Therapists struggling to maintain successful practices in today’s economy must face the great occupational hazard of our profession: isolation. The circumstances of our daily work lives—the privacy of private practice—can cut us off from the sources of information and support we need to market ourselves effectively and network within our communities. For several years, I’ve been working with a group of therapists to create a new model of practice-development rooted in a fuller engagement within a professional community.
My foray into developing a new practice-building model grew out of my own economic necessity. My partner and I were proud owners of a professional office building that was losing its therapist tenants as the decline in the economy was making their practices shrink. Partly to keep these offices rented, we began a practice-building and networking program for “our” therapists, so they could generate enough business to stay put.
We started by offering once-a-month seminars and gradually began supplementing our mentoring, online coaching, and homework assignments with additional services and programs, such as website-building advice, listservs, marketing groups for different clinical specialties, public relations expertise, and so forth, provided by members of our network. Word of mouth increased, and therapists who weren’t renting space from us were soon asking to join our network. So did other allied professionals (massage therapists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, fitness trainers, lawyers, and so on), who wanted to increase their practice-building skills and market their services to our members. As we grew, members formed team marketing groups around specific specialties or interests. Today, our network has increased to 90 individuals, each of whom pays a monthly membership fee.
How It Works
Six months ago, Sue, a 34-year-old clinical social worker who was just starting her private practice, sat in my office for a consultation as a new member of the network. Discouraged, stressed, and teary-eyed, she said she didn’t know what to do: she was only seeing 2 clients a week and needed at least 12. Like most therapists, she dreaded the idea of marketing herself. “I’ve never had to sell myself, and just can’t imagine being successful as a salesperson.”
I told her that she could take many steps to build up her practice without cold calling, wearing a billboard in a public place, or addressing the local Elks Club. In fact, the network is set up so that therapists can acquire the confidence they need to put themselves in the public eye. So I encouraged her to attend the network’s monthly Saturday morning seminars, which give practical instruction on topics like “The Impact of Limiting Beliefs upon Your Practice and Your Life,” “The Nuts and Bolts of Private Practice,” “Managing Managed Care,” “Creativity and Marketing,” and “Speed Networking.” The last—our version of speed dating—gives all participants a chance to practice their elevator speeches as they introduce themselves to their colleagues. These seminars provide opportunities for people to network with one another and practice new skills in a safe, supportive environment.
Next, I encouraged her to find a practice buddy, a licensed mental health practitioner already in the network, with whom she had something in common. “Buddies” either meet each other at the seminars and networking groups or are introduced when I think they might make a good match. The practice buddies speak at least once a week to share their challenges and anxieties about building up their practices and to support each other as they try out the skills they’re learning in the program.
Sue learned to increase her Internet presence by participating in seminars led once every three months by our Internet specialist. With other members, she joined “LinkedIn” (the professional Facebook), created her own blog, and began to develop her own e-newsletter and database. She took advantage of services offered by our Internet specialist, such as website building and website enhancement. Meanwhile, she was taking part in the online intensive practice-building program, which provided reading assignments and exercises in making contacts, goal-setting, and planning. Assignments included posting regularly on our listserv, developing a workshop and a flier to advertise it, writing an elevator speech, and creating a referral-base diagram of real and potential contacts from those who’d already referred to her, those who knew her but hadn’t referred, and those who didn’t know her and needed to be introduced.
With her confidence increasing, Sue joined a team-marketing group to promote weight-management and healthy-eating referrals. The group included a psychiatrist specializing in medication for eating disorders, a naturopath with expertise in nutrition, an acupuncturist, a clinical social worker who was both a certified fitness trainer and a hypnotherapist, two group therapists who offered support groups for compulsive overeaters, and a specialist who worked with obese children, adolescents, and their families.
The team had already started a marketing campaign and was in the process of creating its own website, brochure, business card, and logo; also, it was offering a series of free seminars and lectures to the community. Despite the ambitiousness of these projects, the cost to individual members was only a fraction of what it might have been if each had tried to accomplish such an undertaking on his or her own.
The Benefits of Collaboration
Dynamic energy is released by this kind of collaboration. For example, one of our members suggested we set up a group listserv for daily communication. Provided at no cost by Yahoo, it allowed members a faster, easier way to make referrals, share information about workshops, seminars, and group meetings, and inform each other about their areas of expertise. A clinical social worker with a background in meditation started a group and opened it to network members and the community. It became an ongoing bimonthly Sunday meeting, which not only taught a wide variety of meditation styles, but provided another networking opportunity.
Collaborations seem to activate their own growth, not only among members of a single profession, but across professional lines. I sent out an e-mail to all the members asking if they knew anyone who was starting out in public relations and might be interested in serving as our PR specialist at a rate that therapists could afford: $25 an hour. After several interviews, we contracted with a highly skilled PR professional who joined our network and, within three weeks, had arranged for an interview and photo to appear in the business section of Long Island’s largest newspaper. This attention drew eight new members into the fold.
Clearly, these networks need not limit themselves to one or two types of therapist. A rich, collaborative network can include psychiatrists, psychologists, nurse practitioners in psychiatry, clinical social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists, licensed mental health counselors, and even creative arts therapists. The more people are involved, the more the network can offer the community, and the greater the opportunity to draw in more clients.
How to Establish a Collaborative Group
The obvious way to get a group started is for a therapist with both clinical and practice-building experience to begin creating a network, as I’ve done. The next step is to set up and advertise a series of low-cost practice-building seminars. As the seminars get going, the network leader or leaders can create a group listserv to connect the members to each other as their activities develop.
When the network begins to grow, it takes on a self-generating quality as members become their own source of support, advice, energy, and creativity. Since most of the work is done online, costs are minimal. The leader’s office space can be used for meetings until the group’s numbers can support the rental of additional space, if needed.
I put in an average of 5 to10 hours a week as network leader. Because this network is “real,” as opposed to “virtual,” and draws its members from the surrounding community, the potential for more referrals, public visibility, and growth is far greater than for most online practice-building networks, whose participants are single individuals, isolated from each other and spread out all over the country.
How did becoming a member of the network turn out for Sue? I recently received a phone call from her telling me that she had 22 hours a week filled on a regular basis, was getting referrals every couple of days, and needed to rent an office full-time. She’d made eight referrals to other therapists in the network over the past two months, had offered a workshop for adolescents, and was negotiating with a primary care doctor to provide group therapy sessions for compulsive overeaters among his patients.
How did this work out for me? I’m at the center of a group of 90 professionals, and have a fully rented office building and a full practice that’s free of managed care. I work for three weeks out of the month and wake up each day with a sense of excitement, energy, and purpose, as my network and I continue to evolve.
Victor Goldman, L.C.S.W., is the director of the V&W Networking Group, which offers networking events, in person seminars, and online practice-building programs to its members. He maintains a full-time private practice in Port Jefferson Station, New York, with a focus on marriage counseling, and runs groups for compulsive overeaters and men dealing with intimacy issues.