Your staff are your customers
The shortage of qualified people is one of the biggest problems the search marketing industry faces right now. Being unable to find people who deeply understand the peculiar rules of this industry and have the unique balance of skill sets required to be effective within it affects both companies attempting to build in-house search teams and SEM agencies.
Search marketing is white-hot right now, and recruiters know it. Some of your own people have likely received friendly calls from recruiters, competing agencies, or companies building in-house search teams, and it's clear they're trying to poach your best talent. Although there's no one-size-fits-all rulebook for preventing poaching, you need to minimize it, because you've invested so much in your people. For example, at Did-it, it takes an account manager many months of intensive training to become a qualified operator of our campaign automation platform. Other best-practice SEM agencies likely invest an equivalent amount in their people to ensure that they are capable of executing profitable campaigns for their clients, so it's obviously a bad thing should such people walk away after receiving a better offer from a competitor.
A few years ago, during the initial boom of the interactive agency space, keeping valuable employees in place was often a simple matter of waving stock options in front of them, but this is not an option today, and that's probably a good thing. I know a lot of people who worked very hard, cranking 80-hour weeks for months at a stretch, whose dreams of being richly rewarded for their hard work went up in smoke when the bubble burst. Some even wound up owing the IRS many thousands of dollars on paper earnings they never actually received.
With stock options out of the picture, what do you do? Well, paying your people fairly for the work they do is a no-brainer, and so is a bonus plan tied to goal achievements, plus a comprehensive health insurance plan. But money alone isn't going to help you retain your best people for very long. You need to harness their passion and desire to grow. After all, when you hired these people, you weren't just looking for smart people; you were looking for people with a passion to build, block by block, the foundation of a completely new advertising medium. This is why you chose them, and this is why they chose you.
You can't honestly promise your employees that their work is always going to be stimulating and rewarding. This business involves a lot of number crunching, a lot of client hand holding, and let's face it, it's not as glamorous as traditional advertising, and it probably never will be. Still, it's the future of advertising, and the future takes a long time, and a lot of hard work to build.
There are only 24 hours in a day, and your people are likely cranking a lot of extra hours keeping your clients happy. But you've got to make sure they don't burn out. Make sure your people have the freedom to explore new roles, new ways of doing things, and have enough bandwidth to investigate over-the-horizon search marketing technologies that may represent tiny fragments of your present business now, but may grow to large chunks tomorrow. Get your people to conferences, symposia, and hooked into thought circles discussing the future of search. Create an environment that encourages independent thought, debate, and dialogue. Google does this, because they know that the next multibillion dollar market may result from some "cool" gizmo that one of their people creates on her free time.
You probably can't go as far as Google does in terms of providing a rich, almost university-like environment for your people to work in. But you still have to invest in your staff if you're going to keep them. Think of your staff the same way you think of your customers: as crucial stakeholders in your enterprise's future. Remember, you can have a great client base and the greatest technology in the world today, but it's ultimately your "wetware:" the people with the expertise to use all of your assets to maximize your clients' return on their investment in search, that will provide your strongest and most sustaining competitive advantage tomorrow.