For the past five years, I’ve been gradually building a career in digital marketing. SEO (search engine optimisation) is my specialism, and I continue to work in this profession to this day. While this post focuses on my experiences in this particular industry, I have a sneaky suspicion that what I’m about to touch on is (sadly) applicable to other verticals as well.
As I’ve dutifully done my time in the ranks, progressing from intern to consultant, something has been increasingly perplexing to me. And the more time I spend in the industry, frankly the more baffled I become.
Why is nobody talking about soft skills?
Go to any SEO conference and I guarantee that 99% of the talks will be technical.
While I’m pleased as punch that we’re still entertaining talks on the ABC of featured snippets (seriously people, hasn’t this topic been done to death a million times over already?), it does rather irk me that all the while soft skills, infinitely more important, barely get a look in.
In an industry where there is no rule book, where the fruits of our labour are entirely dependent on a multitude of wide-ranging factors, from sulky devs to endless bureaucratic red tape, not to mention the ever-changing mystery that is the Google algorithm itself, why oh why aren’t we giving more voice to the one thing that actually makes a difference: the relationship we have with our clients?
What’s the deal?
To be fair to conference organisers, I’m sure that this is as much (if not more) an issue of supply and demand: no-one’s putting themselves forward to speak on soft skills, and no-one seems to want to hear about them.
Are soft skills just not ‘sexy’ enough? C’mon, we all know that there’s absolutely nothing sexy about title tags and REGEX.
Is it because soft skills aren’t respected? The name isn’t helpful. ‘Soft’ has connotations with ‘fluffy’ and ‘wet’, and let’s face it, we all want to be respected for what we do. I think there’s also the assumption that this stuff is ‘easy’, or that we should ‘just know’ how to do it.
Well, I can assure you, we don’t. I’ve seen throughout my career that for most people, this does not come naturally. People don’t ‘just know’ how to build trust with a client, successfully assert boundaries, and challenge the client’s assumptions without simultaneously threatening their ego. We need to be taught these skills, just as much (if not more) than those ‘hard’ skills that are easy to slap on the CV.
Soft skills are hard. They’re bloody hard. In fact, I think that’s one of the real reasons why they are conveniently ignored.
Technical skills are finite. They can be acquired with relative ease and checked off in a nice neat box. They’re easy to assemble into a nice list of accolades for you to feel good about, and to receive recognition for. A sense of progress is easily perceived.
Soft skills are the absolute opposite. They are messy. You do not take a course on client management and then say ‘I can manage clients now’. These skills cannot be easily acquired or shown off. Soft skills take patience, trial-and-error and a willingness to lean in to their subtlety and nuance.
And it’s this that makes them so damn valuable.
Soft skills do not earn gold stars
There are a lot of egos jostling about in the SEO space (seriously, just check out Twitter). I have a theory that a lot of time and energy is spent overcomplicating things just to make people feel better about the fact that, at the end of the day, they’re just doing SEO.
No, we are not brain surgeons or scientists. Our jobs do not save lives. And no, you don’t need a degree to do this stuff.
I think in reality this bothers a lot of people. They want to feel clever, respected, loved and admired. You ain’t gonna get the love for talking about building trust with a client. But show off your technical skills? SEO legend status is confirmed.
At the end of the day, however, SEO is a service-industry. We are here to provide a service to our clients. And you know what? It’s really not about us or how clever we are. The client doesn’t really care that you can build a shiny 20-page dashboard (good for you). They just want to know they can trust you to make their lives easier. And ‘easier’ looks different to every client.
I’ve watched technical superheroes lauded as industry leaders flounder in their client relationships. They struggle to retain clients due to their simple inability (or strategic incompetence) to actually listen to the client (really listen), understand them and focus on being the support that the client needs.
There’s nothing self-serving or glamorous about stepping into the supporting role. But it’s what’s required of us. Too many of us want to be the most clever person in the room. But what we actually need to be is the most astute.
In a nutshell, we SEOs need to get over ourselves.
Why soft skills are the key
In an industry where results are so intangible and often few and far between, to focus solely on achieving these results is a risky move. The only thing in SEO you can tangibly control is the relationship you have with the client.
For so long I wondered if I was the crazy in the corner, the only person that could see the short-sightedness of focusing on technical skills alone. But as I began to successfully lead my own client accounts, it gradually dawned on me that I was right.
Twice now I have received perfect scores across the board for client satisfaction. But let’s face it – does that really mean anything? Maybe the client was just having a good day.
The reality is, as a good consultant, you should have a clear sense of how the client is feeling without the need for tickbox questionnaires. I was once told ‘Would your managee tell you if they were thinking of leaving? Because if they would, that’s the sign you’re a good manager’. I think this applies equally to client relationships.
I can tell you now that we didn’t ‘get lucky’ with this client’s SEO. They’ve had an uphill struggle since a difficult migration a year and a half ago. Yet while results were slow, the relationship blossomed. Why? Because of trust.
In an industry where results can take months, even years, to truly manifest, what is that ‘secret sauce’ that makes clients stick around? The fact they know you’ve got their back.
That’s not achieved by being the most technical person in the room. It’s achieved by being sensitive to the client’s needs, supportive of their concerns and quietly humble in your abilities to make lasting change.
We’re sending the wrong message
The problem isn’t just with the conference circuit. I’ve worked in three agencies now, and time and again it’s the technical skills that receive the considerable majority of time, energy and focus.
Aside from the fact that we’re neglecting to promote the skills needed to actually do our jobs well, there’s a far more sinister issue at play here: we’re also alienating those who have a natural affinity towards this skillset.
If people in our industry only see super technical people given accolades and praise, then those of us whose strengths lie in other areas can feel like we don’t belong. It actually really worries me that the very people we need to see more of in this industry are those that we could be pushing away.
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve felt like I haven’t belonged here. When people around me are getting excited about SQL or BigQuery, I simply want to hit the snooze button. Talk to me about mentoring, training and client management, and now you’ve got my attention.
I’m perfectly capable of doing technical SEO audits, building Google Data Studio dashboards and using REGEX to speed up elements of my work. However, this isn’t really the true essence of me.
I’m not saying that we don’t need extremely technical people in our industry and that they shouldn’t share their work. But what I want to emphasise is that we can and should have lots of flavours of SEO specialist, each bringing something valuable to the table.
I wish we would do a better job of acknowledging that there is no single or best way to be a good SEO. When people don’t feel like they fit in, it really robs them of their confidence. And without confidence, people cannot flourish.
This doesn’t just minimise their potential, but it also deprives the rest of us from the special blend of gifts that they can (and should) bring to the table.
Step into your power
I know that writing this post probably won’t have a big impact on things in the industry as a whole. In my own place of work, I can (and am starting to) make steps to turn this around by giving soft skills the spotlight they deserve. This is thankfully with the support of the wider team which I am grateful for.
If you recognise the issues I’ve outlined in this post, please try to change this in your place of work by bringing soft skills into the wider discussion and hosting training sessions to upskill your team. If you’re a conference organiser, please make it clear you’re keen to hear on a wider range of SEO topics (not just technical ones).
And finally, for those of you who know you’re playing it small because you think that your natural abilities in this arena aren’t valuable: I promise you, they are. Please step up and take the stage (both literally and metaphorically) because your soft skills are a superpower, and we all need to learn from you.
Image credit: Zbysiu Rodak at Unsplash