Building a Client Referral Network

Referral Sources

A quick question: would you rather--

  1. Meet with a family physician you don’t know to try to convince them to refer new clients to you, or…
  2. Have a tooth extracted without anesthesia?

If you answered “1” you are in the lucky group. You may be an extraverted, self-confident therapist who enjoys converting strangers into cohorts.

If you answered “2” you may be more introverted, or may have nagging imposter syndrome feelings about your professional competency. 

Some of your anxiety may be unfounded: you may think you’ll have to perform a “hard sell” on your credentials and the value of counseling. Do that, and their eyes will glaze over and your business cards will be tossed to the back of some drawer.

Instead, lead with “I’m trying to get a feel for how I can be helpful to your patients/students/clients. What do you see as their most common mental health needs? Is there anyone you are worried about now?”

This accomplishes many goals. It lets you assume an interpersonal posture you are familiar with: active listening. You get to demonstrate your ability to empathize, and your attitude of caring. It focuses their mind on individuals who might be current referrals. And it lets them cathart a bit--most caring professionals have nagging concerns about individuals that their training has not equipped them to assist. 

There are other things to know and do in referral source visits:

  • Though this may be a new experience for you, it is a common experience for the physician (or minister or school counselor or social agency representative). At least one of you will be at ease!
  • You are unlikely to have to give an extended meeting. These people are all busy, and 10 or 15 minutes is all they are likely to have as spare time. 
  • Bring business cards and any brochures you may have. (Yes, some people still use paper!) They are going to lose the brochures at some point, but they will hold on to the business cards, so bring both. Bring a resume, but don’t offer it unless they ask for it.
  • If you use a service like TherapyAppointment that allows new clients to set their first appointment online, make sure this web address is mentioned somewhere on your business card. Many potential clients are introverts who would much rather set the appointment online than to make a phone call. 
  • Reassure them that you are a “one stop shopping” therapist, no matter what the client’s needs may be. If you can’t help them personally, you will take on the responsibility of finding them an appropriate referral.
  • Breathe.
  • Unless they ask, or it comes up in conversation, don’t mention which school you attended or how many diverse work experiences you have had. Focus on coming across as a great listener, a compassionate person, and a confident professional. Spouting credentials like a verbal resume can make you sound like a desperate newbie. Do you think Steven Spielberg mentions all the films he has directed when he meets someone new?
  • Take cookies. When you come back next year, take cookies again. Send cookies to them for the 4th of July...when their office is not inundated with cookies from others. Did I mention cookies? Become “the nurturing therapist who always brings cookies.” 
  • In many physician’s offices, it is more important to establish a relationship with the front office staff than with the physician herself. Often the physician sends the patient to the front office for referrals instead of personally handling that task. So introduce yourself, ask how their day is going, and give them cookies.

And, by the way, no worries: as far as I know, your dentist has NOT run out of anesthesia!


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