These are a couple of bad news stories that fortunately finish with happy endings and with some lessons for you. For these two new clients, March was not a good month, with each of them going through their own online marketing horror story. Fortunately, we were able to be the knights in shiny web-page armour and helped remove them as quickly as we could from the proverbial smelly stuff.

I’ll start with the worst of the two stories.

It began with the client engaging an individual on a retainer basis to help them as their online lead generation consultant. They selected this person as they had some good experience in the industry and they were also a personal friend, whom they had worked with in a prior business.

This new consultant was tasked with looking after the whole lead generation process from attracting web traffic to converting it into leads on the client’s site. The client was new to all things online so the consultant was pretty much left to their own devices. They managed the Google AdWords and Analytics account and even the system they used to collect and respond to leads. All this started to get some action as their work started to bear fruit.

As the client knew very little, the consultant chose to initiate the new account set-up process with the main vendors involved – namely Google and the lead capture software vendor. During this process, he passed subsidiary login details to the client but retained the master level account status.

Each month the client received a small report about what was going on – attached to this was a steadily growing account for the consultant’s services. The client then asked questions about what was happening and why the fees were heading north but nothing was forthcoming. The lead flow was a trickle compared with what they expected and because of this the cost per lead was a problem and not commercially viable. So they started looking further afield for advice.

They came to us during this stage of the process. As is normal for clients arriving at this stage, we offered to complete a general audit of their existing lead generation efforts. We were supplied the necessary account login details and a description of their desired objectives, and then kicked this process off.

During this assessment work we registered as leads onto their website – just to see how easy it was and to look at the messages that were being sent out. We did the same for their email newsletter sign up – in fact, for every conversion option on their website we filled in our details and sat back to experience their prospect promotion.

On first glance, it all looked quite good. Yes, there were some issues with the form design and the amount of data they were collecting (too much too early) but overall things looked reasonable. That was until the existing supplier noticed our contact details in the leads coming in. They were not happy.

Of course the client was fine during all this – they wanted some ‘warts and all’ feedback on how their website was performing. But what they didn’t expect was how the existing consultant would react.

Within a few moments of the consultant finding out that we were involved they a) shut down the client’s access to their website; b) changed the master passwords on the client’s Google AdWords and Google Analytics account and, to finish it all, c) altered the passwords for the lead capture system so all the client’s leads were now hidden to them. Nice.

The client only found this out when she noticed that it had been a few days since a sales lead had come through. And when she tried to login to her website to load up a newsletter, she found to her dismay that her access details were being denied.

Needless to say, when she contacted the consultant asking what was happening she received a barrage of complaints about why Permission were involved at all, and what right did we have to look around ‘their’ work (which, I might add, the client had already paid for in full).

Quite quickly, things became very heated and relationships fell apart. The client called me late one afternoon telling me what had happened and I couldn’t believe their story. Within minutes we had a plan to wrest back control of the site – our first priority. Fortunately, she did own the domain and the hosting account. Passwords to both these were quickly changed and then we got into doing some rather devious things to break into the site’s content management system to reset the password. Once this was achieved we focused on capturing the leads that were still flowing in.

We had the client quickly set up a new lead capture account and then ‘plumbed’ the conversion forms in to this and set up the auto-response emails as best we could. Next up was changing her Google accounts.

As luck would have it during the early stages of the review I had taken a copy of their Google AdWords account so I could best show them what was broken. This proved very helpful later on but first we had to establish a new Google Analytics account, set up all the necessary goals and then overlay this onto the new linked AdWords account. Having my copy made this last step achievable and took a few minutes as opposed to the days of work we would have faced if we had to start from scratch.

Yes, the client had ‘lost’ all their historical website analytics data and, more importantly, the leads that had not been sent through before things blew up, but at least they had wrestled back control.

So here are the three lessons you can take away from my Horror Story No 1.

Lesson No 1 – Own your Google AdWords and Google Analytics account. Each of these tools allows you to easily ‘invite’ (and de-invite if you want) others to help you manage your work. Add to this list any other application, especially a lead capture and responding tool.

All Permission clients have the master status on their accounts, with us having the necessary access to manage the content that sits within them. So they ‘own’ their Google AdWords account, their Analytics account, and any other account type we need to get their lead generation system into shape.

As an aside, only a few days after this event I was introduced to a small team within a major High street financial institution who had their advertising agency manage their Google AdWords advertising. Only recently, they found out that this agency had chosen to sub-contract another online agency (without their knowledge) to manage this work for them. Not only does this raise some rather serious ethical issues, heaven knows what will happen to any of the great marketing data that is being collated as a result of this campaign.

Lesson No 2 – At the outset of any lead generation project, set clear objectives on what the project is to achieve. These should highlight specific results you want your consultant to deliver on. Remember those rather vague responses that were attached to their invoice? There would have been a lot more transparency if both parties knew the exact results that were expected. For instance, an expected lead count per month, or maybe a search ranking figure for a certain keyword, or even a cost per lead rate from all Google AdWords traffic – all of these are good objectives.

Lesson No 3 – Treat the management of your sales leads with the same respect you would the management of your hard-earned cash. In reality they reflect your future ability to create the latter. So would you let someone else manage your cash within a process that wasn’t transparent to all? Now, I know that there are a few who have lost millions of dollars only recently by allowing this to happen to them, but you’re smarter than that – aren’t you?

Horror Story No 2

As I mentioned before, this one is relatively mild compared with the previous story BUT, again, it’s a story that I had to have confirmed before I believed it actually happened. It involves a website, a developer, a client – and a dispute.

I know there are a lot of website developers out there who are good, honest people who create sites that their clients absolutely love. I’m sure of it. Fortunately, we know of a few, so when someone needs a site created we pass their details on knowing that there’s a very good chance a happy story will be the result.

But, saying all this, you would be surprised to know how many people walk through our doors with a website build story that is full of strife. Missed deadlines, poor design and all with lots of promise coupled with a paucity of delivery are just some of the stories we hear. So it was not a surprise when this client came to us with a tale of something similar.

It had all started out well – it usually does, or it doesn’t start 🙂 . Then there was a change of staff at the web design company and the ‘client facing’ person was off on maternity leave, which left the technical guru behind them to take control of the project. This staff change coincided with all future ‘client to developer’ communication now being via email. From then until now there was not one phone call made to the client. Now this is some achievement as their project went on for 2–3 months.

Email is great, but it still can’t replace the need to talk to someone sometimes and, while it wasn’t the only reason, it didn’t help matters, and the website build started to head off the tracks and into a dark place where the project just drags on – and on. This is the space where everyone involved just wants to get the project resolved as quickly as possible.

This generally means that along the way things are missed and the original scope is lost in the build process as the job gets handed from developer to developer. No surprises that this happened here and things that were expected by the client failed to materialize and what did arrive wasn’t expected. As were the contents of the final bill, which were a fair bit different from what was quoted – not a lot mind you, just enough to make it worth an email from the client. And that’s when things became rather inflamed.

The tirade that came back to the client from the developer was extreme to say the least. Things had obviously been boiling up for a while and the questioning of the account was the final straw. Apparently, the email message went on for pages (I never saw the original) but it was the final paragraphs that had the real punch. They were to the effect that if the account was not settled by a set time then the site would be taken down and not re-instated until the funds had been collected. Nice #2.

So the client had no choice but to pay the bill but, within a few minutes, was on the phone to me to see how they could extricate themselves from the situation.

Now I realise that, as a supplier, the developer has to guard themselves against customers asking them to do work and then not paying – so they need some recourse. But still, to threaten this when all the customer is doing is questioning the account? This doesn’t bode well for a mutually satisfying future relationship.

Anyway, we needed to know more before we could get this client moving again. First up was the subject of intellectual property. Who owned what – specifically to do with the site’s content and its content management system? I had the client go back and check the terms and conditions the supplier had sent them before starting the project. Guess what – there weren’t any.

Then they somehow had to gently find out if they could move the site to a different hosting account – one that they could own – as a short-term step to wrest back control. This is not a subject that is easy to broach AFTER a project has started but, nevertheless, they are making progress. The developer is playing difficult but the client is making slow, steady progress. And, yes, in the wings is a nice tame developer we have introduced them to who is able to manage things once the move takes place.

So what are the three lessons with this one?

Lesson No 1 – It’s true, only the paranoid survive. This is the title of a great business book by Andy Grove, the then CEO of Intel – but also a good mind state to be in – even if just for a short time before you start that next website build. Then you can ask yourself questions like – what happens if we end up in a dispute – who will arbitrate it? What documents show clearly who owns what? How do we protect all the work we put into this project? It doesn’t need to get into small 6 point type and fill three pages – but if you want to fall back on it then have your lawyer look over it and ask your developer to agree to it. And if they offer terms and conditions to you, check through that 6 point type to see what answers they have to questions like these.

Lesson No 2 – I was once told to never hold a credit card with the same bank I banked with. I assume the theory goes that if things get very tight financially and people are shutting accounts down left, right and centre then at least you have a piece of plastic with some credit on it to get you by. So I think the same should apply to your website hosting – that is, never host your site with the people who developed it. Some content management systems make this a challenge, but most allow it to work. Do this and you will never have some testy developer threaten to take down your site unless you pay their account.

Lesson No 3 – Generally, it takes more time to properly specify any creative work, like a website build, than the actual creative work will take. And this is one of the main reasons why so many web build projects head off the rails so quickly and so dramatically.

Most people entering into projects like this rely too much on what is said rather than what is written. So while email was the chosen mode of communication for a large part of this project – and this caused some issues – IF the project had been accurately specified at the start, it would have had a higher chance of survival.

As another aside, late last year I came across a person who does just this – specify websites for clients. He then goes a bit further and helps them engage suppliers to build them, too. Peter has been in the industry for ages, does a great job, charges reasonably for his services and guess what – his projects end in happy stories.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to engage Peter on their next project BUT time spent documenting what needs to be done and why – as if there was little chance of verbal communication – is time well invested.

So there you have it – two horror stories and six lessons that I hope you can learn from. All I can say is that I only hope that April doesn’t bring with it any more stories like these.