As mental health awareness has increased, so has the demand for therapists. This trend has recently been accelerated by stress stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While therapists join the profession to help people, therapy is still a business. Like many service providers, therapists are expected to face a significant amount of disruption within their business models in the coming decade. We interviewed several top experts in the field, both on and off the awarenow platform, and came up with three key strategies for success in this changing environment.
Therapy Business Strategy #1: Focus on Your Niche
One challenge, especially for new therapists, is establishing a client base. When expanding your business, it’s natural to want to cast a wide net, as no one wants to dissuade potential customers. Nonetheless, as Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Charlotte, North Carolina, advises, “speaking to everybody means you risk speaking to nobody. On the flip side, when you devote your practice and promotional materials to a specific client population, it's easier to show people that you are knowledgeable and trustworthy in that area.”
Dmitri Oster, a therapist at United Consulting Services, provides an example of this strategy:
There is an overabundance of therapists in most major cities, but if you specialize in working with certain populations or problems, you will be able to carve out a niche for yourself that can keep your practice steady and growing. For example, I developed a specialty client target population (primarily Russian-speaking and Muslim) as many of services are geared towards immigrant communities and I capitalize on my multilingual background and outreach efforts. I work with a very large Russian-speaking and Muslim client population, and also provide counseling in Uzbek and Tajik. Understanding these languages and the cultural mindset of such individuals has allowed me to create a space for my practice on the margins of the traditional treatment community, and I dominate those margins.
Of course, not every therapist is well-positioned to carve out a niche for themselves based on ability to serve the needs of a specific demographic group. Fortunately, niches are still relatively easy to find, as the field of therapy is full of well-defined specialties and subspecialties. A therapist specializing in helping children with PTSD, for example, has carved out a different niche from one who focuses on couple counselling. Similarly, a therapist who uses a specific technique (e.g., cognitive behavior therapy) occupies a different space from one who uses psychodynamic therapy.
Does this mean that a therapist specializing in children with PTSD couldn’t help a couple navigating difficult issues? Of course not. But if a therapist tries to be “known” for everything, she or he won’t stand out as an expert in the specific need that a prospective client has. This isn’t about refusing to see someone who is at your door, check in hand, and more about the people one might metaphorically be turning away through one’s website and marketing material.
That said, there are only so many hours in a day, and it may also be better to turn away the client outside one’s area of focus even if they do arrive at the door ready to pay. It’s unlikely that a therapist will perform their best work outside of their area of expertise and doing so creates opportunity costs in marketing to or serving one’s target market. Indeed, most therapists shouldn’t be aiming to fill every second of their day. Katey Collins, of Tri Life Coach and Bee Happy Therapy advises therapists that, “to be the best clinician you can be, keep the number of clients you see practical. Choose a number that allows you to be thorough, empathetic, effective, and ethically responsible.”
When turning away clients who don’t fit, Collins suggests that therapists “refer generously to other therapists who can serve the client best. When you share your knowledge and background with other providers they too will refer to you when appropriate.”
Therapy Business Strategy #2: Grow Your Market By Building a Personal Online Brand
Digital marketing has changed the therapy business. Therapists who need to be involved in their own business development cannot ignore the importance of their personal brand online. Eric Clay, CEO of Vale Creative, emphasizes this point in his advice to therapists:
Show up! The first and most important tip for a therapist has to do with making sure prospective clients can find you. Set up a business website, as well as a Google my business profile, Bing business, and Yahoo business. Make sure that your company address is the same on both your website and on all directory listings.
Another quick way to kick-start your online presence is to create your profile using a tool like awarenow. Catered to the therapists’ needs, this platform helps you to showcase who you are in the best light possible thanks to the optimized profile structure. Additionally, it enables prospective clients to view all your services in one place, schedule therapy appointments in seconds through a booking widget, pay you instantly, and even get on a secure online video call with you.
Creating a strong presence across platforms is not only a marketing strategy— but it also adds legitimacy to your professional reputation. In addition, it will help prospective clients understand what niches you serve, as explained above. At a minimum, your website should list your qualifications and credentials, include reviews from satisfied clients, and provide all the information potential clients would need in order to start working with you. This last category would include, for example, your contact information, hours of operation, possibly insurance information, and how you work (in-person, phone, video, etc.).
Matt Grammer of the Kentucky Counseling Center describes some of the ‘secret sauce’ that goes into a great online presence:
Spend money advertising online and building a high quality website. Clients will find you online similar to the way we find partners on dating websites. Clients are looking for someone to tell their darkest secrets to so make sure you look down-to-Earth, warm, and approachable. Be sure that your website matches the personal brand you want to build. If the therapist looks great but the website looks like it was built in 1997, clients will “swipe right” and reject you.
The next most important thing to building a personal brand online as a therapist is a powerful social media presence. This lets you further show off your expertise while giving even more of a flavor of who you are. Especially importantly, social media gives potential clients an opportunity to see how you engage with people and problems. Every therapist is different and most clients are not experts in choosing a therapist with whom to work, so social media can give them an easy way to get a “feel” for you and your style. As Sonya Schwartz, founder of Her Norm, advises: “Use social media. We all know the effects once a business is promoted well through social media. If you want to aim for visibility, this is the best strategy. Also, when you have social media accounts, potential clients can easily contact you for their inquiries, thus, no opportunities are wasted.”
(Of course, as with any activity, time spent on social media is time you can’t invest elsewhere, so it’s important to be efficient. A recent article on this awarenow business blog focuses on maximizing your presence on social media even when time is short.)
On both your website and social media, it’s important to show your face and personality and to look for appropriate channels through which potential clients might see you. As Baron Christopher Hanson, of RedBaron Consulting explains:
Every therapist should publicize authentic photography of themselves in local or regional media. Photos can be a professional headshot, or an authentic photo of you doing something outdoors, or perhaps a hobby you love. The next step is for your therapist voice to be heard, through local radio, regional cable television, or podcasting. Be yourself and let your voice work its natural magic.
When building your brand online, leverage principles of search engine optimization (SEO); this is what will make your website or social media properties pop up near the top of search listings for key terms relevant to you. Incidentally, this provides another reason why focus is important; if someone does a search online for a therapist experienced with a specific type of problem, Google is more likely to provide listings to websites that heavily focus on that top over more generalist ones.
Being good at SEO requires specialized knowledge that is inefficient for most therapists to develop and use on their own; ask colleagues or contact us for vetted referrals. Understanding a little bit about SEO and using it opportunistically is something anyone can do; previous articles have discussed the topic here and post.
Interestingly, Chris Delaney of Employment King advises therapists against focusing too much on SEO and offers some alternatives:
SEO is a time consuming and costly business, with most therapist[s] taking years to get anywhere near a ‘Page 1’ ranking for a therapist keyword. Instead, pay a small yearly fee to be added to an online coaching or therapist directory service, though check that the chosen directory service ranks highly for your therapy niche. You can even pay a little extra for a featured ad, guaranteeing your business is shown on the 1st page of the directory. This is a similar strategy to using Google’s pay-per-click (PPC) advertisements, but this strategy leverages the money the directory is already spending to keep their own website’s high ranking.
Using Delaney’s strategies may allow you to generate leads more quickly from your online presence and you can even use them if you do pursue an SEO strategy. In fact, the strategies are complementary and directory listings will normally help your search rankings, whether directly or indirectly.
Therapy Business Strategy #3: Use Technology to Streamline Your Operations
A recent awarenow survey showed that, for most business coaches, more than half of the workday is spent in non-revenue generating activities. Much of this time is devoted to routine administrative tasks that can be automated or at least made substantially more efficient with technology. Anecdotal evidence from the awarenow therapist community suggests that the same conclusions apply to therapy businesses.
In 2021, the default is that service providers such as therapists have an online portal through which patients can access and update their information, book appointments, communicate with their therapist, pay their bills, and so on.
Margarita Khosh, of MK Medical Solutions, strongly advises therapists to, “leverage technology through secured patient portals or apps to capture patient demographic data instead of using pen and paper applications.” She argues that not only does this “empower the patient to schedule appointments, drive efficiency, streamline administration, and reduce errors, but also ultimately saves time for both the provider and the patient.”
While awarenow.io is generally recognized as the best-in-class management portal for therapists, it is also possible (though expensive) to hire a team of developers to build a completely customized website that fills these functions.
Similarly, therapists should be automating communication with clients and prospective clients as much as possible. Hamna Amjad of Physicians Thrive explains:
Make sure you stay in contact with your customers. It’s really easy using companies like Mail Chimp and Active Campaign. You can set up automated emails which means you only have to write the email once. Then the system automatically sends out the correct email to your customers at the correct time without forgetting. You can easily send reminders to encourage bookings or make offers for when you’re quiet.
That said, even using tools like Active Campaign on a standalone basis can create inefficiencies. Use a platform that integrates your mailing list and which itself delivers automated reminders (and not only via email) for sessions you’ve booked or webinars you’ve scheduled to promote yourself.
Even general business services can be automated. For example, Tracey Berg, the President of Cerity, advises therapists that automating payroll can provide easy efficiencies:
With online payroll software, your company has an easy solution to reduce costs and provide a way for staff to access and update their payroll information, and reduces the potential for human error. Some payroll software is even free and some online payroll companies also partner with insurance companies to offer additional ways to streamline costs, such as pay-as-you-go pricing models for workman’s compensation insurance.
The less time therapists need to spend on mundane business operations, the more time they can spend on what they do best and what generates income: working with clients.
More than ever before, there is a high demand for therapists even if the more “general” parts of the market are saturated. By carving out a niche, building an online presence that focuses on it, and promotes yourself as an expert within it, you will be well-placed to attract a steady stream of new clients. By using off-the-shelf automation tools such as an all-in-one business management platform for therapists, you can also reduce costs and free up a large part of the day to service more clients, which is a clear “win” for everyone involved.