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Pulling for a minute from science and engineering, a “black box” refers to a device or object in which only the input, output, and transfer characteristics are evident. This means you can see where data goes in, where data comes out, and how the data is carried.

What you don’t know, though, is what happens inside the box.

I had the occasion this week to meet with a company that offers technical services- IT, web development, SEO. I was meeting with them for a business coaching client of mine who had some questions and didn’t understand what she was paying for. Now, I have more than passing knowledge of the ways and processes of IT, web development, and SEO- and so I felt that this had the opportunity to be a productive and useful conversation.


I was so wrong.

Almost from the minute I met with this company, they fell into what I am now terming “black box selling”- they continually referred to our mutual client’s site, but only in terms of  wanting access so they could “do their thing”- as in, “We need to get access to the backend of her site, so we can do our thing.”

I let this go the first time, and almost let it go the second- but then I realized that this kind of talk was probably what was confusing our client. When I asked them to explain to me, in more detail, what their “thing” actually was- or did- how they worked, what they focused on- I was met with blank- and then hostile silence.

Now, stonewalling is one of my personal pet peeves, so I noted this hostile silence- and pushed harder.

I began to ask questions about their on page SEO work. How they were researching keywords. How they were determining what keywords to target. How they were helping our client’s site be found and well ranked in the search engines. I asked them about their off-site SEO techniques. How they were building links. And so on.

Unfortunately, they didn’t have very thorough answers to my questions. They kept falling back into “black box talk”- “We go in and optimize the site.” “We use a variety of link building” (but without specifics). Most notable was when I asked for results of their efforts, they said, “Well, the client seems happy.”

Uhhm.. yeah. Except- No, she isn’t.

So the takeaway here is twofold. First, if you are working with a company in an area that you don’t know a lot about, ask them to explain to you exactly what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how you will benefit from their efforts. Make them continue to explain until you clearly understand. My belief is that if they can’t explain it clearly in a way that satisfies you, you need to look for another provider.

As a client, don’t put off understanding the technical side of your business. It’s fine to hire someone to oversee this for you, but at least know enough that you can manage the process effectively. Too often, clients hand off SEO, traffic generation, testing, and tracking like a hot potato- one they don’t want back.

As an expert in your area, it naturally follows that you will know more than your clients. But take care to sell your services clearly and directly, not as a mysterious black box. As the online world becomes increasingly transparent, you don’t want to be selling (in the words of singer Bob Seger) “mysteries without any clues.”