When clients call for a consultation or come in for a first appointment, an underlying question, often unstated, always shapes what happens: is there a good fit between what I’m looking for—relief from anxiety and depression, for example—and what you have to offer? But that same question, albeit expressed in different ways, is by no means restricted to what happens between therapists and clients. However we may resist the idea, we’re in the therapy business, and the reality is that our initial contact with clients represents the same challenge faced by salespeople seeking to turn shoppers into satisfied customers. What good, responsible salespeople know is that their job isn’t to make people buy things they don’t need, but to assess people’s needs and show them the match with what they have to offer.
But how do you do it? Here are some steps to help you make a good sales pitch.
1. Understand their vision. Clients have in mind a vision, however vague, of how they want to be different. They may say, “I need help managing my anxiety,” “I want to feel less depressed,” or “I want my husband and me to stop arguing so much.” Your job, then, is to ask questions to help them clarify that vision: for example, “What do you mean when you say managing your anxiety or feeling less depressed?” Understanding their vision is the most important part of helping clients make a decision to take the next step forward, as the rest of your conversation with them will revolve around what you find out.
2. Find out what they expect. Ask prospective clients if they’ve been in therapy before and what exactly they liked or disliked about it. Are they looking for a particular therapeutic approach or simply a safe place to talk things out? Do they want to walk away with specific tools and coping skills, or are they interested in simply gleaning insights into the past? In essence, this step involves fine-tuning the vision, clarifying expectations, finding out what to do and not do.
3. Reflect back what you heard. Many therapists rush past these first two steps and move right into gathering background information about family history, symptoms, and medications. Don’t make this mistake! Slow down and take the time to make sure potential clients know that you understand what they’re looking for. This step builds trust and safety, and it can be as simple as saying, “So it sounds like you want to learn tools that you can use to calm yourself down when you feel anxious,” or “It seems like you want to get a grasp on the way your childhood makes you sensitive to other’s opinions of you. Is this right?”
4. Attend to nonverbal cues and verbal subtleties. If your first consultation is with a teenager, you might slouch a little so you’re not seen as another adult hovering over her. With an academic, you might mention the latest neuroscience research. With the client who uses cuss words, you might use a few yourself. Also, you can mirror a client’s cues in your dress: there’s no need to wear construction boots when talking to a carpenter, but dressing down a bit if most of your clients come from the local homeless shelter or teen group home, for example, is a good idea.
If your initial meeting with a potential client is over the phone, be extra mindful of the kind of language he likes to use: notice his visual, auditory, or kinesthetic imagery. And match his energy level: more animated or more calm, depending on what the client presents. Generally, you want to sound gentle and clear.
5. Make your pitch. Keeping in mind what you’ve learned from the other steps, at this point, you want to present what you have to offer. You can present your experience and summarize your approach and style. If the potential client’s vision is to gain life skills, talk about the skills you can teach her. You can say, “Actually, I agree with you that having tools to use in stressful moments, such as breathing and stop techniques, can provide immediate relief from anxiety.” Or you can say, “Yes, I believe that it’s important to understand how the past shapes our behavior so you can better decide how you want to respond in the present. What I imagine us doing in sessions is ________.”
6. Summarize and close the deal. You can start this step by saying, “I feel like we’re on the same page. Do you?” If you don’t get a solid “yes”—or if you hear a hesitant “yeah, I think so”—then back up. On the other hand, if you do get a firm, positive response, you can lay out the next step. You can talk about a six-session commitment, copays, homework assignments, or what you’d like to focus on in the next session.
Like other aspects of therapy, success at closing the deal with new clients is a matter of both practice and finding ways to get comfortable with integrating the steps I’ve outlined into your own personal style. If you’ve been sold by this brief guided tour of the art of salesmanship, you’re ready to see how it’ll impact your practice. If not—perhaps because you still find the idea of therapists learning from salespeople a bit discordant—my hunch is that I lost you somewhere along the journey through these eight steps. I’ll be sure to give you a call to follow up.
This blog is excerpted from "Closing the Deal with Clients" by Robert Taibbi. The full version is available in the November/December 2013 issue, The Selling of Psychotherapy: What Are the Rules in Today's Consumer-Driven Marketplace?"
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Topic: Business of Therapy
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