Great question from a subscriber today about how I price and structure my work. While I have my pricing laid out on my consulting page, here's the way I structure my work — and how you might want to do something similar, too.
First, like any sound professional, you should never prescribe before you diagnose. Unless your client clearly knows what they need (which is very rare), it's always better to learn about what to fix and why, before you attempt to fix whatever seems to be broken.
By “what,” I mean identifying the real problem.
The reason this is critical is that a problem may be symptomatic of a different or an even greater issue. What a client perceives as being a problem may not be the root cause.
For example, after telling your doctor about your recurring migraines, she won't tell you to immediately hop on the operation table and prep you for brain surgery. And she certainly won't tell you to do so after your suggestion that it's surgery you need. She would lose her license if she did so.
Sadly, however, I've seen many professionals do exactly that.
Which is why knowing what to fix is not enough. You also need to know why.
And by “why,” I mean identifying the real reason for fixing it.
The reason this is also critical is that the reason a client needs that problem fixed may be misleading or incomplete. There might be an ulterior motive or a different goal — one that may be unknown or unobvious to the client at first.
Fixing it too hastily is either a temporary band-aid or a solution that doesn't move the needle to the client, which hurts both of you.
In almost every case, the first definition of the problem is not the true problem that must be solved. Sometimes, you need to ask questions to uncover deeper motives and priorities.
That's why before I begin any work, I always start with a discovery call.
The purpose of the call is not to assess and diagnose right away. Even when the client thinks they know what they need, I need to ask more questions. Such as:
- What is the issue, challenge, or problem?
- Why is addressing that problem important?
- What is the objective and why is it an objective?
- How urgently does it need to be solved?
- What does success look like to you?
- What other solutions did you try or consider?
- Why not choose [alternative] instead?
- If the problem goes unsolved, what would happen?
- Do others share the same views about what the issue is as you do?
These are only a handful of questions I ask, but they're vitally important for me to identify both the real problem and the motive for solving it. If the discovery call answers all of my questions and we determine there is a fit, I then move on to the next step.
I prepare a brief proposal, which typically offers three options.
It's based on a three-stage process, which is probe, plan, and pilot.
Each option reflects the stage and my degree of involvement. For example, the first is usually the “probe” stage. The second might add “plan” to the mix, while the third might include “pilot.”
I said “might” because these options may vary. They may not be the same with each client or with each proposal, depending on the type and size of the project, as well as the client's goals uncovered during the discovery call.
Here's a high-level look at the three stages.
Now, in my consulting practice, I offer marketing strategy work in either or both traditional and digital marketing. But for the sake of example here, I'm going to use SEO as part of an organic digital marketing strategy.
This is the diagnostic stage, where I investigate and assess. For an SEO program, I do a complete site audit, which is an analysis of three key areas:
a) what's on the website,
b) what's behind the website, and
c) what's off the website.
For example, I look at what's on the website, or what SEO experts call “on-page SEO,” which refers to the quality of the content and the user experience.
I look at the site architecture, content signals (i.e., page elements that search engines look for), keyword cannibalization, user experience (UX), interface design (UI), and some key performance indicators (KPIs), such as traffic levels, bounce rates, conversion rates, etc.
Then, I look at what's behind the website, often referred to as “technical SEO.” The goal is to flag any technical issues that are hindering the website's visibility, crawlability, and readability by the search engines.
I analyze loading speeds, site security, meta-data, broken links, 404 errors, bad redirects, obtrusive scripts, and so on. The list here can be pretty hefty.
Finally, I audit what's off the website, also known as “off-page SEO,” where I take a look at external signals that help improve the site's authority, relevance, and credibility. It's largely determined by how others view, perceive, and talk about the website and its content.
For example, I look at social signals, backlinks (and quality of backlinks), business listings, reviews, brand mentions, and so on. But as I've often said, offer great content and user experience, you will attract links and mentions naturally.
Once I've conducted a thorough investigation, I then do a roadmapping process, which includes a graduated and/or agile plan to carry out improvements that address the issues found during the “probe” stage.
Typically, this roadmap contains a series of action items and checklists to implement, which clients can do themselves, have their teams implement, or outsource if they wish.
It usually includes site improvements, keyword research, competitive and gap analyses, content suggestions, and topical ideas that will drive solid traffic with better search intent (i.e., leads instead of tire-kickers, for example).
Sometimes, it can be just a few simple tweaks. Other times, it might require a complete overhaul, particularly if there are important issues that are impeding rankings and visibility.
But in either case, I often include a topical pagematch. A pagematch document is where I map keywords to existing pages, suggest content improvements, make new page recommendations, and offer new content ideas.
Up to this stage, the client can choose to carry out the implementation or outsource it. While I don't do any hands-on execution work, a client can have me “pilot” the plan's implementation and provide ongoing project oversight.
It's more of an insurance policy if you will.
For example, I can provide direction and ongoing guidance. I can train the client's team on best practices in implementing the plan. I can also assist in hiring and managing vendors. And I can do quality assurance on deliverables.
In any case, I tend to structure my roadmaps in such a way that they remain flexible and can easily adapt when situations and priorities change. They’re more like a framework that one can manipulate rather than a plan set in stone.
For example, I suggest specific KPIs for staying on top of things, and a methodology to follow should anything change. This is helpful if they need to course-correct over time.
SEO is much like the stock market. It's volatile, unpredictable, and constantly fluctuating. Reading a rankings report can often look like a stock chart.
- What if there's an unexpected industry or market shift?
- What if there's a trending topic that's causing disruptions?
- What if there's a competitor that's starting to outrank others?
- What if there's a Google update causing a loss in rankings?
Paid traffic is immediate and short term. When you stop paying, traffic stops along with it. But organic traffic is long term. It takes time, and rankings can go up and down in the process.
But as the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race.
Finally, there's also a fourth option.
I regularly have clients who simply want me to review or update their KPIs. Some want me to critique their websites or sales copy. Others want to brainstorm ideas or get feedback. For these on-off situations, I also offer a coaching session option.
It's a strategy call done via Zoom or Google Chat, which the client may record for future reference — or pass on to their team for implementation.
Speaking of passing things on, the third “pilot” phase, where I don't do hands-on work but offer guidance and project oversight, the client is directly responsible for the execution. In other words, I do not subcontract, mark up, or take a commission on outsourced work.
I do have a virtual Rolodex of vetted experts I often use and rely on, but they are not mandatory, and I do not get a kickback for their work. This way, I remain objective and my recommendations are in the best interest of my client.
Why is this important to me?
Unlike most full-service agencies, I prefer to avoid any conflict of interest — including the perception of it. I believe that planning and execution are best sold separately. Using an agency may be an option. But it's independent of my findings and recommendations.
Nevertheless, as a professional, chances are you offer your clients a similar multi-step process, too. So if there's a key takeaway here that I want to leave you, it's the fact that you can and should offer three options.
I call this the “Olympic Factor” pricing model.
There are ample reasons why this three-tiered approach works so well, which I discuss in this article I wrote 15 years ago. A tad outdated but still applicable.
Granted, you don't have to offer multiple options. It may not work in your field, particularly if you're a highly specialized professional delivering an option-constrained type of service.
But in many cases with most professionals, a three-tiered approach or pricing model can be quite effective. In 30 years as an independent marketing consultant, many of my clients from a variety of different industries have applied it, too, with great results.
Give it a try.
You might be profitably surprised.