Joe Sanok is a counselor, speaker, and consultant for therapists in private practice. He hosts The Practice of the Practice, the #1 podcast for counselors with over 50,000 downloads per month.
This is the second part of a three-part interview. Click here to read the first installment.
Kyle: Do you have any suggestions to help new therapists connect with ideal clients that think, “Oh wow, this therapist really understands me.” Would you recommend blogging? Social media? What aspects of each are useful?
Joe: I take my consulting clients through an exercise that we call “Your Business Avatar” or “Your Ideal Client.” We usually sketch out a pretend person: we give them a name—let’s say Kyle for this example—and an age, and set a goal of attracting him to my practice. We then create a fuller picture of Pretend Kyle’s lifestyle: what issues he’s currently dealing with, how many kids he has, whether or not he’s fighting with his wife, what their fights are about, whether or not he goes to church or is religious in any way, whether he goes to yoga—fully sketching out who Pretend Kyle is. My business avatar.
This sketch should be so detailed that you can picture what Kyle looks like. It may help to even find a picture of someone online to represent Kyle. Then, when you’re blogging or when you’re writing your homepage content, you’re picturing Kyle and his needs and wants in your head. Often times, people decide who they want to attract more generally: “I want to attract a guy in his late 20s or early 30s that lives out west” or “I want to attract people from ages 25 to 61.” But that’s too big of a range.
Once you have developed that clear picture of your person, you can more easily start to picture who Kyle would vent to if he was really pissed off at his wife. He might call a friend or he might go online and look around and read some articles. Then you start to think, What are things my business avatar would Google or search for online? At this point, you are able to get into the mind of your ideal client and start connecting with the people that surround your ideal client.
This is where your question about social media and blogging comes in. You ask yourself, “How do I connect with my ideal client’s network?”
For example: If you want to work with women, 80% of Pinterest users are female and half of those users are moms. If you want to attract moms to your private practice, you should definitely be on Pinterest. Whereas if you want to attract business people, you want to be on LinkedIn. You may also want to be on Twitter because people are looking for business advice on there. Facebook, on the other hand, is mostly used by people looking at pictures of their grandkids or connecting with old friends, so it’s going to be a little softer approach.
This detailed knowledge of who you want to attract helps you decide where you dedicate your energy and time. Often new therapists will spread themselves too thin by attempting to establish a presence on all social media platforms. I recommend instead that you focus on maybe one or two platforms and learn those really well. This is also a great time to create an opt-in email that gives away free resources designed for your ideal client. It may be slow-going at first, but this will eventually start to attract your ideal clients to sign on as actual clients of yours.
Kyle: That’s really helpful stuff. Is this part of the 28-step checklist you mentioned? Or is it included in your 5-day blogging course?
Joe: The 28-step checklist is just the basic “Here’s what you need to do” when you’re just starting a practice. File your LLC paperwork, set up a website—it’s simply a bulleted checklist. The 5-day blogging course is a free 5-day email course that walks new therapists through developing their business avatar, how to blog to that avatar, and how to rank higher in Google searches. It also includes videos and information on how to make and choose website images among other things.
Kyle: I think you also mentioned the seminar that you host about finding your ideal client. Can you speak a bit more about this?
Joe: This summer I’m offering a conference called Slow Down School: A Week Long Experience to Help Therapists Scale Their Practices and Create Their Ideal Life. I believe that what we want in our clients and for our own life is what really matters. I only work three days a week and have four-day weekends every weekend, but I still run a six-figure business. You can work yourself to death, but where’s the fulfilment in that? And there are a lot of things I want to do other than counseling and consulting.
This didn’t happen overnight, of course. There were times that I was working 60 hours a week, but that was needed during that growth phase of my career. This is why we don’t talk about scaling until you’re actually growing. If you start scaling when you have a $30,000 business, it’s going to stay a $30,000 business.
Beyond learning effective counseling methods, there are a lot of techniques within Gottman Method Couples Therapy that can also help assist you during the growth phase. Those skills can help in so many different ways beyond just what happens in the therapy session.
Kyle: What I find beneficial is taking the knowledge I’ve learned in Gottman trainings and sharing with others—through my writing or otherwise—how it can effectively help couples forge healthier, happier relationships. This helps me to attract clients just as much as it helps me to provide counseling for them.
Joe: The application of Gottman Method Couples Therapy outside of working with couples is also immense. I have a bunch of co-parenting couples, or couples that have broken up but still have to co-parent because they’re divorced.
I even use the pulse oximeter because I did the Gottman Level One training. I got them immediately after the training. It was amazing. I remember one person specifically: when she got pissed off, she stopped breathing. Her oxygen level tanked, but her pulse looked fine.
Whereas when that client’s partner wore it, his oxygen level stayed fine, but his pulse went through the roof—just by being in his partner’s presence.
This information made it easier to say, “Okay, you guys haven’t even started talking, but your pulse is through the roof and you stopped breathing. Let’s talk about how that’s not going to help you have a productive conversation when your pulse is 110 just being in her presence and you’re going to stop breathing and your oxygen levels will drop below 90%. We’re not going to be productive unless we get your breathing under control first.”
This is just one example of how you can take these concepts that you learn in Gottman clinical trainings and apply them to relationships, both romantic and otherwise.
Kyle: I agree. Now I would love to discuss phase two of becoming a new therapist: They’ve figured out the basics. They’re getting the practice going. They’ve decided on their ideal client. Their practice is growing. And they’re overwhelmed, thinking, Gosh, I can’t do all these stuff. I need some help. What advice would you give them?
Joe: The main objective of phase one is to identify your ideal client and attract that ideal client. You don’t want a practice full of people right away—that will burn you out. You want to develop a practice you can sustain for the long haul. When you’re in a growth phase, phase two, the main goal is to fill up your ideal practice. You want it to be busting at the seams, so to speak.
A common trap that new therapists fall into during this phase is continuing their bootstrapper mentality. What gets you to that $50,000 in revenue mark is usually a lot of hustle. You’re working hard, you’re answering the phones, you’re scheduling people, you’re doing every aspect of the business. During that growth phase, you want to pay special attention to your use of time. Start to outsource the phone calls, the scheduling, and maybe some of the blogging and images. That way you can focus your time on the aspects of your practice that you, and only you, do best.
For a lot of people, this also means that you need to start raising your rates. I remember my brother asking me, “How’s your practice going?” a number of years ago. I said, “I have this waiting list. I’m super proud I’ve got a waiting list.” He said, “Why do you have a waiting list? Don’t people want to do counseling with you? You should see them.” I said to him, “Well, yes. I’m as busy as I want to be.” He said back to me, “Well, why don’t you raise your rates?” And my internal anti-money side came out like, “That’s just user-y.” But then he said to me—I should mention that he’s a business consultant—he said to me, “If someone offered you $1,000 an hour, would you see him for counseling?” And I said, “Well, sure. I’d make an exception… ” And he said, “So, it is about the money?” He had me there.
After that conversation, I raised my rates. Shortly thereafter I found that I had more time to work on the most important aspects of my practice. This also made it easier to delegate the aspects of the practice I no longer needed to do myself or plain didn’t enjoy doing. For example, paying my web-designer $30 to $50 an hour to fix my website if something goes wrong while I’m doing a $200 an hour session makes total sense.
But deciding to raise rates can bring up all sorts of money and morality issues and force you to question, “Should I be able to make money as a therapist?” I think, addressing this dilemma during the growth phase is vital because you need to overcome this before you can move into outsourcing.
Kyle: Yes, and I hear, “What does this mean about my practice? What does this mean about me? What does this mean about my clients?” These are all important questions. How do new therapists go about finding support during this process? What are some useful resources you’d recommend to help new therapists figure out what they should and should not be focusing on?
Joe: There are a number of different resources out there for this. I recommend Upwork. It’s a great website and resource to outsource some of your tasks. I wouldn’t recommend getting someone to answer the phones or do scheduling through it, but it’s great for things like blogging, finding images for your blog, and those types of tasks.
Probably the most practical thing, if you’re looking for someone to answer the phone, is to post on Facebook and say, “Hey, my practice is growing. I’m looking for someone that can work 10 to 15 hours a month. They will work on an as-needed basis, and must have great people skills. If you have a friend or family member that wants to work from home, just tag them in the comments and have them send me a direct message on Facebook.” Then I would recommend setting up a Google form for people to use to apply for the position and then do a Skype interview with them.
That’s how I found all of my best candidates for tasks like managing phones and scheduling. I pay them for the time that they’re actually working. It’s not like, “I’m going to pay you for eight hours of sitting around the house waiting for phone calls.” It’s more: you keep track of how many minutes you’re on the phone with clients today and then pay for that time. They can be a stay-at-home mom that’s doing laundry or someone similar to my virtual assistant who works for me in between helping her musician husband with his booking.
Finding employees that have flexible schedules and can work as-needed is very helpful. If they have sick kids, they can still answer the phone or return phone calls for mental health counseling. This makes so much more sense for a fledgling practice than paying someone to sit in the lobby for 40 hours a week and answer 10 phone calls that entire week. That’s a terrible use of your money.
Once you start to figure out what you want from your virtual assistants, then you can start looking for people who have those skills and then push them to learn new skills.
My virtual assistant in South Africa who does all of our images for the website started by doing some social media images for me. That progressed into her doing more images for the website and eventually posting my new podcast episodes to the website. To do this, she had to learn the basics of WordPress—the platform I use for my website. She took over managing all of the authors that write for the website as well. This is an example of how I keep pushing her to learn new skills to grow within the position.
The bottom line is finding the things that need to happen for your practice and then continually asking yourself, “Should I be doing this or can I pay somebody to do this so I can do more counseling?”
Kyle: Is there anything else in the growing portion of phase two that they should be really thinking about beyond just getting the extra help?
Joe: Yes, I think the other component is looking to add more clinicians to the practice. Not everybody wants to own a group practice, so this might mean that it’s time to start sub-leasing out your practice space when you’re not using it. Think about the average full clinician who has 20 to 25 sessions a week. Now if you consider the amount of time you could actually use an office if you started at 7:00 AM and went to 8:00 PM, that means that up to two-thirds of the time during the week your space is empty when it could be in use.
Also, this is a good time to ask yourself, “Could I sublet out parts of my office during certain days?” Maybe you want to do this only on weekends so that you can find ways to bring in extra revenue that isn’t based purely on your time. The easiest way to do this is to add W-2 or 1099 contractors to your practice and then take a percentage of what comes in as a part of their income.
This model is very attractive to brand new counselors because they don’t want the risk of renting an office, marketing a practice—learning all of those things. If you have a high ranking website and there’s a good system in place for if you’re taking insurance or not taking insurance, it’s a lot easier during that growth phase to attract newer clinicians that want to dip their toes in private practice.
If you can get three or four of these new clinicians to work 10 hours a week, you can bring in as much income through them as you could through your own practice, which is what then kicks you up to that six-figure mark so you can start to scale even more.
Kyle: This rings true to me. I’ve talked to other recent graduates and they often say, “Yes, I want to get into private practice, but I don’t really have the money for it. I don’t know how to get everything set up.” Some of them are renting out offices, others are looking for office space, and still others are looking for therapists that are renting out their space when they are not with clients.
Joe: I think in that phase the big thing is moving from “I’m the only person that brings in money and I’m the only person that does anything here,” to “I need to take things off my plate and pay someone $15 to $30 an hour to do something so I can go make that $100 to $200 an hour.” There’s no administrative assistant in the world that charges $100 an hour. Well, maybe there are, but you shouldn’t hire them. [Laughs].
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