Odds are good you didn't start your own private counseling practice because you have a burning passion for business. If you're like most counselors, you have a burning passion for helping people. And that's how it should be. The problem is that you just aren't sure how to get those people to walk through the door. And it's that knowledge that stops you and makes you start to wish you'd taken a few business classes during all those years you spent in school.
We get it.
Running a private therapy practice can be incredibly overwhelming. And improving that practice's return on investment (ROI) can be difficult.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but perhaps one of the most pressing issues for counseling practices right now is that Americans are struggling to afford mental health services. Insurance coverage is confusing at best and, for many, mental health coverage isn't there at all.
But here's good news. You don't have to be a business rock star to start making some minor (but significant) changes immediately. That's right — you don't need a background in marketing or a head for numbers. You just need to jumpstart the passion and drive that got you here in the first place.
So grab a cup of coffee, a legal pad and a pen. You're going to want to take notes on this one.
Table of Contents
- How to Save Money in Private Practice
- How to Make Money in Private Practice
- Bottom Line: Why Does This Matter?
How to Save Money in Private Practice
If your practice is struggling, you don't have a lot of money to spend. But you need to find ways to get more clients. It can feel like a vicious cycle, but it doesn't have to be. All you need is to get creative and maximize what you do have. There are some simple and straightforward ways to market your private practice without spending a lot of money.
1. Create a Niche
When you're struggling to turn a profit, it can be tempting to accept any kind of client who walks through your doors. That's not (necessarily) a good idea.
Why? It's simple. In private practice, you are going to risk being less visible to your target audience if you bill yourself as a general practitioner. When you narrow down your focus by selecting a specialty, such as marriage counseling or behavioral disorders, you will be more likely to stand out in online searches when people start looking for help.
This can also benefit you if you choose to take insurance (more about that later). This is one of the most important steps you can take — and it doesn't cost a dime. In fact, it's most likely going to save you money down the road because you won't be pumping money into marketing to people you don't want to reach.
2. Develop a Business Plan
What many people don't realize is that your "profit" isn't just how much money comes into your practice. Profit is actually the income you make after you deduct taxes and expenses from whatever is coming in. This is why you need a business plan.
By sketching out (in great detail) what you are spending and what you have coming in, you can identify a potential imbalance between what's coming in and what's going out. Perhaps your fees are too low because you haven't accurately calculated your overhead (operating) costs. Perhaps you're spending too much on unnecessary services and could save money by cutting back somewhere.
Whatever needs to be adjusted, you'll most likely only see it when you sit down and write everything out. Once you've identified places you can save money, you'll need your business plan to identify the places where you'll need to start spending money. But for now, just tuck that bit of knowledge into the back of your head. We'll come back to the spending part later.
3. Create a Marketing Strategy
We know. After a business plan, the two most intimidating words for a counselor are probably "marketing strategy." You've spent years learning how to focus on other people, bringing out their good points and helping them set goals. You aren't used to doing that for yourself. But you don't have to worry. All we mean when we use the word "marketing" is that you need to have a strategy in place to find the most effective ways to get your message out to the people who need it.
That's it. Private practice marketing isn't some dishonest, elaborate scheme. It's just a strategy for making sure you reach the people you want to reach. And the good news is that you'll end up making the money you need in the process.
Creating a marketing plan doesn't have to be complicated. And if you do it yourself, it's not going to cost anything upfront. If you're looking for ways to save money in your marketing strategy, you'll need to be willing to do the hard work. It will probably push you outside of your comfort zone — and you won't be able to do it without spending a few dollars. But if you're smart, it doesn't have to break the bank.
To develop and implement a marketing plan without spending tons of money, you'll want to:
- Know your target audience: Gender, age, socioeconomic status, types of issues. Get specific! You'll waste money advertising to people who can't use your services if you don't clearly identify who your target audience is.
- Develop your website: Yes, you can hire a web designer, but we're talking about saving money here. So, in the meantime, subscribe to a web hosting service that can help you create your own. The key here is your content. Make sure your site is simple and client-focused and contains a clear call to action. Acknowledge the pain your clients are dealing with and then give them clear directions for how to contact you for help.
- Register with relevant online directories: If you've been in the psychology field for any length of time, you'll be familiar with the Psychology Today Directory. You'll have to pay a fee to be included, but it will increase your visibility in a highly trusted resource. If you pay this fee, balance out the cost by taking advantage of the free search engine registrations offered by prominent websites like Google, Yelp, Yahoo and Bing. Each of these search engines can provide information on how to apply and maximize your visibility on their site.
- Create business cards: So much is done online these days that it can be easy to overlook this one, especially if you're trying to save money. But you'll want to have some business cards and maybe some fliers and brochures made for your practice as well. If you're trying to save money, look for deals with various printers and online vendors.
- Cultivate online reviews: This can be tricky, but it's a great way to establish your credibility without paying a cent. When you have a solid base of online reviews through Google, Yelp, Facebook or another source, it can be a huge (and free) boost to your business. Review the guidelines for major review sites as well as the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics to determine the best strategy to ask for (and receive) five-star reviews from your clients.
- Consider your social media presence: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are all excellent (not to mention free) ways to boost your credibility, establish a presence in the community and learn from other providers. Create professional profiles for your practice, where you can share links to events and articles, post your own pieces of advice or updates on the practice and interact with people. Just be sure to use social media responsibly and understand the risks and benefits associated with it.
4. Network, Network, Network
Did we mention networking? There is no greater free resource than getting your name out there. But be smart about it. Invest time in getting to know clergy, medical professionals and even other therapists in your area. As they come to know and trust you, they will be more likely to refer their clients and patients to you when they encounter someone whose needs match with your area of expertise.
Some places to network include:
- Events like tradeshows, conferences and symposiums
- Professionals-only online communities
- Professional organizations
Don't forget the value of your existing patients, either. The best way to get them to refer friends and family is to provide stellar service, but it also helps to ask them to tell others about the practice.
Just make sure that before you start networking, you have plenty of those business cards we talked about earlier!
5. Switch to Electronic Health Records
This can be tricky because it sounds expensive. However, when you implement an electronic system within your practice, you are ultimately going to save a lot of time and money.
Why? Because it makes your communication more efficient and improves billing accuracy. Both of these translate into a huge time (and money) savings for you and any staff in your practice. Also, consider this — when you go paperless, you provide increased security for your records, you open up more space in your office and you improve your workflow by easily being able to share information when you need to. All of those things will also save time and money in the long run.
How to Make Money in Private Practice
Sadly, the old adage, "You need to spend money to make money," is true. Saving money is great when you don't have much coming in, but at some point, you'll need to start spending money to increase your visibility and start bringing clients through the door. The key is to make smart decisions about where you spend your money.
Remember that business plan we talked about? Not only should your business plan show you where you can save money, but you'll also need it to outline all the areas where you need to spend money, including:
1. Insurance Panels
Yes, we know this is a tricky subject. While accepting some insurance panels, or EAPs, can bring more clients through your door, it also means you likely won't be able to charge the rates you want. But when you're trying to grow your client base, it can really help bring clients through your door and even boost your standing in the eyes of other potential clients.
There will be a lot of paperwork upfront as you go through the credentialing process, but once that's squared away it becomes much simpler and, over time, you'll most likely begin to see more financial benefits.
It takes effort to find a form of advertising that offers any kind of ROI. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It does mean you should be prepared for trial and error. You may have to try something, see if it works, and then, if it doesn't, try something else.
There are many different advertising options to consider, but just be careful that you don't waste money on something that isn't going to work for you. We're not saying don't do it, but we do encourage you to really do your homework if you're going to spend money on advertising. Think about:
- Print: You'll need to work closely with the publication's advertising department to identify your options and their potential based on their circulation, as well as their advertising costs. There's a lot of potential here to lose money, so make sure you monitor the results closely and tweak or add to the terms of your contract as needed. Don't be afraid to make changes to the terms of your contract or even pull your ad when the contract expires.
- Direct mail: We only recommend this if you choose to do a limited mailing to potential referral sources only. Even in this case, be targeted with your messaging and include an offer or information on the mailing that's too good to pass up. Otherwise, they'll just throw it into the garbage can. If you choose this option, consider calling the recipients before the mailing goes out. When they have a personal heads up, they'll be more likely to take notice of the mailing and hang onto it.
- Radio or TV: While this certainly helps you reach a wide audience, it may reach too wide of an audience. Most people don't want to go to counseling more than a few miles from their homes, but radio and TV typically have upward of a 50-mile radius.
- Podcasts: Podcasts might not be the first thing you think of when you think "advertising," but their popularity is on the rise, with 37% of Americans listening to a podcast monthly. And considering the rise in mental health problems, many people are looking for ways to understand their brains. You can either pay to promote your practice in podcast ad spots or begin your own podcast to market your mental health expertise and private practice. If your podcast takes off, you can start to charge for advertising spots.
- Billboards: These reach a lot of people, but most people are driving too fast to be able to write down your information. These work better when they're backing up a person or brand who is already familiar in the community, basically acting as a "reminder" of someone they've already heard of elsewhere.
- Online ads: All of the major search engines, as well as social media platforms, offer a variety of paid advertising options. There are also many companies that specialize in placing your ads on websites all over the place. The details of what they offer are too great to get into here, but it's worth investigating. Just go into it knowing your budget upfront. The cost can go up very quickly if you aren't careful.
- Content creation: The internet has made content creation attainable to everyone — take your niche and run with it. Do you have a particular behavioral health interest that you love to talk about? Use it to create educational workshops, eBooks or online courses. Each of these options is more affordable than ever, and you can use your skills to reach people far beyond your practice's community. Your content doesn't need to be the most amazing, comprehensive collection of information, either, as you can start off with simple workbooks or a brief course.
When using any of these advertising methods, take some time to outline your goals. Consider what you want to accomplish through advertising. Are you trying to get more traffic in the door in general or are you focused on a specific population? Are you trying to raise awareness of mental health issues in general or are you trying to promote your practice specifically?
All of these topics can play different roles in a practice's marketing strategy, so, while you don't need to pick just one goal, you'll still want to identify which ones are most important to you. By doing so, you can determine which ones are best to expend resources on, whether that's your time or money.
Keep in mind that your advertising methods will likely need to change and adapt according to the status of the business and your goals. You may start out, for instance, trying to just get more people in the door by focusing on broad advertising strategies. Eventually, you might get a lot of foot traffic but want to focus on helping clients with mood disorders, at which point you could use specific online advertisements to target people in your area searching for "bipolar disorder" or "depression."
Bottom Line: Why Does This Matter?
We said it at the beginning — when you became a counselor, you likely didn't anticipate needing to think about business plans and marketing plans and ROI. It can be overwhelming! But having these tools can also be the difference between a struggling practice and a thriving practice. If you want to help people, you're going to have to find the people who need your help. And that's where all of these tools come into play.
We realize that what works for one practice isn't going to work for all practices. And that's why we want you to remember that there is a lot of room for adapting these suggestions and strategies to your specific needs and your specific practice.
But when it comes to all of these suggestions and strategies, perhaps the one we're most passionate about is converting your record-keeping system to a paperless system. Why? Because at ICANotes, we've seen our clients flourish when they streamline old-school processes through our state-of-the-art software. They become more efficient and more organized and they even find that they save money.
If you're looking for ways to improve your private practice, we're confident we can help. But we know that you might be on the fence about it. And it's an investment you shouldn't take lightly. Check out our ROI calculator today for a more detailed estimate of how our EHR software can transform your practice. Got questions? Contact us. We'd love to walk through this process with you and make your practice everything you want it to be.
Last updated 8/3/21
Clinical Director October has been a Registered Nurse for over 15 years. She is board certified in Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She also graduated with bachelor and master degrees in Nursing from Western Governors University.