Now, in a sense, that’s a dumb question, because we all need to be both at times, but I was put in the frame of mind to ask it because of a recent encounter with a prospective client. As I explained how important social media is to her organic search results, she stopped me and barked, “I want search, not social,” showing the irritation of someone who has been sold something different from what she needed once too often. At that moment, I had a decision to make. It’s the moment where a consultant can lose a client—or break through the normal blather.

When I was younger, I tried very hard to give people what they asked for. I even felt bad about “upselling” them into things that they didn’t think they needed. But I have learned that what helps clients the most isn’t giving them what they want but filling their real needs. Identifying what they really need is more important than the solution to the problem. Any good consultant can solve a problem that has been identified. You create lifelong clients when you can consistently show them what they are missing and solve those problems.

Often, marketing is stuck on tactics. Clients often approach me to tell me what they need, and it is almost universally about tactics: “We’re looking for an SEO consultant” or “We want to get into social media” or the dreaded “Our boss says he wants to be on Twitter.”

While I can help clients who need these things, it’s worth asking what value they expect these tactics to deliver. It’s worth probing how these tactics fulfill a deeper strategic purpose. It’s worth investigating how we’ll recognize success. Those questions start to peel away the blizzard of tactics and reveal the underlying strategies that spell the difference between merely doing something and achieving results.

So, after my prospective client interrupted my soliloquy on the importance of social media to organic search with a withering, “I want search, not social,” I paused, sat back in my chair, and took a chance.

“You don’t want search or social,” I slowly said. “What you want is higher brand awareness,better offline leads, and more sales. Search is one way to get that. Social is another. They work together really well, but there are other tactics that can deliver those results, too. I am happy to help you with whatever tactics you think you need, but I think you’ll be more successful if you think in terms of your strategy and develop the tactics that serve you the best.”

Luckily, that changed the conversation completely. She was now very willing to listen to what I had to say and we started to talk about the success metrics that made the most sense to her. In the end, it will of course come down to tactics, but starting with them is not the path to success.

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