The Consultant’s Stance
Expert consultants don’t solve problems, they show opportunities
SEO is consultative. We’ve talked about this before. Whether you’re in-house or agency side - you need to wrangle other team’s resources to get things done.
Being consultative, however, is often misunderstood. It’s not a position of power or authority over clients, even if we happen to know more about a specific domain (i.e. SEO) than they do. Consulting is not about having answers, but exploring solutions.
But everywhere in the SEO industry I see agencies and consultants taking the wrong stance. I see far too much assertive, authoritarian language with phrases like “you should…” or “We need to…”:
“You should update your information architecture”
“You should move your blog from a subdomain to your main site”
“We need to expand our page offering and tighten the intent of existing pages”
This simple phrase is dangerous framing.
There’s three problems with the phrase “you should…”
1. “You should..” assumes we have the power to allocate client resources
This is a fundamental mistake - to assume that we know how to dictate clients resources. We shouldn’t pretend to understand exactly a) how long it will take to implement a particular change or b) what other projects and priorities there are.
You should always ask yourself - if that team wasn’t working on my initiative, what would they be working? Most consultants can’t confidently answer that question and so have no business mandating resource allocation.
Especially for larger clients we are typically only getting a small view into what’s going on and what the rest of the business is working on. You can get better at this by understanding what the client’s top 3-5 priorities are but you’re still not in charge of their resources. Unless you’ve explicitly built the working relationship to be able to dictate projects to their teams (rare) it’s not your place to mandate changes.
In fact - making recommendations without understanding what resources are available from the client is a recipe for disaster. So the phrase “you should…” sounds like a mandate when in fact it should be a request…
2. “You should…” is too prescriptive in form
Saying “you should…” focuses on the wrong thing. It anchors the client into a specific solution (often we recommend this assuming that we know best) when in fact we’re not experts in the clients business, don’t understand the resources in play properly and don’t understand the range of potential solutions.
We get blinded by recommending best practice, status quo and complete solutions. We recommend a narrow solution to a narrow problem. But this stance again misses the wider context from the client’s business. What else is being worked on? How else might we create a solution to the problem at hand?
3. “You should…” is too immediate
When we make recommendations with a mandate, we get frustrated when clients don't implement our recommendation. Saying “you should…” is immediate - we’re implying we should tackle this straight away. And when clients don’t it creates a tension between client/consultant that erodes trust and the working relationship.
Instead we should be far more flexible with our recommendations - understanding that the right time to implement something might rely on resources, budgeting, strategy, priorities and dependencies… Things we often don’t have a complete picture of when we go around throwing our recommendations around.
Ok, so what’s the alternative?
“There is an opportunity to…”
Instead of saying “you should…” it’s much better to say “there is an opportunity to…”. It anchors the conversation on the outcome, not on the details of the solution. It leads with the WHY of the recommendation.
It’s important to frame every recommendation as an opportunity - focusing on the potential value to the client’s business. Not only does this make your recommendations more compelling, but it directly addresses the 3 problems above:
It doesn’t give you the power to assign the client’s resources for them but instead gives them the information necessary to allocate resources. It puts you in a collaborative frame with the client to figure out resourcing and prioritization together.
It leaves room for multiple different implementations - especially those solutions that bundle this recommendation into other projects inside the client’s organization.
It leaves room for capturing this opportunity later on. Either as part of some other project or just when resources are available.
The language we use matters, and using this kind of framing allows us to be an expert advisor in collaboration with the client. Not a consultant trying to mandate how the client’s business operates. David Maister says in The Trusted Advisor:
A good process for the advisor to follow is:
Give them their options
Give them an education about their options (including enough discussion for them to consider each option in depth)
Give them a recommendation
Let them choose
If you follow this path to its conclusion however, it might get uncomfortable. You have to abandon your instinct to solutionize. You have to admit that you don’t know everything about your client’s business. You have to be vulnerable to figuring out the way forward WITH the client.
This vulnerability is a core tension of being a consultant - of trying to change an organization where you have very little formal power to change anything. I love this post from Benjamin P. Taylor: Thriving in the space of service — for consultants, coaches, facilitators, business partners…:
The answer is to embrace the vulnerability.
Clearly state the facts: ‘I have some expertise that might help here. And you know your context better than I do. Let’s learn about your situation and options together, and see if you can get somewhere better’.
Notice that this stance *resists the urge to be of immediate value*.
It *prolongs* the vulnerability, it accentuates it.
If you want to be seen as a strategic, valuable partner to your clients you have to resist the urge to be of immediate value. You have to reject problems and solutions and instead work towards building new capacities to tackle meaningful opportunities as I wrote in Are you Problem Solving or Capacity Building?:
In essence, you can adopt the stance of the “SEO expert” and seek to “solve problems” - which is often a short term mindset. Or you can treat the problems as symptoms of a system that can be evolved, and become an “SEO capacity builder” and help the system create its own SEO success.
The mindset shift is subtle but powerful - and yet the SEO industry in particular has been drilled for years around problem solving. The very language of the SEO industry reveals this fundamental misalignment: audits, technical issues, fixes and optimization.
So next time you’re working on an SEO audit, or creating an SEO strategy, think twice about the language you’re using. Are you mandating the client work on problems with a “you should…” mindset?
If you frame your recommendations by leading with the opportunity then you’ll become a better consultant - you’ll gain more trust and respect from your clients and you might end up being more effective at getting things done too. After all - a recommendation that comes with a clear opportunity defined is more compelling.
Next week I’m going to write about the role of account managers at SEO agencies. If you have strong opinions, then chime in on this twitter thread. There’s already some great discussion.