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The Pros of Being Professional, Part IThe first time you walk into a doctor’s office – especially if you are hurting and you really need his or her services – you are likely to remember the reception you got.

If you were greeted immediately and warmly, that started the visit off well and put you at ease. You felt like you were going to get what you needed.

But if you were ignored until you made a bid for attention, and even then the response made you feel like you were bothering the receptionist, that is likely to set up an almost adversarial relationship with the doctor. He or she will have some backpedaling to do.

It is no different when someone contacts you for psychotherapy services.

In fact, because the most important aspect of the healing work that we do is the relationship that we create with our clients, I think those initial – and ongoing – impressions are even more important. They are critical to doing successful work. And thus having a successful practice.

And those impressions start long before someone enters your office.

Are you being professional? In every way?

There are two ways that we display our professionalism. One is passive; the other, of course, active…

Passive Professionalism

Passive professionalism includes all the ways that you are representing yourself, even when you are not aware of them in the moment. These include your website(s), your outgoing voice mail message, marketing videos, profiles on various services such as PsychologyToday or LinkedIn. And even how other people talk about you and the work that you do: colleagues, family, friends.

Let’s take a deeper look at each of those:

  1. Website(s): In today’s world, this is often the first way a prospective client begins to know you. As a TMI member, you are ahead of most therapists in knowing what that website or sites should include, and you know that they should be focused on the client, not on you. I won’t name here all the components that your sites should have – please see our “What Your Therapy Website Must Have and Do” STAR training if you need a refresher. But make sure that your site gives the information prospective clients are looking for, especially how to get in touch with you.
  2. Outgoing voice mail message: Sometimes this will be the point of first contact for prospective clients. They’ve gotten your name from someone they know, and are ready to talk directly to you. Most people don’t expect to reach a professional in person when they call, so they aren’t likely to be put off by the fact that they get a voice messaging system. But they are likely to be put off by a dry, facts only, message.
    After you’ve recorded your message, listen to it and have others do so. It should convey warmth and an invitation to call you. You want to let the caller know that you are there to help and will get back to them ASAP. Your message should also contain emergency hotline numbers for anyone (current client or not) in crisis and who needs to contact someone right away.
    If you will be gone from your office for any significant amount of time (a day or more), your outgoing message should include that information and the contact name and number of whomever is on call for you. It should also let the caller know when you will be back in your office.
    I also ask current clients to be sure to leave their phone numbers as I could be picking up calls when I’m away from my office and that information. And thus would have no way to return the call promptly.
  3. Videos: More and more popular as a way to get attention on the Internet, these are a great way to have prospective clients see and hear you. Trust yourself as to what you are comfortable with in this medium. If you’d rather do a voice-over then go with that, as long as it conveys warmth. If you feel reasonably comfortable on camera and want new clients to have a sense of who you are and what you offer them to relieve their distress, I encourage you to give that a go.
    It’s been said that 80% of human communication is via body language, so you’ll give them more that way. But just like your website, focus on what the prospective client will be looking for and tell them how you’ll meet their needs.
  4. Profiles on sites such as LinkedIn and You are going to be constrained by a word count on many of these services, so do your best to condense your message to headline getting attention. You want to stand out from the pack. “Affairs hurt, but can help!” is more likely to grab someone’s attention than “Helping couples heal from affairs.”
    Name advantages that you might have – years of experience, special trainings that set you apart. If you’ve done this work for 20+ years, that will be a plus. Always, always make sure your contact information is displayed: website address, phone number, etc.
  5. Referral sources: Whenever you talk about your work, what impression do you give others? Do you come across as someone who is excited about his or her work, who absolutely loves it? Or do you drone on about its difficulties and dramas? I’ll bet you can easily determine which of those two groups I’m going to refer to.
    Colleagues, family, and friends can be wonderful passive sources of new clients for you, but if they hesitate to give out your name because they aren’t sure how happy you’d be to get a referral, you are going to miss out.
    That doesn’t mean that you can’t share some of the trials of this profession. But do that with colleagues and/or friends who still get a balanced perspective. Who know that despite its problems, you could never see yourself doing anything else. In fact, that you are grateful that you do the work you do.

Active Professionalism

Active professionalism is about what happens directly with a prospective and/or new client. I can’t think of anything that ISN’T included in this list, so please bear with me as I take a look at some of the big items.

  1. First Contact: That is likely to happen when you return a phone call for a possible appointment. How quickly do you return it? If a prospective client leaves you a voice-mail message at 10:00am and you wait until the end of your day to return it, which for me would be 9:00pm, that person isn’t likely to think that they matter to you.
    If I know that I don’t have much time to talk to them during that day, and their message says that they have some questions about how I work, then I call back within an hour, two at most (which means that I pick up phone messages every two hours during my work week) and connect with them. I’ll let them know what my schedule is like and that I want to talk with them in depth and would it be OK to do so at 9:00pm? I’ve never gotten a poor response from that approach.
    And do I need to say that when you do speak with them, you should be interested in what is going on for them and let them know if you think you can help them or not?
    If I’m not trained in what they need help with, or I don’t have any openings, I’ll let them know that as soon as possible. And naturally, I give them referrals to colleagues whom I think highly of and who I’m confident have some openings. Plus, I leave the door open.
    “If those referrals don’t work out, let me know and I’ll find some others,” I’ll tell them. “Or my schedule might change and I’d be able to accommodate you in a week or two.” Sometimes they will choose to wait, or I hear back a month or more later asking if I have any openings now.
  2. First Meeting: Even before a new client sees you, they are getting impressions. What does your waiting room look like? Is it comfortable with plenty of seats or do people have to stand if it’s a group practice and it’s a busy hour?
    Are there a variety of magazines for all ages and genders and interests? Is there a water fountain? And are there plenty of water and cups? And is the décor appealing to both genders? I’m naming these things, because while I think that I shouldn’t have to, when I’ve visited some colleagues’ offices, I’ve been negatively surprised.
    I ask new clients to fill out and sign a basic information form, which I leave on a clipboard in the waiting room. It has their first name on a post-it attached, so they feel welcomed in a personal way even before I see them. That form includes my policies and I make a copy of it for them to keep.
    Is the waiting room user friendly? Are there call lights to notify you of the client’s arrival? Is there a sign that’s easy to see and that tells them what to do, where the rest rooms are, etc.? This is an anxious time for them and the last thing you want to do is add to that anxiety.
    Do you respect the therapist/client frame and come to meet them at the time designated? If you’re late, again you are sending a message to them. Not a good one.
    And how welcoming are you? It’s easy for me to tell who my new client is even in a room full of strangers, because they have my clipboard. I shake hands, unless their arms are full of things, but always make warm and welcoming eye contact and say their first name as I introduce myself. I want them to feel that they’ve come to the right place, and that they are safe with, and matter, to me.
  3. How You Dress: One of the good things about our profession is that we can dress comfortably. One of the negative things about our profession is that we can dress TOO comfortably. By that I mean, we take our comfort as the priority.
    “Business casual” still includes the word “business,” and means that we are there to work, not to hang out. I know that I come from a generation where business dress was not casual, so I have a bias in that direction. But swinging that pendulum to the opposite direction sends a message to clients that we take our work lightly. Tank tops, T-shirts, and jeans send that message.
    And going too far the other way, i.e., overdressing as though we are going to a social event isn’t likely to make the new client comfortable either. Remember the message you want to convey is: “I’m here to help and I know how to do that.” And, more importantly, “I want you, the new client, to feel safe and respected, too.”
  4. Your Office: When thinking about my office décor, I knew that I would be working with adults, both men and women, and I wanted both genders to feel at home. Thus, pinks or purples or even yellows weren’t going to be on the color palette. I went w/taupe and a quiet, medium blue. There are a lot of other colors that would fit this bill as well.
    I chose a sofa that would allow couples to sit close together – or not – and thus give me information about where their relationship is in the moment. There is also a separate, upholstered, but hard-backed chair for those with back issues or for further separation with a couple.
    The lighting isn’t bright, but soft. My desk is removed from where the therapy takes place on purpose. That area is about scheduling and payment and while they overlap with the therapy, I want there also to be a difference.
    The wall art is hopefully enjoyable for most people – I lean to the Impressionists – and fits in, isn’t attention grabbing.
    I often find it interesting that many clients don’t even notice the art until months into the work and then will ask me if a piece is new. That’s exactly what I want to have happen. And I can use that to explain that when we are ready to see something, we will. So they can be compassionate and accepting of themselves and their timing.
    The temperature of the office should also be comfortable for most. However, comfortable HVAC settings across a group office still seem to be a future technology, so that 72 degrees isn’t always the case. I have an afghan on my sofa for days when the AC makes it feel Arctic.
    If you specialize in working with children and/or teens, then naturally your décor should reflect those populations.
    I neglected to mention that my office is down a long hallway and then a short one, and passes other therapists’ offices. Sometimes clients want to use that walk to start their sessions. I gently encourage them to wait until we are in my office so that I can protect their confidentiality. It’s another way for them to know that I am taking care of their safety.

As I said earlier, I don’t think there is much that ISN’T included in being active professionally. And so that I don’t overwhelm you, I will cover the remaining important points in Part II of “The Pros of Being Professional” in the next issue of Therapy Marketing Monthly.

In that article, we’ll explore that first session, and the ongoing work, as well as times when you are away from the office doing presentations and workshops. Plus we will look at those “real” moments in therapy that require you to think on your feet and that tell clients a lot about you.

Be sure to let us know your thoughts and questions – and other areas on this topic that you’d like us to include – by leaving a comment below. We look forward to hearing from you!

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