Sorry to cut straight to the chase, but that’s a key question you need to have an answer for if you are going to make your private practice business a success. These are the key areas that I think are most likely to make the difference:
Personal recommendation – Especially important in a therapy business, where the service is personal and trust matters. Personal recommendation can happen serendipitously, and it’s great when it does, but you can also make it happen for you. That’s something I’ll be looking at in a future article. If you are any good, then personal recommendations will increase the longer you’ve been in practice, but that makes starting out tough.
Ease of access – Yes, location, location, location. It’s as true of therapy as any other business. An accessible location, with readily available information about where to park and how to get to you there by public transport, could well be the deciding factor for your prospective clients. Virtual access matters too. Make sure your telephone is answered by a real person, whether you or your receptionist. Voicemail is a big turn-off, especially for a service which is emphasising the personal touch. Similarly, make sure you respond to email enquiries promptly and in a friendly way.
Short wait times – Let’s be honest, one of the reasons people “go private” is because they want to be seen soon. Whilst waiting list cures might be a blessing for NHS workers, they are not good if you are working privately. You need to offer new client appointments fairly soon after first contact. On the one hand, it’s not wise to provide same or next-day appointments as these encourage the impression you are providing an emergency service. In my experience, people who insist on being seen immediately aren’t going to have the commitment to see a course of therapy through to the end. My sense is that a wait of two to six weeks is generally acceptable. Much more than that and people will start looking elsewhere.
Projecting a professional image – People are often anxious about seeking mental health support. They will be looking for evidence that you are trustworthy and reliable. At the point of first contact, they won’t have a lot of information to base their decision on, so every little thing matters. If you sound offhand, or you allow your six year old to answer your phone, don’t be surprised if people don’t make an appointment. You are in business and there is no point in being shy about the fact that doing therapy pays your mortgage, but your sales pitch needs to be appropriate. Humour sells, but it probably doesn’t sell psychotherapy. Bargains sell, but they probably don’t sell psychotherapy. Glitter and glam sell…but they don’t sell psychotherapy. Your shop window, whether that’s your web site; your physical premises; or you on the phone, all need to say, “You can trust me to take good care of you”. You don’t want to seem only interested in the money, but you do need to be upfront about your terms of business. You don’t want to sound detached, but neither do you want to gush or be overly familiar.
On the basis of thirty years’ experience, I would say there are two factors which one might expect to play a big part in people’s decision making about whom to consult, but which don’t.
The first irrelevant factor is the size of your fee. People are generally more concerned about service quality than the fee. Providing your charges are roughly in line with other practitioners in your area, the exact price is unlikely to be a deciding factor. Fees are generally the source of more agonising by practitioners, especially new ones, than clients. Clients come expecting to pay. They tend to assume we are worth what we ask for. You do nobody any favours by under-charging and then feeling you have under-sold yourself. Better to charge a fair fee and do a good job.
The second irrelevant factor is how well qualified you are. People outside the profession don’t know what the industry standards are. They just assume that you wouldn’t be advertising if you didn’t have the necessary qualifications or accreditation. You convey your competence and professionalism by the way you present yourself. Whilst you need to be upfront about your bona fides, there is no need to labour the point. Like the fees, practitioner qualifications are generally more of an issue for the practitioner than the client.
How you position yourself in the market matters a lot, but the most important factor in marketing yourself is that you help alleviate mental suffering. Doing that is the single best way to get word of mouth recommendations. It will make you feel confident about offering your services, and it will help you enjoy your work. So what do I tell people why they should come and see me rather than the competition? Truthfully, nobody ever asks, and that’s because everything from first contact through to the conclusion of treatment subtly conveys the message that I am The Main Man!
Adam May has an independent psychotherapy practice on Anglesey. He is also a partner in CBT Psychotherapist Briefings, a webinar-based CPD service. If you would like to join the mailing list, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org