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Closing The Deal With Clients

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What Therapists Can Learn from Salespeople

By Robert Taibbi

What do you say to potential clients when they first call you or come in for a consultation? We may resist the idea, but in this initial phase, therapists face the same challenge as salespeople seeking to turn shoppers into satisfied customers.

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.

Think about the experience of buying a car—as soon as you step onto a dealership lot, you’re ready for the sales pitch, the question-and-answer dance of customer and seller. Like it or not, you’re doing this same dance when you first talk to potential clients. You’re not trying to peddle some product people don’t really need: they’ve called you up, or stepped onto the lot, as it were. They want to know what you can offer them. Your goal is to use your skills to help them feel safe and well served. When that happens, you can close the deal. But how do you do it? Here are eight steps to help you make a good sales pitch.

1. Understand their vision. One of the first questions the car salesperson is likely to ask you is whether you’re looking for a vehicle that’s new or used, or big or small, so he knows where to start the conversation. Typically, car buyers have a vision of what they’re looking for. Similarly, 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. For the car salesperson, drilling down into specific expectations involves asking about price range, color, gas mileage, sports packages, and so forth. For therapists, it means asking 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.

If a potential client says he’s already talked a lot in therapy about how his anxiety is tied to growing up in an alcoholic family and now wants help figuring out how he can avoid turning into a turtle at social events, you know to skip the history and give the man what he wants: anxiety-coping skills.

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?” Similarly, the car salesperson might assure a buyer that he’s paying attention to what she wants, and not simply pushing his own agenda, by saying, “So you’re looking most of all for good gas mileage, under $25,000, and color doesn’t really matter. Is that right?”

4. Attend to nonverbal cues and verbal subtleties. An effective salesperson will create a rapport with a new family looking for a sedan differently from how he would with a middle-aged CEO looking for a convertible. He might invite a young family to have a seat and make sure to talk knowledgably and seriously about a car’s safety features. With the CEO, he might make a few jokes, lean against a wall, and focus the conversation more on the technical aspects of the car’s engine. In the same way, 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. The car salesperson wants to come across as friendly and interested. 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. Here, the car salesperson says, “I think this car has all the things you’re looking for. It’s in your price range, and has good gas mileage and comfortable seating for six.” You, for your part, 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 ________.”

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