This is one of those posts you should read all the way through. It will save you a lot of headaches and show you how to communicate with referral sources to bring clients in the door.

I want to tell you a quick story about one of my first meetings with a potential referral source for my new therapy practice and how I royally screwed it up. Well, actually it ended up being my first 25 meetings that I screwed up.

It was in the very early days of building my therapy practice. I had no sense of what actions would bring new clients in the door.  

As you probably experienced, no one talked about building a practice in graduate school. I guess they figured that a solid education in counseling and a big loan would somehow translate to building a private practice.

They were wrong.

I followed a mix of advice from the few well established therapists I knew in town. My plan was to go out and meet with as many potential referral sources as possible. I was also raised with the mentality that if you “pound the pavement” you will be successful.

So, I figured if I met with enough referral sources I would eventually have a booming practice. Surely, that much time and effort alone would pay off big time, right?  Wrong again.

I know you can relate to this. You think you’re doing the “right” thing for your practice only to find yourself six months later with less than a handful of clients and lots of expenses.

The problem wasn’t about the strategy of meeting with as many practitioners as possible. Spreading the word to so many practitioners definitely had value.

The real problem was about what I was saying and what I wasn’t saying to them.

Clearly, whatever I was telling these practitioners had very little impact since my office was empty most of the time.

And results is what I was after…I was young, ambitious and had a lot of energy to fulfill my purpose. I was ready to serve as many people as possible.

So, how was I royally screwing up all these meetings, so much so that even after twenty-five of them I still didn’t have the practice that I wanted?

I’m a bit embarrassed to say, but I basically made the same mistakes from my first meeting until my twenty-fifth when I finally accepted what I was doing wrong.

It’s not that I was a slow learner. I was stubborn in my views.  My wife can attest to that!

I’ll never forget one of those first meetings. I was super nervous. I arrived a half-hour early at my usual tea house spot in Boulder. I was prepping in my head my methods over and over, the type of clients I like to work with, how to discuss my rates, and how to avoid the conversation of how long I had been out of school and in practice.

I also brought along an unattractive brochure I printed the previous night with information about my services on a standard piece of print paper from an even less than standard ink jet printer. Yikes!

The doctor situated himself in a hurried manner. I told him my story and how I see similar clients like his.

I focused on how much I knew about adolescents and how I treated things like adhd, defiance and bi-polar.

I stumbled upon my first mistake even though it took me twenty-five times to change it.

Mistake #1: All I did was talk about myself right from the start. I didn’t make a basic human connection, because I was nervous and thought he didn’t want to be there. I missed the most important aspect of developing a referral source for life…trust. I wasn’t present and I was overthinking the encounter. And I did it nearly twenty-five times!  

After launching into this rant about how much I knew, I told the doctor that I’m a great option for clients that can’t afford full fees.  I told him how much I like to accommodate lower paying clients and help out those in “need.”

Mistake #2: I was focusing on why I had lower fees than everyone else. First off, I was speaking to the wrong person about people who can’t afford full fees. I was also showing how much I undervalued my own services. It turns out that most referral sources want to know why we’re valuable to the community.  Many don’t even ask how much you charge, because that is between you and the client. Well, I made this mistake about 25 times as well. Stubbornness doesn’t go away easily.

But my biggest screw up of all is that I never educated my referral sources about the way to introduce therapy to their patients and how it can solve specific problems in their patients lives. For example, I met with some divorce mediators, because I liked working with couples in difficult times. However, I never educated these mediators about the specific problems I could help with, such as couples who are just reaching out and may still have room to re-establish a relationship.  I just assumed they knew when to recommend marriage counseling and how it could be of value to their clients.

Mistake #3: I wasn’t educating my referral sources why and how therapy was a highly valuable treatment for the patients they were seeing. I didn’t tell them about the results clients can achieve, instead I focused mainly on methods.  I also didn’t discuss with them how they were bringing up therapy with their clients since it is still a “taboo” topic for many people.

So there you have it. Once I started changing my communication, I started getting more clients. I made many of these mistakes for so many meetings. I just wanted my way of communicating to work so badly I never considered it was doomed from the start.  Well, I hope you’re not as stubborn as I was, but if you find yourself repeating a business strategy for twenty-five times with little results it’s probably time for a change.

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Keith Kurlander

Keith Kurlander is the founder of Higher Practice, a company dedicated to helping therapists achieve their highest potential in private practice. He has two decades of combined experience in business administration, group facilitation, teaching at the undergraduate and graduate level, yoga instruction and as a licensed professional counselor in private practice.

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