Being human: a marketing dilemma for counsellors

I recently attended a workshop at The Gestalt Centre in London looking at how to build a private practice. In the months counsellors dilemma to have a brandleading up to the workshop I had been ‘umming and arring’ about whether to attend: after all, I had started a business before, what more could they tell me?Counsellors dilemma to have a brand

Yet as I look to build the service offering from Mind Body Dialogue, I am starting to realise just how different working in the therapeutic world is. When I made the transition from cycling coach to coaching in a broader lifestyle sense the basic principles were the same – selling myself, selling my expertise felt comfortable. Whilst coaching, like therapy, is not advice giving there IS an aspect of consultation, of offering options – my background and my training is very present in the room with me and the client. In coaching, it is okay to portray and indeed be ‘the expert’. The world of coaching is also very competitive, so there is an expectation to present strengths when entering the marketing arena. It is normal practice to sell not only your services, but your self: to tell the world WHY you are better than any other coach out there.

The therapeutic setting is different. If I take my own counselling and therapy approach – within the Humanistic tradition – there is a foundational principle of no hierarchy. Healing and alleviation of psychological distress comes from the relationship; the co-construction of dialogue is dependent on therapist and client…equally. A therapist (a good one!) does not consider themselves above anyone, there is (what Carl Rogers calls) ‘unconditional positive regard’ for other. We walk this earth as equals, each view point, each version of reality as valid as one another’s.

So, how does a counsellor and psychotherapist reconcile the values and ethics of their profession (and their way of being) with building a private practice?

Shortly before attending the workshop in London, I had read this NY Times article on the brand building of therapists. The article highlights the struggle to attract clients. There have been great advances in reducing the stigma associated with mental health and emotional well-being issues: people are beginning to realise it is okay to ask for help (as this recent article in The Independent explains). There is a great need and demand for counselling (the NHS schemes for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy have waiting lists, as do many of the charitable organisations that offer free or low cost talking therapies) – yet there is still a reluctance to pay for it. I find it a shame that people can pay £100 per month on gym fees (and not go!) yet don’t consider their mental health with the same regard. I shall resist getting on my soapbox – that is a matter I will leave for another blog post!

So, this is the challenge in building a practice:

  • counselling and therapy is becoming a growth area in so much as a lot of people are attracted to it as a fulfilling career change. There are hundreds of trained people capable of offering benefit to potential clients…
  • …who would like to have therapy but are reluctant to pay the fees. Maybe there is not enough awareness of time and money that an average counselling trainee has to invest? Rough back of the envelope calculations give a figure of £8000 when you take in to account course fees, personal therapy and clinical supervision over the 2 years of training
  • to sell one’s ‘self’ (the therapist’s ‘self’ being a major instrument in therapeutic change) without making one’s self overly important, side-stepping the role of ‘expert’, and remaining authentic

The workshop pointed out the importance of the internet as a marketing vehicle. With so many counsellors out there trying to attract a relatively small pool of potential clients, coming up with attractive website ‘copy’ and good seeding of ‘keywords’ is vital. It is vital if a counsellor wants the search engine ‘bots’ to crawl the site and give it a high ranking on the search results. With my previous experience in building websites and search engine optimisation, I am fairly confident that I can do this over time – but even then I notice the split: Helen with her marketing hat on, Helen as therapist. Trying to construct a website in dual role has been a challenge…and will continue to be so. Websites need to live and breathe a require constant refining if hoping to conquer Google’s mystery algorithms! I consider myself fortunate, as many colleagues at the workshop were looking rather confused (and overwhelmed) by the terminology – Google Adwords, Social media accounts, search engine optimisation, meta tags. Take in to consideration here that many therapists have re-trained as a second career so are less comfortable with these new technologies. There are not many people under the age of 35 who don’t use Twitter or Facebook as their main way of connecting with other – so to put social media aside as “irrelevant and too much bother” is a risky marketing strategy!

I was struck by this line in the NY Times article – “Nobody wants to buy therapy anymore…They want to buy a solution to a problem.” The ways that we can re-word ‘problems’ as ‘solutions to be found’ I agree can work. However, I still feel on tentative ground. As a counsellor, I would never promise a client that I can ‘solve’ the presenting issue. Why WOULD people invest their money in a process that has no guarantees? Maybe I should play my trump card, my favourite Einstein quote ‘We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them’. THAT is what I can offer in working with clients – the chance to use our relationship to try different ways of being for size; to bring a different perspective to the same, repeating issue.

balancing counsellor and marketeer

Walking the line between counsellor and marketeerA final thought on this complicated topic: one on boundaries. Boundaries are considered important in counselling and therapy. Back in the days of Freud and early psychoanalysis, the therapist was literally a ‘blank screen’ – the client (or patient as then called) would know nothing about the analyst, leaving them to create all sorts of fantasies and act out ‘transference’. This has changed and evolved, and indeed the Humanistic traditions are reliant on the relationship that is created between therapist and client. However, it is still a predominantly one-way relationship in terms of information that the therapist might disclose. Now, throw this in to the marketing dilemma and building of a ‘brand’. I am sure when a potential client is surfing the web and searching for a trusted practitioner to work with they want to know as much as they can about the person behind the counsellor. A fine line here: to be known, but not fully exposed and boundaries breached.

I’ll keep you posted on how I find this tightrope walking in the coming months!

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