Recently, my supervisor commented on how full my client list was. She told me that in her net-working group the common complaint is lack of clients. However, my main concern is gauging whether I have sufficient capacity, both in terms of personal energy and appointment space.
My private practice hasn't always been like this.
While there is plenty of demand for counselling, there is a serious lack of funding available. Consequently paid work is limited and highly competitive.
This leaves many counsellors to continue practicing in the charity sector, which largely means un-paid, or strike out into private practice. The reality is however, this is a saturated market. There are too few paying clients and too many counsellors competing for them.
This is what happened to me. After applying for several counselling jobs, and not being successful, I decided my only option was to start a private practice.
I had very little idea how to start one, and had never worked for myself. I booked myself on an ethical marketing course, and then took the plunge into something that became more like a trial by fire.
After a good initial start, I had more than 6 months where I just couldn't get anywhere near enough clients to make my practice viable. There were also times when I worried that I would end up with no clients at all. I responded as I would to any challenge. I tried to make sense of what was going on, learning and adapting as I went along.
And this is what my trial by fire taught me.
1 - Valuing Yourself
This is by far and away the most important lesson I learned from being in private practice.
A valuing statement is more than just an honest appraisal of your worth. It's also about what kind of person you are. After a year, I can quickly write a 'mission statement'. I know I would have struggled to string more than a few vague sentences together when I first started.
If I wrote one now it would look something like this,
"I value individual difference, honesty, integrity, finding your own path, standing out from the crowd, connection, relationship. I strongly believe people can be empowered to find their own answers. I know that I am not a fixer, and I don't have all the answers, although I might have a suggestion or two. I know that I am OK to sit with people in chaos. I can tolerate stuckness, and I am not afraid to be afraid, nor walk into a dark place."
This underlying philosophy powers the rest of what I do. It makes sense of the photos I choose, the sentences I write, and how I market myself to clients.
One major aspect which is a thorny contention amongst counsellors is how much do you charge. And many counsellors under-charge. When I started, I under-charged.
I am going to be absolutely honest about this, when I say "I didn't believe I was worth more." There, I've said it.
My one piece of growth that changed more than anything else, was to recognise my own value. Now I charge more. Out of all the things I did, putting my prices up and being confident I was worth this price, did more to attract clients than any of the other things I am going to outline below.
2 - Creating a Client Feed
When I worked in a school, I had a steady stream of clients. I was fed clients by Student Support. Whenever a student came in, who they thought could benefit from counselling, they would introduce the idea of counselling. They would explain what it was about, answer any questions, and sometimes even give the student some background on the counsellor they would be seeing.
Counselling is about trust. Because the students trusted the people in Student Support, this also helped build trust in the relationship with the counsellor.
My best source of clients are from directory listings. I use Counselling Directory, and the BACP's It's good to talk. I also have listings elsewhere, such as Yellow Pages, and some other free business directories, but these perform poorly.
These directories act just like Student Support did in my school, they act as a handover to people looking for a counsellor. They help to build trust.
When writing my listing I asked myself this question,
"What do I want to hand over? What do I want prospective clients to know about me, and what I
This is about more than being appealing to this nebulous group of people, called 'clients', it is more about understanding what kind of people I want to see. It answers my real question, "Who is my ideal client?"
As counsellors, we talk to people all the time. The important lesson I took was to take this out of the room and into my writing. I try to write as though I were having a conversation with the person reading.
People reading through my profile are asking themselves, "Is this someone I can talk to? Is there some common ground between me and him?"
Clients will sometimes tell me why they chose me. The common thread seems to be that there is something I have written which resonated with them. Sometimes this is a single word. The most common area of resonance is my background. It might be that I have a degree. Some people want someone who is intelligent, and educated. My social care background is also a draw for many people.
I have come from somewhere. I have experiences, and the people who come to me are looking for some kind of connection. Background for many people matters.
3 - Standing Out
I learned quite a bit about standing out. You have to do two contradictory things at once. You have to balance conformity with individuality. You must be recognisable as a counsellor, while also being noticeable among the mass of other counsellors.
The wealth of choice is also overwhelming for prospective clients. So maybe, like me you're curious about how someone chooses. As I discovered, the first and foremost aspect is...
This is the single biggest factor in whether people will click on your profile or not. Do you look like someone they would feel comfortable talking to?
A good photo matters. The issue with directory listings is that the photo sizes are small, and you need to accommodate this.
The picture needs to clearly show your face, with a relaxed and comfortable smile. People generally prefer bigger smiles to thin smiles. I know because I have tested this.
The best photos have plain backgrounds. I again know this because I have tested it. Scenery maybe fine in a large photo 400px by 600px, but when the photo is only 100px by 150px, it tends to hide your outline, which makes your face more difficult to see. This is one area in which you might consider having a professionally taken photo. They do work better.
For me these are no no's...
None of me at parties, on holiday, light shining behind my head, wind blowing my hair around the place, or sat in a room in my house with a badly painted wall behind me. These aren't good ways of being noticeable.
My photo is by no means perfect. I tend to scrunch my eyes up when I smile, and being able to see a person's eyes is an important part of the trust weighting process. It will be something I will look to improve.
The next most important is,
the tag line
This is where you get 25 words to tell people about you and how you can help. Easy, right?
Writing my tag line was something I wrestled with over weeks and months. My advice is to write your profile statement first, and then draw your tag line from this.
Do not be afraid to experiment. Try out different ones. Test them on your friends and colleagues. Test them out on your profile. Change them if they don't seem to work. If you are really stuck, phone up the helpline of your directory and ask them to help you. I found them really helpful, and they gave me feedback about what kind of tag lines work, and how I could improve mine.
And yes, I did do all those things I have just suggested!
If you are looking for a formula, then a clear, simple statement along the lines of “I help people
with” X “to achieve” Y is generally the most effective.
4 - Erecting a Shop Front
I don't have a large client base to rely on for recommendations, nor am I well enough known to have built a reputation yet.
To attract clients in our internet connected world, a good quality website is essential.
I think of my website as my shop front. It's the space in which I display my services to clients. Ask yourself what your 'shop front' says about you. Are you a bargain basement pound store, or are you an experienced, highly qualified professional offering a quality service?
I looked at two routes. One costs money, and the other costs time.
Professional design Besides the cost, the main disadvantage I felt with this route is that many professionally designed counselling websites have a very generic and in my view dated feel to them. When I look at counselling websites, I can often tell which company designed them. The other disadvantage is that they seem to remain completely static. The content in them remains the same year after year. As I learnt, if you want a good website, it must evolve.
Self-design This is actually more straightforward than it seems. There are several companies providing websites which you design yourself. To start you typically choose a theme, which has the features pre-installed, and you then add the elements you want as you go. Some feature drag and drop interfaces, which require no knowledge of website programming. The main disadvantages are that designing a good website takes time, lots of it; there is a lot of trial and error; and as I dis- covered, you really do need to gain a grounding in website design.
Whichever route you take, there are three essential ingredients it needs.
● Cohesive Go and look at a professionally designed website. What you will notice is that they generally use a simple colour scheme. There is often a central colour with a few ac- cent colours. Things like buttons and page navigation will all fit within this pattern.
● Visual Good quality pictures help make a website. Many have taken advantage of internet speed increases to put large, good quality banner photos at the top of the page. Unless you are also a professional photographer, then I would suggest you buy professional images. There is a vast difference in the quality of these images, and the ones you can take yourself.
● Good copy Good pictures will attract people to your site, but what really matters is the words you write, and how you present them. Just like your profile, write in a conversational style, using a big font, and with plenty of white space. Keep paragraphs short, like really short. A 5 line paragraph is about the maximum to go for.
Out of the 3, good copy is by far and away the most important.
What about social media?
So maybe you're thinking, will social media increase your exposure to clients? The answer is probably not.
From personal experience, I have had one client enquiry because of my social media, but that is not why I do it. I do it for three main reasons,
● Internet traffic By driving traffic to my website it helps to improve my search engine rankings. If I get listed higher I am more likely to be seen by prospective clients.
● An 'open for business' sign If like many websites, the pages remain completely static, how do clients know you are still around? I have both Twitter and Facebook feeds on my web pages. They send out a clear message that I am active, even if no one reads my posts.
● adds value to my brand It allows me to promote myself and my professional image.
The important thing about using social media, is to either publish regularly, or don't do it at all. Whenever I see a business with posts that are many months old, I know what I start thinking, " Are they still around? They seem a bit lax, I don't know whether I can trust them."
5 - Having a Professional Presence
I could write my values down, and insert them onto my website as a kind of mission statement, however how do I prove I do what I say? How do I demonstrate my professionalism?
By writing articles
There is an art to writing a good article, and it is something I have had to learn. In the same way your website needs those 3 essential ingredients, so do articles – they need to be cohesive, visual, and have good copy.
Writing an article from scratch is time consuming, very time consuming. I use something of a shortcut. Most of the time what I do is to curate posts. This is where you source and credit a short quote from an article and then add to it by writing your own commentary after the quote.
I'm reading stuff all the time anyway. When I find an article I like, particularly one that makes me think, I will save it. I have sites that I use solely for this purpose.
This cuts the time down dramatically, because the hard part - getting inspiration - has already been dealt with. I have done much of the reading I need, so I can just get on with the writing. It takes around 2-3 hours to write a curated article as opposed to the 5-8 hours to write one from scratch.
I set aside blocks of time just to write articles. They are then stacked up on the server to be published at regular intervals. When an article is published, I then push it out through all my social media feeds. If I have mentioned an author, I send them a message saying I have written something using one of their articles.
Sometimes, I get a reply...
There are some other benefits to writing articles. As a counsellor I have to have ongoing CPD. I count my articles as part of my CPD. I am engaging with current themes, I am thinking about them, and thinking how they apply to my practice – this is CPD.
Secondly, it helps with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). SEO is something of a dark art, and I wouldn't pretend to know a whole lot about SEO, other than the basics, but then I don't need to. And I don't need to, because search engines like content, and they also like regularly updated content. Articles do both.
6 - The Bottom Line
Getting started has taken time, lots of time. I have also realised this need for time is not going to go away.
When I tot up my income from last year, and compare that to the time I have spent, I can safely say that if I was paying myself an hourly rate, I have earned much less than the minimum wage.
I have more clients going into this year than I did last year, and I am earning an income, which is just on the right side of comfortable.
I don't envisage being rich or making a lot of money at this, but then I never started private practice for that reason. When I compare how I was in my previous employment, I am so much happier now. I love what I do, and more importantly I love how I am.
Mark Redwood has an Honours Degree in Counselling, and is a Humanistic Counsellor running a busy private practice in the Southampton area. Mark has worked in a Local Authority helping learning disabled and autistic adults, as a school counsellor, and is Chair of Client Services for a bereavement charity. Mark believes we are all born with the potential for growth and a capacity to embrace change.