I presented a workshop at a hospital on practice development. A participant raised her hand and said, “Yes, I get that marketing is important but how do you get clinicians to actually do it?” I was struck by what this manager was saying. The importance of marketing did not seem to motivate clinicians. I’ve thought a lot about why that is.
I have similar reactions to a good number of marketing books and articles. I too am uncomfortable with much of what these authors advise. Some may be comfortable with the strong sales pitch approach but that has never me nor have I found it necessary to be so. In fact I learned that my best marketing is when I can be my natural and authentic self. (For more on being authentic in our therapy read: “Authenticity: The real me vs the office me.”)
Are their ways to do a good enough job at marketing to grow a practice without using uncomfortable methods? I am convinced there are. Here are the favorites that my colleagues and I have settled into.
Our #1 favorite: Good case consultation
The easiest and best way to build relationships with potential referrers is by collaborating with those who are interested in an existing client. For example, a client’s primary care physician, school social worker, or pastor may be interested in what we, as therapists, are doing. This is true even if they did not make the initial referral. Connecting with those who are already attached to your client can be the best marketing. And it is a way of strengthening your client’s existing support system.
Tracy Todd, the current Executive Director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy writes,
There is absolutely no need to engage in network development with unknown people or agencies or to invest in expensive advertising campaigns. Treatment stakeholders (those associated with the care of a client) not only will build your practice but also will sustain you though the toughest of times.Tracy Todd (2009). Practice-Building 2.0 for Mental Health Professionals: Strategies of success in the Digital Age. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Pg 67.
During an intake session we regularly ask for the name of the client’s primary care physician. When they have one we attempt to get permission to contact that person. When we get that permission we send a standard letter for doctors. It includes information such as diagnosis, plan for how frequently we are meeting, and a one-sentence statement of the focus of treatment. If we think that a medication evaluation might be helpful, we suggest that.
With school personnel we almost always try to make a phone call to discuss a student’s situation. We are asking for what they are seeing at school.
With clergy we usually send a handwritten note thanking them for the referral and offering very little clinical information.
These preferences have to do with how different professions relates with clients. Physicians see us as part of the treatment team, a medical specialist working in conjunction with what they are doing. School people are usually interested in the therapy as it is affecting the student’s educational performance. And clergy are usually concerned with the distress level a parishioner might be experiencing in order to come alongside in a supportive role.
Whatever the method or details that are shared, this brief communication is the beginning of a relationship where we each acknowledge the other’s role.
Our #2: Thank you notes
It is almost embarrassing to add this to list of marketing favorites. And yet I am convinced “thank you notes” are one of the easiest and most meaningful activities we can do to strengthen our relationships with referral people. What I mean is that when someone sends you a referral, drop them a hand-written thank you that says not much more than:
“Thanks for sending John Doe to me. We have met and have made plans to continue. I appreciate you thinking of me. Thanks.”
I have had more referrers thank me for these notes than nearly any of the other thing I have tried. We have a set of Thank You notes printed with our logo and tag line on it. We use these for the thank you notes. It is one of the biggest “bang for the buck” I have come across.
With each new client, I ask if it would be OK for me to send a thank you note to the one who referred them to me. They usually are fine with that. I keep the note cards in my desk and try to complete the note on the same day the new client came in. If not, I put it on top of my desk so I see it in the morning and am reminded to write it when I come in.
Our #3: Taking referrers to lunch
Everyone has to eat. Most people are willing to let you buy them lunch. Especially when you are new or a referral person is new to your community, try to schedule a time for lunch. And if you get the lunch, there are a few tips to make it go well.
Lunch for real people
Referral people want to know you even more than they want to know about your services. Each contact is about building a relationship, and as therapists we all know about relationships. We build them with every client we see. They are the foundation for successful therapy. So it is with referral people. The relationship you build is the foundation for receiving the person’s referrals. If they like you, they will send you people. So the first rule of marketing is “be likable.”
Then share your passion for your work. If you seem bored with what you are doing, why would they be excited? The referrer needs to feel your joy and satisfaction in what you are doing and the services you are providing.
And of course, you want to convey a sense of competence and trustworthiness. And if you don’t feel it, “fake it ’til you make it.” If you can weave in a story about a current case that is going well without being too annoying, do so. This is where you can shine. But keep the story short and omit all those complicating details that might be helpful in a case consultation. You do not want to overwhelm the lay person. And of course, do not give identifying details.
Lastly, dress professionally, appropriately, and modestly. In most cases “business casual” has become the norm for therapists. It is most important to feel comfortable and on the same level as your referrer. Since you are picking the restaurant, know the norms for that restaurant and go with that.
Our #4 favorite: Bring them food
I was talking with a practice owner friend of mine on how she does her marketing. She quickly smiled and said, “I bring them food every month.” She went on to say how she either sends her key referrers something (for example, www.harryanddavid.com has very nice fruit baskets) or she picks up something at the store and stops in. She also told me she spends 10 percent of her budget on marketing every month and that is how she keeps things growing.
Now what I love about this approach is the consistency and the simplicity of it. She is training her referrers to think of her with a smile on their faces. They knew why she was there but it did not bother them because she was bringing them a gift. Don’t you think she would always come to mind when an opportunity came up for a referral?
Our #5 favorite: Providing free services
There are many times when it is very useful to give away our time and services for the purpose of building a relationship that will bring in more business. Many organizations are looking for speakers to present to their organization. If they see you as a valuable resource, they will think of you when there is a paying client in need of treatment. This is pull marketing at its best. (For more on push and pull marketing see: “Push and pull marketing for mental health“.)
Our clinicians frequently do free workshops for community groups such as hospitals, schools, service organizations, and churches. Additionally many of our clinicians are involved in providing school groups in public school buildings. Our staff have permission to pull out children who have been identified for services by the school personnel since the school does not have time or personnel to provide it. This has especially been successful in our more rural school districts, where resources are scarce. But even the suburban schools are feeling the shortage and are reaching out to us for staff time in school buildings.
For around ten years we did a marital workshop co-sponsored with four churches in one of our communities. This was at the invitation of the clergy in the community who saw a need and saw us as a resource for addressing that need. Nowadays it is hard to get people to attend anything, but those who do are likely to become your fans and supporters. It is worth the effort in my experience.
And when you find yourself making a presentation before any group of people, remember you actually have two audiences: the people in the audience and the referrer with whom you made the arrangements. We always want to please both. The best way to do that is with the powerful combination of a high-energy presentation mixed with good content. Then let the energy flow.
In the end, I think we all do our best marketing when we find methods that fit for us. Choose those that are not too large a stretch and that you enjoy enough to do consistently. And even if you fall short of what you hoped you would do, so something, anything. Keep laying the foundation for your continued growth, one connection at a time.