Getting and keeping clients is a common struggle for private practitioners. Here are 6 potential barriers to a full practice and what to do about them.
1) You're not keeping the clients you have
It takes a lot less time, money, and energy to keep a client engaged in meaningful therapy than to find a new client. Keeping clients engaged in the therapeutic process requires additional skills. New skills might include setting expectations during the initial session that therapy is an on-going process. Recommend that new clients schedule ahead 3-6 weeks (depending on your assessment of their need during the first session) instead of scheduling one week at a time.
Another strategy that will boost client retention is reaching out to clients who've dropped out of treatment without proper termination. I encourage my team of therapists to do this regularly by writing a hand-written card with their business card enclosed to clients who have not returned to therapy. The cards say something like, "You've been on my mind. I want you to know that I am here if you need me. If you'd like to take a break from therapy for a while that's fine. I'd like to offer you a free 25 min "wrap up" session where we can say goodbye." Many clients are very touched by this gesture and it is just the encouragement they need to continue coming to therapy. Even if clients don't continue in therapy, you've modeled how to say a healthy "goodbye".
2) You're not offering anything valuable to potential referral sources
I love that I'm approached regularly by a therapists trying to network and ask for referrals. You know the ones who I will refer to? I will refer to the therapists who approach our relationship as a mutually beneficial relationship. I am more likely to refer to therapists who, in addition to asking for referrals, offer their time, expertise, or referrals to me and my practice.
Several years ago I had a therapist contact me asking if I would refer couples to her for therapy. While she did offer to take me to lunch (which I didn't have time to do) she wasn't offering herself as a resource to me in any way. Additionally, I was annoyed because had this therapist had done her homework and looked at my website she would have seen that I work with couples and that I have several colleagues at my clinic who also work with couples. The key to developing strong referral relationships is to create mutually beneficial relationship, offering yourself as a resource to the other person.
3) Your online presence is weak
Have you Googled yourself lately? Have you searched for key terms in your geographic location to see where your website ranks? Potential clients are searching for therapists online and will generally click on websites listed on the first page or two of Google searches. If your information is easily found make sure the information found about you and your practice is accurate. Here are some resources to help you strengthen your online presence and make it easier for new clients to find you.
4) You're not as good as you think you are
Most therapists think they are more effective than they actually are. Therapists, like any other professionals have varying level or skill and success, but it seems that on the whole we are an overly-confident group.
A 2003 survey asked 143 counselors to grade their job performance on a scale from A to F... Of the counselors, 66 percent rated themselves as A or better. None saw himself or herself as below average (Sapyta, Riemer, Bickman, 2005, p. 147).
How do you find out if your clinical skills are above average, mediocre, or below average therapist? Start collecting outcome data from your sessions. A few years ago I tracked every session using the ORS and SRS rating scales for an entire year through MyOutcomes.com. This allowed me to establish a baseline, track each client's progress, and see where your scores fall compared to therapists around the world. I was relieved to know that according to these ratings scales I was indeed an "above average" therapist, but I was not as good as I thought I was.
5) Your attachment style is sabotaging you
A therapist's own attachment style and relationship history impact their ability to keep clients engaged in meaningful therapy and maintain consistent referral sources. While I only have anecdotal evidence, my experience training therapists in a private practice setting suggests that therapists with a secure attachment style or slightly anxious attachment do better in private practice setting than therapists who lean toward the avoidant end of the attachment continuum. Additionally, if therapists have done their own work in therapy and have a handle on their own issues, they tend to be more successful than therapists who haven't resolved their own emotional wounds. If you're having a difficult time getting or keeping clients, may I suggest calling your own therapist and working on your own attachment issues?
6) You appear desperate
Therapists who are new to private practice may feel particularly overwhelmed by the details of running a business, and the difficulty of establishing a consistent clientele. Feelings of desperation are also felt by seasoned therapists whose client numbers ebb during seasonal changes, economic conditions, or other reasons. Potential clients and referral sources can "sniff out" desperation, and whether they are consciously aware of it or not, they will be less likely to trust you and your services. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you're coming off as overly desperate.
- Have you become too accommodating when it comes to scheduling clients?
- Do you feel overly discouraged if a new referral chooses not to schedule with you?
- When talking about your practice do you talk fast and feel anxious inside?
- Do you follow up with potential referral sources more than once a month?
I suggest that you "act as if" and "talk as if" you have a moderately busy practice. Lead with the aspects of your practice and your expertise that you are confident in and you'll find more success getting and keeping clients.
Sapyta, Jeffrey, Manuel Riemer, and Leonard Bickman. “Feedback to Clinicians: Theory, Research, and Practice.” Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session 61, no. 2 (2005):145–53.