • You immediately uncover how success will be measured by your client
  • If expectations are unreasonable, you’ll know this right up front
  • You’ll be able to refer back to what’s important to them as the engagement progresses and tie efforts and results to what they said is important

Knowing how success will be measured if unreasonable expectations exist, and being able to tie efforts and results to what’s important to the client, are both extremely valuable for you during the SEO engagement.

But what if you’re in the middle of an engagement. Is it too late to ask?

Of course not.

Simply put a friendly spin on things.

“Hey, you know, I just realized that I should have asked you this when we first kicked off our SEO engagement together, but…” and then ask the questions.

And if you take over an engagement for another SEO, asking those questions is quite appropriate, and your client will appreciate that you cared enough to ask.

Note: your client might not be able to answer the question. They may have only thought about SEO success in vague, undefined terms, or maybe never really thought about it at all but just know they “need that SEO stuff.”

That’s okay. Give them some suggestions for what you and other clients have seen as important.

Conclusion & Bonus Tip

There you have it: seven key communication skills to help you get SEO recommendations implemented and help with long-term client retention. Imagine all the ways that these skills will help you and your clients get better results – how soon will you begin to start using these skills?

You have likely already realized that these communications skills are not limited to SEO engagements and in fact can be used in any aspect of a digital marketing engagement.

Before we go, I have one more tip in which to frame all of this that I hope you find helpful, and it’s this:

Pretend it’s your business and your website.

Nothing gets you pulling on the same side of the rope with your client as seeing the business and website as your own.

Taking that attitude brings you to a deep level of involvement – it’s personal to you.

Your client will notice. They’ll feel it.

People can tell if you’re “just phoning it in” or if you’re in it to win it.

 

Do you have some key communication tips to share or feedback about these 7 key communication skills? Let me know in the comments.