For over a decade, I’ve been running my own business, creating content for other business owners, and networking and socialising in the business world. Four years of that were also spent as Head of Marketing at a digital agency, giving further insights into running a team and a business. The funny thing about spending so much time dealing with clients is that you gain an outside perspective on many different businesses. When it comes to learning how to run a business, nothing beats watching a wide variety of people going about doing exactly that.
Some lessons you must learn the hard way; others can be learned just as effectively from observation. I’ve found those observations invaluable over the years, helping me run my business and helping my clients avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve watched other clients succumb to.
In the spirit of sharing, caring, and ensuring the entrepreneurial journey is as easy for you all as possible, I thought I’d share some of the most significant ways I’ve seen clients screw up over the years. To be clear, these are the big hitters. This isn’t one single client who made all these mistakes. I’ve witnessed these mistakes by multiple clients, hence why they made the list.
Without further ado, here’s how (not) to run a business…
#1 Hiring An Expert Then Ignoring Everything They Say
Let’s just state the obvious on this one and get it out of the way – as a writer, SEO and marketing expert, there is little more frustrating for me than clients who refuse to take my advice. In this respect, my perspective is far from impartial on this one. However, much as find it personally and professionally annoying when clients do this, it has a tangible, detrimental effect on their businesses.
When you hire an expert, you are paying money for their expertise. The extent to which they excel determines the ROI you receive on that investment. If they’re great at their job, that ROI will be high. Given that they are an expert, your ROI should – at the very least – be higher than you could achieve.
That difference should be enough to offset the cost of hiring them.
In other words, if you’re paying an SEO expert to drive traffic to your site, the business you receive due to that traffic should be higher than the amount you spent on the SEO expert.
It can take a while for this to kick in – particularly with SEO, which requires you to invest for a good few months before you start seeing the return.
To put it bluntly, some clients’ problem is their own ego.
They think they know better than the expert they’re hiring. So, rather than following the advice given and allowing the pro to put together a plan capable of effectively achieving the objectives they have laid out, they insist on doing it their way.
The way they would do it themselves.
So they are outlying a considerable amount of money to achieve results no better than they could have achieved had they done it themselves.
Despite being warned that this is an illogical choice and will not result in the best possible outcome, they are insistent.
Because they know best.
A few months go by, and they do not see results. They question why and receive an honest answer: you ignored all advice and insisted we do things in a way we warned you would not work.
It has not worked.
This is the outcome we told you to expect and why we strongly recommended doing things differently.
At this point, one of two things happens. They realise their mistake and begin taking the advice, or they see their arse and break their contract, insisting that the expert whose advice they ignored is the problem.
Best case scenario, they waste a few months of their hard-earned cash on a strategy that was never going to work.
Worst case scenario, they begin a pattern of hopping between experts and agencies, who they try for a few months while ignoring advice and insisting things be done their way, then leave because they do not see the results they want.
This is not to say you should blindly follow the advice of anyone claiming to be an expert. Far from it. You should use your judgement and the extent of your knowledge to judge whether or not they are giving sound advice. You can look at their previous clients and case studies to see their results. And, of course, if you follow their advice and feel it is not returning the results you want, you have every right to question it.
The lesson here is to remember that if you are going to hire an expert, ignoring their advice is pointless. If you do not trust their advice, seek a different expert whose strategy and advice you can put your faith in.
You are paying for their expertise; you should benefit from their expertise.
That may mean setting your ego aside and realising that the experts should know better than you. Unless you are an expert in the same area, your expectation should be that their advice and strategy are superior, and that following them will bring you better results.
#2 Unrealistic Expectations About What A Budget Can Achieve
One issue I had while working at the agency was that I wasn’t always responsible for deciding which clients we took on or how much they paid. This occasionally resulted in clients coming to me with very high expectations and very low budgets.
They wanted to drive traffic to their websites, were advised that would require weekly content, onsite optimisation, and offsite work, and received a quote. That quote was higher than their budget, and so they negotiated a lower price.
They failed to realise that by decreasing the amount of work they were having done, they were lowering the results they could achieve. They also didn’t always understand that this wasn’t necessarily a proportional difference.
In other words, going from a strategy that included a weekly blog post to one that only had a monthly blog post would not result in one quarter of the traffic.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that straightforward. When you ask an expert or agency to put together a plan that will achieve your goals, it’s essential to be clear with them about what those goals are and what your budget is.
Listen to advice telling you that x will result in y.
Yes, your knee-jerk reaction may be to think, “Well, they just want me to spend more!” but if they are a reputable company, the truth will be that they are trying to give you a realistic understanding of what you need to invest to achieve your objectives.
Ranking page 1 on Google for high-traffic and high-competition terms is not easily achieved. It requires a hefty investment and consistent effort over a prolonged period of time.
Creating PPC campaigns that consistently generate high-quality leads takes a reasonable budget, consistent effort, and a lot of the time trial and error to find what works and what doesn’t.
Content creation also requires a certain amount of experimentation to see how your audiences react to various forms.
There is no reason you can’t run a successful marketing campaign on a limited budget. The point here is not that you should always spend more money. The point is that you need to be realistic about what can be achieved with your budget.
To give you a real-world example, a previous client was looking to generate £100K in monthly sales. This was following on from a month during the first lockdown in 2020 when their sales hit over £90K. Because they had achieved it once, they believed it was doable repeatedly on the budget they were already investing in their marketing.
It had already been done, therefore, it could be done, therefore, it was reasonable to assume it would be achieved monthly.
The problem was that nothing would ever replicate the conditions that occurred during that first lockdown. And while we did get them further months of £90 and even £100K plus on their existing budget, we were very clear that, once the world went back to ‘normal’, this would not continue.
They would need to invest more – substantially more – in their advertising to replicate those sales levels once the world opened back up again and people could buy their products in the supermarket for a fraction of the price.
Generic figures are very dangerous.
In the pre-COVID world, investing 5% of your target revenue was considered – in some industries – to be sufficient. This was a general figure the business owner had read somewhere and refused to believe didn’t apply to them specifically. The post-COVID figures indicated that, in reality, a business in their specific industry should expect to invest more like 15-20% of its target revenue.
We told them this repeatedly, but the fact they had generated almost £100K on investment of £4K in ad spend had convinced them that they didn’t need to invest more.
Tunnel vision prevented them from understanding that COVID created a unique set of circumstances allowing that to happen. The pandemic simultaneously trashed the economy so that, once we (finally) emerged from all lockdowns and went back to ‘normal’ we were facing an entirely new normal.
It wasn’t realistic to expect the level of sales they wanted on the budget they were willing to invest. Unfortunately, they had got ahead of themselves and moved to a much bigger facility during the pandemic, incurring far higher costs, all on the assumption that the sales they were hoping to achieve could be consistently hit on that budget.
This put them in quite the quandary. They needed to generate the sales they had predicted to cover the costs they had incurred. They couldn’t do this without increasing their advertising investment by three or four times. But that wasn’t affordable with all their costs, even if the target was achieved.
The lesson: make sure your figures fully stack up. Listen to the advice you are given regarding how much you will need to invest to generate your sales targets. Err on the side of caution and assume that advice is correct. If it turns out to be incorrect and you can achieve more for less, then great. But if not, at least you haven’t based your business model on unachievable figures.
#3 Believing That ‘Pausing’ Your Marketing Will Save Money
Consistency is key in marketing. I cannot stress this enough. While some forms of marketing – PPC, for example – lend themselves to stopping and starting a little more than others, generally speaking, results are cumulative. Even with PPC campaigns, this is the case, and stopping and starting is not recommended.
It is particularly true when it comes to content marketing and SEO. Yougain traction the longer campaigns of this nature go on. Stopping will quickly result in a drop in results. When you start up again, things won’t instantly go back to where they were before and continue as they would have if you hadn’t paused.
COVID caused a lot of business owners to look for ways to cut back on their expenses during lockdown. Marketing budgets were, for many, the first thing to go.
The logic was that nobody could buy from them right now, so why spend money on marketing?
While completely understandable, this was problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, by stopping for several months they lost all the momentum they had gained from months or years of consistent effort.
The investment they had been making into their marketing returned nothing as a result.
Second, when they were ready to open up again they had zero interest in what they were offering. So not only did they lose all the business they would have had during lockdown, once restrictions lifted they suffered several months of tumbleweed because they hadn’t maintained ther marketing.
Had they continued with their marketing – even in a diminished or altered way to save money – they could have remained front-of-mind with their audiences. They could have ensured they were one of the first stops once restrictions lifted.
Marketing is an investment you need to allow to mature.
This is a conversation I’ve had multiple times, and not just during COVID. Some situation has arisen and the money that is being spent on marketing suddenly looks good for something else. I’m asked to ‘pause’ the blog for a few months. Or pause SEO efforts for the quarter. Or pause social media posts.
While you can pause any marketing campaign and restart it later, please be aware that you will not be picking up where you left off. Not even slightly. You will backslide while you pause, it will take tain for you to regain momentum, and you are essentually throwing away a good chunk of the return you would have received had you persisted.
If funding your marketing ever becomes an issues, speak to whoever handles it with an open mind and ask them for suggestions. They may be able to think of a way to help you manage costs for a few months without adversely affecting your strategy. They may be able to teach you how to DIY your strategy for those months, so you can save on the expenditure but maintain your investment and traction.
Please do not assume they are telling you it’s a bad idea simply because they don’t want to lose your business. I’m quite sure they don’t – nobody likes losing business – but they are also telling you the truth when they say it’s a bad idea.
Pausing your marketing costs you money in the long run, even if it may save you a bit in the short term.
#4 Investing In Ongoing SEO Work For A Shit Website
This may be last on the list but it’s a BIG one. So many business owners are aware of the importance of SEO and happily invest in ongoing blogging and off-site work like backlinking, blogger outreach and media placements. And yet, they make this investment without first ensuring they have a solid base for their SEO campaign.
That base is their website.
Nobody likes coming to a freelance writer or a digital marketing agency and asking for ongoing blogs, or an ongoing SEO package, only to be told “Sure, we can totally do that, but first you need to build a better website.”
I’ve never once had a client turn around and say, “Oh, GREAT! I’m so excited to have to find an extra £4-20K to spend on a website when I already have one I think is perfectly fine!”
Just doesn’t happen.
And I completely understand why. If you have a website – and particularly one you’ve spent quite a bit of money on – you don’t want a new one. You don’t feel you need a new one. You don’t see the point of a new one. You already have one, why can’t you invest that money in raising the SERP visibility of the website you have? Of boosting the domain authority of the site you already bought?
Here’s the thing, SEO is a lot more complex than simply whacking up a blog or paying for some backlinks. There are a multitude of factors taken into account by the Google gods, and those factors change on a regular basis.
At the moment, the gods are utterly obsessed with User Experience. That means they will penalise a site that is slow. A site that is difficult to navigate. A site with an underwhelming design that fails to hold people’s interest.
It also means that if you bought or built your existing site more than a couple of years ago, you need an upgrade.
Sorry, but you do.
If you’ve been regularly updating your site and maintaining it in those couple of years, you might get away with an overhaul rather than a complete rebuild. But if you haven’t, or if your site wasn’t originally optimised for search properly when it was built, yuo’re going to need a new one.
There are three main reasons for this:
- Optimising the existing structure and content of a site that wasn’t designed and built from the ground up with SEO in mind is usually a lot more time-consuming and expensive than simply starting again. That doesn’t mean losing everything you’ve already built, it just means creating a new foundation for it all to stand on.
- Even if your site was initially optimised for search, things will have changed if it’s more than a couple of years old. What constitutes ‘optimsied’ will have changed. What you want to optimise for will have changed. The search terms people are using will have changed. An overhaul or rebuild allows you to assess and adjust to ensure your site is optimised for your current best practices and business objectives.
- All the money you’re planning on investing in ongoing SEO work will generate a higher return if it’s poured into a modern, well optimsed, user-friendly website. You’re making that investment one way or another, so why wouldn’t you want to maximise your return on it?
Now, your website might be absolutely spot-on. No need to overhaul, update, or rebuild. If that’s the case, then crack on with your ongoing strategy. BUT it is well worth getting an audit of your site done before you invest in any ongoing SEO work. Get advice on any issues your site has, and address these problems before you start your ongoing campaign.
That may mean a new website. Equally, it might mean taking a bit of time at the start to address a few issues without the need to overhaul completely or rebuild. You may also find that your ongoing package allows for onsite corrections and updates monthly, and that this will be enough to address any problems flagged by your audit during the first few months of your contract.
How you get your website up to snuff isn’t the point. Just make sure you do it before you invest a hefty sum in driving traffic to it!
You may have noticed a common theme here, and that is trust. Or rather, a lack of trust. Issues arise when clients – for whatever reason – disregard the advice they are given. They think they know better. Their expectations are too high, and they won’t be dissuaded from believing they are realistic. They’re too focused on short-term savings to hear that pausing will cost them more in the long run. Or they’re reluctant to spend money on a new site when they already have a ‘perfectly good’ one that cost a few grand just a few years ago.
Part of this lack of trust stems from the fact that (with one exception) these particular pieces of advice require you to spend more money. There’s just no getting around that. It’s easy to believe a professional advising you to spend more money with them only offers that advice because they want the extra money.
And I’m not going to sit here and insult your intelligence by telling you that’s not the case. Whether a freelancer or an agency, more money from clients is always good. We are running businesses, after all.
That doesn’t mean we’re offering poor advice in a bid to get more money out of you. It doesn’t mean the investment we suggest isn’t the best strategy to achieve your goals. It doesn’t mean that the new website isn’t going to make a huge difference.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned from watching clients fuck up their businesses is this: if you work with someone – be it a freelancer or an agency – you have to trust them.
If you don’t have trust, they’re a terrible fit for you and vice versa.
Find someone whose judgement you trust, whose advice you can confidently follow even if it goes against your way of doing things.
You’re the boss. They’re working for you and in the best interests of your business.