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The Magic of Client Management with Kirk Williams


Kirk Williams is owner & minion of ZATO, his PPC agency and has been in Paid Search since 2010. In 2015, Kirk was named one of the Top 5 Rising Stars of PPC by PPC Hero and one of the 30 Best PPC Experts to Follow by White Shark Media. He has written for Moz, PPC Hero, Search Engine Land, and the Bing Ads blog, and has spoken at SMX, Hero Conf, and State of Search. If you follow him on Twitter, you know he likes to make dumb PPC Memes!

Take-aways and Actionable insights:

  • There’s a lot more to learn about client management than basic soft skills, but we often miss the opportunity to have deeper conversations about it.
  • Understanding client needs leads to better analysis and better results.
  • Marketers can learn a lot  simply by reading business and insurance books.
  • When a client is unengaged, rather than just coasting or trying to change things, seek to understand why.
  • Each organization needs to determine whose job it is to push back or say no to the client.


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Detailed Show Notes

Amy:  Lately you’ve been advocating for paid search folks to pay more attention to client management. I’m wondering what events led you to really publicly focus on this?

Kirk:   Yeah, I think probably a lot of it started because as an independent guy –  that’s why I like to say “owner and minion”, because it’s just me – so I think some of that has forced me to do a lot more work on the client management side than I would have. I used to work in house, and there I obviously focused more on the account side of things. But I think actually being forced to do more on the client-side was when I started to say “hey, I think this is more of a vital part than I had realized” – and maybe than we realize.

I tried various writing or pitching sessions, and usually the feedback I would receive back from them was somewhat similar; They’d say “hey we’ve tried that kind of thing in the past,” referring to client management type of things, and “they’re just not a high turn-out.” You know blogs, article, conferences – they have their own level of ROI and want to get the most bang for their buck. So basically it doesn’t seem like people want that.

Blogs, article, conferences – they have their own level of ROI and want to get the most bang for their buck

That’s when you’d start hearing buzzwords like “actionable”, and “practical for accounts” and “we prefer sessions that really give someone something they can walk away with – a tangible something they can do tomorrow” type of a deal. Which, to be fair, are great – I like those too. So thinking through those things led me to think about this a little bit more, do a little bit of research and then kind of write that one post on PPC Hero.

What we want isn’t always what’s best for us

Amy:  You bring up an interesting point, basically people are not accepting submissions because there is not the demand for it. That is not what people want to hear.  I feel like it’s almost full circle, because a lot of times what our clients want is not necessarily what’s best for them. They will say “oh I want more keywords, and I want this other thing,” and it’s like “uh, that won’t help you.” It doesn’t actually make a difference, but it’s just what they want. So you mentioned us wanting something – I guess “us”  being the PPC search community- we want things that are actionable. Do you think there’s a way to make client management sessions – or just the conversation – is there a way to make it more actionable than it currently might be?

Kirk:   Yeah I think that’s a really good question because in my opinion, I think some of the reasons client management has a bad rap – and this is being said, not from a guy who has it figured out, but from a guy who is trying to figure it out too – I just want to be very careful about that – it’s not like any of us have this all figured out. But I do think that there are times where I will read a client management post, and this actually literally just happened a couple of days ago, someone had released a post and I was like “oh a client management post!”  I started reading it – and it was just really general, kind of the soft skills type of, “you need to become a better person” type of a thing.  And I think that’s what people think of for client management. And in some ways it is, to be fair.

The importance of a PPC-specific client management dialog

Kirk: So kind of going back to your question, I  think that’s something we can grow at in pitching for or speaking at in this client managements posts or sessions. Or more specifically, taking aspects of client management that may be soft skills and then saying “this is a time that it happened in PPC”, and “this is why it is a little bit unique in PPC even though it does have to do with more general people skills that we should have anyways.” And then maybe, “here is how we dealt with it, or here is how we see it.”

So in some ways I think actually trying to get more practical, actionable, like “this is actually why it is important for PPC and not just as a life skill,” although it is all of those things, I think would help with that a little bit more.

This is actually why it is important for PPC and not just as a life skill.

Because the concern, and I’ve heard this a lot and it’s valid, the concern is like, if you are at  Hero Conf, do you really want to go to “How to be a better sales man or salesperson” – do you really want to go to that session? To me it is like, no I agree, but maybe someone who came and pitched like this, “hey, here are the 5 specific things I use in selling PPC,” and then maybe they have some specific, “here is a PPC report that I love showing to prospects to demonstrate my ability,” and stuff like that, so it is a lot more like PPC related. I actually think that could be really helpful.

Amy:  Yeah I do think that makes a lot of sense, and I tend to agree. That’s always my fear, I don’t want to hear about soft skills even, if it is something I am bad at. I feel like I could get that information elsewhere and they are just going to say, “oh establish relationship of trust, you know, flatter them.”

I’m like okay, great, I don’t know that was really worth my conference attendance to get that level of advice.

I think if something were really actionable and specific to paid search… “What are my clients problems and how can I help them solve it?” Because a lot of times, and I think this is what you are saying, a lot of times we act like we are so results oriented and data-driven, but at the end of the day we are dealing with people. And people are having bad days, and people don’t understand what we’re saying, and people care about different things than just their numbers. And if we’re only focused on numbers and not them, we’re not doing it very well. They are not going to cut us very much slack either. The whole overall account management experience goes so much better than when we just get the result, but we’re like “oh, my client’s a moron” and we just don’t have that relationship.

Kirk:   Yeah I think that’s exactly it. I use pricing a lot just because it’s easy one for me as an example. I actually put thinking through agency pricing as part of that client management aspect, because how are you going to pitch your pricing? How are you going to think through your pricing? How are you going to discuss raises and things like that? To me that’s  a good example of how a specific discussion about PPC pricing is super, super valuable. Someone could argue and say, “well just go get some basic business skills and think through pricing models and blah blah blah” – and some of that for me is, honestly I just don’t have those. A lot of people I know didn’t go to business school.

Sometimes it’s even more of a discussion of “well that’s great, when do we have time to go do that?” But then some of it is there are specific aspects of PPC that are going to make pricing very different from SEO, from local, from social, from car mechanic, right? There are different aspects, so again if you could have a session or a post that actually starts digging in – like goes past to the easy soft skill and stays at that surface and really goes deeper into like the specifics of the differences – I actually think people really are interested in that stuff, maybe more than they realize. Maybe some of it is just trying to get down to that level a lot deeper in the PPC realm with the soft skills and all that.

If you could have a session or a post that actually starts digging in – like goes past to the easy soft skill and stays at that surface and really goes deeper into like the specifics of the differences – I actually think people really are interested in that stuff, maybe more than they realize.

Amy:  That’s a real interesting point that people are more interested than they realize. There are some things I am thinking, “well I don’t really need that or that’s not applicable” and someone presented in a certain way – “whoa, I had no idea how much behavioral psychology was affecting this thing that I just never really was thinking about.” So that’s a really interesting challenge of there to present things in a way that really does make people think, and kind of raises that level of consciousness or awareness about it. I like that idea.

The left brain / right brain debate

Amy: As a business owner, you’ve got a really clear need on focusing on client management more. If you’re looking at a practitioner who doesn’t have their own agency and who would rather not be client facing, sort of behind-the-scenes, do you think there’s room for that? For people to just drive results, kind of separating out account manager and client manager? So that someone could be really good at one skill, but not necessarily good at another, or do you think that segregation is a myth and someone needs to be good at both in order to really succeed?

Kirk:   Yeah I know, that’s a really good question. I’ve actually had arguments on twitter about that. I think I fall into the camp that there is a natural segregation – I’ll just blatantly put myself there for people to tell me I’m wrong and that’s fine – I do think that we as people do have different skills. Call it nature or nurture whatever you want, I think some people are really great at talking to people, and some people are really good at just spending hours in data, going deeper and deeper, while the rest of us – our eyes are glazing over.

So I think I would say there is a level where I think we are slanted one way or the other on that to varying degrees, and yet to me, as successful people, we also should always be growing in the other one. So if I know that maybe I’m more geared to be either a data person or a people person, maybe I should start trying to work towards growing in skills in the other area.

I think that’s not just to pat myself on the back and feel better, I actually think it will better you as a person. To get back to your question, I think that a person who is so data driven that they are not people helpful at all, that there is a concern there. So much of data is about context and being able to take it and communicate it to the client. Even as I’m pulling reports and trying to dig into things, I have context about this client and their preferences.

So much of data is about context and being able to take it and communicate it to the client.

A client may be really worried about Quality Score, and as I’m really focusing on pulling this data about quality score maybe I’m going to make sure I am shifting what I am reporting to them because I know that they are going to be focused on that. I can bring more of the emphasis on conversions or something like that.

So I feel like it’s definitely not going to hurt a company if their data analysts are growing in people skills and understanding the client they are working on. I think that it’s just going to be better in the long run as they are making decisions, because those decisions aren’t made in a vacuum.

Amy:  I think that’s a great answer, and that definitely speaks to my experience. Again, that there’s a person on the other end of it.

As people want to continue to automate and do things more programmatically, you need to have someone making those decisions of where to focus. You can’t just completely remove the human from it, but it has me thinking: “unless we move the human from the client end as well,” and everything is just automated. But as long as your clients are human, I think it does speak to needing to have a human working on the account too.

think that does make a lot of sense why you would want to have someone who is very analytics focused to sort of grow in their client management skills. How do you think that people can best to do that? If we are going to start having the goal of growing, and  how you are communicating with clients. What would be a good stepping stone to start making that initial journey towards being better at that?

Kirk:   That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve really thought about that too much in terms of where we’re at right now. As the industry stands right now, probably it would be trying to find some books or experts (see Resources section for Kirk’s recommendations of books). I’ve read books on selling by insurance salesmen …actually I’ve learned a ton by my father-in-law, he’s in insurance sales, and he does a phenomenal job at selling.  I think some of that is finding people who are really good at aspects, like relational aspects, and trying to learn from them. Humility is probably always a good one – to admit that they are better in that gets you the frame of mind where you are willing to listen .

Getting on the same page with clients and employees

Amy:  I think it’s a question that comes up a lot: “my client doesn’t understand X or Y.” Often times the easy answers are “oh you need to educate them,” or else sometimes, this is done less, but “you need to have empathy.” Both of those are really easy to say. “Just educate them, just explain it to them, just have empathy.” But how is empathy an actionable, applicable kind of next step? I don’t know what that looks like for why my client is demanding I add 3,000 keywords. Am I supposed to just say “okay I get it”?  How do you apply that?

think that for me, this is a little bit where the rubber hits the road. I understand why client management is important, I understand it is going to help me in my career, but how do I do it? A session on that, how you actually apply these things. How do you educate someone if they don’t care about it? How do you educate them so they do care and it changes something for them rather than just understanding? “Okay now I know what CTR means.” How do educate them in a meaningful way? I would attend a session on that, I really would.

I understand why client management is important, I understand it is going to help me in my career, but how do I do it?

Kirk:   Another aspect though you brought up that’s interesting to me…Good to Great talks about getting the right people on the bus. If someone was to tell me “I have absolutely no interest in growing,” I don’t want empathy for them. That’s almost like a red flag for me in terms of whether they are going to be a good fit with my agency. There’s a difference between someone wanting to grow and not really knowing how, and someone who doesn’t really care. Those are definitely different things too, because often times someone who wants to learn and is observing the world around them is willing to get into the books – is going to naturally grow with that as well just by virtue of the fact that they are willing to.

Amy: Yeah that’s a good point.

Kirk: I’m independent here, so the agency owners who are hiring and firing can laugh at me and they are free to do that. A big part of that to me is also trying to really make sure that the right person is on the team. You can train someone who wants to learn and grow. And that kind of goes back to your point about the data analyst.. maybe there would be a point where because of money or whatever I don’t have the option – maybe I would be forced to hire someone. But to me, having someone who is really good at data analysis and maybe having to pay a little more because they also demonstrate the ability to communicate about it – so that I can  actually have them on a call once in a while, if the client has a deeper account question than I know to answer. If I can trust that they are going to have the ability to communicate well with that client, and yet be able to go really deep in that data, how much more available is that person to me as an agency owner?

If I can trust that they are going to have the ability to communicate well with that client, and yet be able to go really deep in that data, how much more available is that person to me as an agency owner?

Amy:  You know I think that’s an interesting point, I actually had a job where I managed the account and someone else was the client manager. They were separate roles, and it was the most infuriating thing. We would jump on the calls and the client would say they want all this nonsense and the client manager would say “okay sure we can do that,” I am like “no we can’t, that is counterproductive to your goals, if we focus on that you’re going to lose leads.” They said “that’s not your job to tell the client, that that’s not your job to say no.” Whose job is it to say no? Because sometimes you have to say no, because you are dealing, again, with someone who has an assumption. If it’s the wrong assumption, someone has to correct that, or you are going to tank the account. So to me, being in the realm of having those completely separate activities is really not ideal.

I’ve actually interviewed some people who have done it well, they have someone who could speak really well with the client who is handling all the day to day email, and they are both on the same page but they have just divided those roles. If that works for someone, more power to them for finding a solution where someone’s entire time isn’t taken up by emails. But for the most part you would have to be a really, really good practitioner to be able to say “I don’t like people, I don’t care about communicating with people, and I don’t care to learn about that” and still have anyone want you on their team. It’s not progressive, it’s not conducive to the growth of any agency to have someone like that.

You would have to be a really, really good practitioner to be able to say “I don’t like people, I don’t care about communicating with people, and I don’t care to learn about that” and still have anyone want you on their team.

Kirk:   I agree. It’s interesting- I have heard of various agencies who do like a client manager account/manager type of experience. I’ve never been an agency like that, so it’s interesting to hear your perspective. I have had similar experiences as an agency, let’s just say being white listed with an SEO company, but they are always the client contact. In some ways you almost always have the exact relationship, and all of those are real frustrating unless there is some point where I as the PPCer can communicate directly with the client. I would not be excited about working with that model, although lots of agencies do it, which suggests that maybe I’m missing something. It would be interesting to get some of the reasoning behind that, but I think your concerns are exactly what I would be concerned would happen.

Amy:  Yeah I think I’ve seen it happen just as resource allocation. There are only so many people who can talk about paid search, or who can speak to clients and know enough about paid search to not sound like an idiot when they do it. Those people, they want on as many client-facing accounts as possible, so then they have more people who are actually the ones doing all the work, while someone else is talking to the clients. But again, if you can just combine the skills of speaking and analyzing – you can do that well, you can be human about things and be smart about things,  that’s almost like getting into “unicorn” territory unfortunately. But it is such a desirable skill set. That’s what we look for when we are trying to hire people. We want to make sure someone can do both and not that they are only good at one of the two, because that makes everyone else’s job a lot harder.

Kirk:    Could it be that agencies built on that model should be almost working to get those more of the account manager side –  specifically allocating time and resources to grow them in client management skills for that reason? Could that be something that would serve them if they start doing that now? Within a few years they have another crop of people who would be able to communicate better as those account managers, as they have been learning PPC skills?

Amy:  I think when we’re dealing with a really large agency, they’re fine with having someone with one or two years of experience who doesn’t quite know how things work very well, who can have all those layers of someone saying, “oh I need you to go back and do it this way or do it that way,” having to be corrected. Especially if you are dealing with a smaller agency where every team member really counts, and you have to be contributing to the bottom line or else it’s not going to work, then definitely you do want to get people who can do both. Whether it is you training them or them “self-educating.” Just being willing to learn, and willing to learn outside the job, not spending hours of work time going to training meetings about how to communicating with clients. If someone is willing to do that, that will make them a lot more hirable and valuable where they can charge more because they’re worth more.

Kirk:   Yeah maybe even mentoring, where they are actually sitting on muted on calls, maybe just observing how things are handled with the client. So much of what I have learned is more like a mentoring and being mentored role, in really observing how things are done. Perhaps that’s a way agencies could help grow their own account managers, continuing to grow them and the client as well. I admit, it definitely is a different game, you put yourself in different people’s shoes and it could be that there aspects of it that are difficult that I’ve never had to consider, not being a Jeff Allen or Larry Kim.

Amy: Definitely, everyone’s situation is different. When it comes to hiring, we can choose who is on our team and who is on the bus like you said. When it comes to working with clients, sometimes you could have an absolute dream client, but whoever is currently in the position of managing marketing may or may not have any idea how it works, or care how it works. And that’s a lot harder to control. Because people move in and out of those roles, the budget stays the same and the goals stay the same. But you could have someone who is committed to understanding paid search and you could have someone who just doesn’t care, which completely alters the relationship with the client, even if the actual company remains the same.

Do you have any suggestions on how someone could improve working with a client that maybe doesn’t understand or care about PPC? So the goals are being met but the client – you talk to them and you can almost hear them nodding off. You ask a question and it is just dead silence and they just are not interested in it at all. Do you have any suggestions of how to get someone more engaged, or is that a “let me know when you figure it out” sort of question?

Kirk:   You know it’s interesting, because in some ways the unengaged/uninterested clients are also the easiest. In some ways, it’s almost like, “well, you got it, you do whatever you want.” Okay that sounds great.  Some of that might be, where is that stemming from? Is it stemming from: they don’t trust PPC, they don’t trust you? Is it literally “I’m so busy, I have so many things going on that if you are doing a decent job so it’s one less thing to worry about honestly I don’t care, just do it”? Sometimes in those instances, because the poor person is just so busy, it’s not like I’m stressing out to try to get them more engaged or interested, to be honest. Perhaps if they are uninterested because of trust, then maybe that’s where it gets more into trying to figure that out and prove them wrong, or try to at least figure out: is it PPC, is it your agency, was there a past experience they had that was negative? The more you know about that, the more that you can demonstrate how you are different.

When a client’s not engaged, what’s it stemming from? They don’t trust PPC? They don’t trust you? They are literally too busy to get involved, and just want you to solve it?

Amy:  Those are some really good suggestions. It’s a funny position to be in when you are always blown off. “Well I guess that’s less work for me.” I’m someone who is – if I am not proving results, if I’m not coming across as being competent, just worthy of being in the position I am –  I freak out and I hate it. So I guess maybe that bugs me more than a different personality type, who’s like “hey, this just got easier!” No! Care! Reward me for doing well.

Kirk:   Definitely, if there is an obvious issue, it’s not just “hey, things are going well, I don’t care, you’re doing well, I’m going to let you keep doing well.” That is different. But to me trust, where I usually see it, isn’t even so much uninterested. Sometimes it’s those questions or almost “I need to help you take over this account.” Sometimes it seems to me like the less they trust me, the more they get engaged.

Amy:  That’s fair. They are all kinds of clients out there, and sometimes that’s exactly how it plays out. You’ve got someone who’s trying to micromanage. “No, no now you just ruined everything, no!”

Kirk:   In some ways that’s part of client management. Every single client is so different, like every situation. An owner of the company is going to be different than a marketing manager, who’ll be different than some middle-manager person that you are reporting to. And then their personalities are going to be different on top of that. So trying to figure out how to best communicate with all of them can kind of make you go crazy.

Amy: It can, and then you find out the person who has been your contact actually was not representing what the CEO actually wanted at all. We look like such idiots right now.

Kirk:   Or your contact leaves their job, and you get a new person. Maybe you had a good relationship with that contact, and you basically have to prove yourself completely over again.

Amy: Oh, yes that’s the worst. Whenever anyone new comes in, they want to make their mark right away. They have got their own inferiority complex or imposter syndrome working for them. So they are like, “we’re going to change everything!” And it’s no fun for the first three months, until they realize, “okay, you actually did know what you are doing, and we’re good. Nevermind about all those reports I made you pull.” So, fun times with fun clients.

The Pros and Cons of Agency Ownership

Amy: Owning your own agency, what would you say is the best part of having your job?

Kirk:   I think the flexibility. That’s one everyone expects, but it is nice. If something happens with, “oh I need to watch the kids,” I can do that for an hour and then make that hour up that night. So that’s really awesome. Although more and more, remote job offerings are allowing that too which is cool. I think the biggest thing I like about it is, if you land a client, you see that initial income boost. It’s yours.

If you land a client, you see that initial income boost…It’s yours.

You are not like, landing this – you did all this work, figured out exactly how to make the sale, you pitched it, you landed the sale – and then you get a little part of that, or you just to get your hourly pay and then your agency gets it. They can, and they are the agency. But doing it for yourself, so that you just immediately see that revenue boost, is awesome.

So the flip side of course, the negative side, is that if you screw up there is no one to blame but yourself, and you’ll immediately lose that.

Amy:  That’s true. If someone wanted to be where you are professionally – they want to have their own agency- what steps should they take to kind of get where Kirk Williams is?

Kirk:   Well actually I wrote an article on that on PPC Hero. So that might prove to be helpful, but basically I think a huge part of it is the timing thing.

I think there is a lot of needing to think through where you are financially, where you are in your life situation. Are you able to put yourself at risk? Because you really are. If you go from a job where you have relatively fixed income, relative stability, to hopping out and getting all your own clients, there is definitely a risk factor. If your wife is two months away from having a child like mine is, and you break now, maybe that’s not the best time. You’re going to lose your insurance. So I think there is some practical wisdom.

Then a big part of it is going to be building relationships for getting referrals, and to me that’s something that anyone can do. There are PPC communities out there: the Google AdWords community, Twitter has #ppcchat, I like participating in that, Reddit has a PPC community, LinkedIn. There are ways to build relationships there over time. And I kind of go over all of that in my blog post, too. I think there are some things you can do to prepare yourself. If that’s your goal, you can get to that point and make that transition. It’s always a little risky, I guess that’s life.

Amy:  And if someone wants to contact you @ppckirk on twitter is the best way to do that?

Kirk:   Yes.

Amy:  Well thank you so much for this candid discussion we’ve had had about client management. I feel like I’ve got a lot more questions now which is always good – when you have a conversation that sparks more questions like, “oh, what if I approach it that way?… I know the sessions that I would want to attend about client management now.”

Kirk:   That’s kind of what I’m hoping at this point, I hope in no way in my post I’ve ever communicated that I have all the answers. because I think it’s more of that, “hey let’s look at this. Do we need to change this? Let’s start the conversation.” That always has lots of questions.

Hey, let’s look at this. Do we need to change this? Let’s start the conversation.


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