A huge part of a successful private practice is marketing. Unfortunately this is an area where many SLPs lack skills: I never took one business course and, as a result of working in education, have limited exposure to marketing models. Therefore, much of our marketing experiences have been “trial by fire”. In my prior post (Starting a Private Practice: Part I) I shared some foundational ideas to consider when starting a private practice. In this post, I’d like to share with you what worked for our practice and what did not.
Before you jump head-first into marketing, ask yourself a few questions:
1. Who is my target market? When we began our practice, we knew that we wanted to focus on social skills. What we weren’t sure of was exactly who our clients were: what skill set should our clients possess? What age range? Defining your target market will help you to select appropriate avenues to reach your market, saving you time and money.
2. What makes my services unique? A wise person once described marketing as looking at a garden and finding room in that garden for a new plant. Not only do you want your “plant” to stand out, but you want it to be different and take root in fertile soil. Understanding your place in the “garden” involves researching competition and defining what distinguishes your practice.
3. How much time and money can I budget towards marketing? Something to understand is that successful marketing relies upon consistency. There are so many marketing avenues to explore that you can spread yourself too thin and become ineffective. If you are starting off with a part-time practice, this is especially true! Choose your marketing avenues wisely, make a plan, and be consistent.
Here are marketing efforts that DID NOT earn us the greatest return. Please understand that I am not advising you to NOT venture into these areas; I’m simply providing cautionary tales:
1. Establishing a (costly) website. Although having a website is essential to most businesses, I advise economic prudence. Hiring someone to design and launch your website can be extremely costly, and your money is well-spent elsewhere. I designed our site on Vistaprints (there are many companies that allow you to build your own easily): it was simple, and–with a little help from my teenage son–economical. After doing the website, we were seduced by SEO (search engine optimization) packages. In hindsight, we should not have wasted our money. In five years we have probably had 2 or 3 clients who came to our practice through the website. In my opinion a website is a vehicle for showing your professionalism, not a way to drive clients to your practice. BOTTOM LINE: Spend wisely, do it yourself.
2. Advertising in newspapers, etc. In our first 3 years we advertised in several local papers with minimal return. With the decline of newspaper subscriptions and readership, you can pretty much expect an experience similar to ours. BOTTOM LINE: Don’t waste your money.
3. Brochures. Again, very nice to have, but costly. My recommendation is to utilize an economical service such as Vistaprints and think about how you will use the brochures. When we started our practice, we got great brochures and distributed them to local doctor’s offices and other relevant, child-oriented businesses. Again, our return was minimal.
So what worked? Here’s where we found our greatest returns:
1. Providing free seminars. We contacted local libraries and PTAs to offer free seminars such as “How to Improve Your Child’s Social Skills”. We also offered teacher in-services at local schools. At these seminars our focus was entirely on the topic–it was NEVER to pitch our services. At the end of our presentations parents approached us for more information on our practice and we gained numerous new clients.
2. Provide more seminars. At our own practice we have offered “parent education” seminars. We have also invited other professionals to speak and address issues relevant to our clients. These were always open to current clients who were encouraged to bring relatives and/or friends. This grew our client base exponentially and established our credibility in the community.
3. Establish relationships with school districts and other local professionals. I cannot stress the enough importance of this area. Realize that these relationships are slow to develop and must be continually nurtured. However, once you have created these ties, your number of referrals will increase and be consistent. Through these relationships we have also contracted with local school districts to provide services for their students.
How to do this? Knock on doors, introduce yourself, THEN leave brochures. Let them know when you are providing a local seminar; they might send a client, but if not, they will begin to remember your practice. Whenever you receive a referral (from any source), send a personalized thank-you. Be sure to send holiday cards and perhaps a gift-basket.
Whenever we receive a new client, we always ask to be put in touch with other professionals who might be working with the child, both in and out of school. This allows us the opportunity to collaborate as well as establish referral relationships. We also offer to do “school observations” at NO COST to the client. Time consuming? Yes, but getting into the schools is a great way to not only get a clear understanding of your client’s skill set, but again, make critical contacts and referral relationships.
4. Provide incredible client service. Our greatest source of referrals are our clients. Word of mouth is truly the best advertising. We go out of our way to not only provide quality clinical services, but extra “perks” such as client outings, family fun nights (at our office), school observations, parent seminars, etc. Most of these are free of charge. Crazy? Not at all! Most of the clients that began with our practice 5 years ago are still with us, and they have provided many referrals. We look at it this way: the money we no longer waste on other costly marketing ventures that yield little reward are better spent providing “perks” that help our clients and build relationships.
I hope this has provided you with some food for thought. Please post any questions below or drop me an email and I will answer as best I can.
Check back for my next installment: