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[SDS] Reader mailbag #1

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Reader Charlie W. wrote in with a response to yesterday’s article about the early findings of my research project and what it takes to build a successful sales program at a professional services firm. Here’s an excerpt of his email, shared with his permission (emphasis added is mine):

“Today’s email made me smile – you mentioned SEO as something tangible that was easier to sell than custom-built software solutions. I’ve not worked in custom-built software, so I have no experience there but I’ve found selling the “dark art” of SEO (in a way that means the work delivered will match expectations) to be a study in selling something that’s not tangible. Today I literally added a slide to a talk I’m doing next week with the article you mentioned on selling services vs products. There is no SEO ‘unit’ you can buy like you can buy PPC or social media ads, for example, so selling the benefits of the work you propose can be tough.”

In yesterday’s article I proposed a graph to demonstrate the relative ease of selling products and services. On the X-axis is concreteness: how tangible or intangible. On the Y-axis is market awareness: from highly understood to mysterious.

Focus on the “relative ease” part of the graph for a second. The main purpose of said graph is to represent a spectrum: the more understood and the more tangible, the easier to sell. The inverse is also true.

Let’s go back to my IKEA rugs for a second (because you can never have too much IKEA). The output is a rug: I lay it on the floor and it looks nice. And the input is…well I don’t know exactly. I know they have some raw materials, and they must use some machines to assemble the rugs, dye, dry, and package them, but that’s all I know. In fact, I didn’t spend a second in the store thinking about the rug was made. I didn’t need to: I could see the result.

Which brings us back to Charlie’s SEO services.

Now, I’ve not sold SEO services, and I’ve certainly not sold Charlie’s SEO services, but here’s what I assume: people are buying more traffic. Anything done to improve the robots.txt file, write content that internet spiders love, or increase page load time is incidental. It’s all about more traffic, and especially good traffic. And that part – the output of SEO work – is relatively more tangible and well-understood.

The main point I was making in yesterday’s article was that it’s relatively easier to sell SEO services as opposed to high-end custom software development because SEO is both more known and more tangible.

Notice also how much space SEO services occupy on the graph. I did that on purpose: moving up and to the right on the graph increases the relative ease of the sale. Which is to say that more tightly defined projects are, the easier they are to understand and the more tangible-seeming the results. The tradeoff is that SEO probably works better on a case-by-case basis, necessitating custom work in exchange for a more difficult buying process.

The real problem comes in not knowing the degree of output. Which is to say, how much more traffic will any individual client get? You can’t know that, but you can take a definitive stance about the minimum amount of SEO, and how much your client should buy. You’re the expert: tell them what they need, and don’t work with them if they still want less. The only open question, then, is the amount of impact your client will receive from SEO.

Herein lies the heart of the problem for Charlie. It’s difficult to price services without knowing their value to the client. But….

You can know the value of your services to each individual client – you just have to ask.

And we also know that the value you deliver is relative: the same SEO project for one client with no traffic and zero domain reputation won’t be as valuable as working your SEO black magic for a client that’s already sending positive signals to Google. Or, the same SEO project for a well-funded startup intent on launching a 3-year inbound marketing plan is worth a lot more than the client who needs results tomorrow. Context matters.

So no, I’m not saying that selling SEO services is easy per se. I’m only saying that the concreteness and market understanding of SEO provides tools and advantages in the sales process.