So, you’ve got your counselling qualification, you’ve hung your shingle out, and now you’re ready and waiting for clients. Are you just twiddling your thumbs, or are clients actually making their way to your rooms? Many of us chose counselling because we wanted to help people and also, we like thinking about the health and life issues that clients bring. Unfortunately in some cases, that topic preference has not extended to the business end of things, meaning that all too many counsellors are full of the knowledge and skills they need to be effective, but are not getting the opportunity because they do not know how to build up their practice. If this describes you, read on; we spoke to both a business advisor and a counsellor whose practice is full to ask how we should do it.

What do you want to do as a counsellor?

Lisa Baker, an AIPC education advisor and counsellor whose practice has just reached maximum capacity, explains that — while it’s not easy to do — it’s important to determine a few basic aspects of your practice early on. “Establish your goals with respect to your practice,” she advises. “What do you want to use your counselling qualification for?” Some people, she notes, want the full professional career. Others are in it for personal/spiritual growth and development. Still others may have reached the stage of life where they can volunteer, and want to do so as effectively as possible. A fourth category just wants to help people, and realises that using counselling skills is a great way to do that.

“Once you have established your goals,” Baker explains, “You need to reflect on your personality and lifestyle needs. Are you more suited to private practice, or do you prefer to be employed by an organisation?” Either way can be fulfilling, but it is better to acknowledge up front how you tend to be, and configure your practice to be congruent with that. In addition, the counsellor needs to decide whether to be based in a school, in the community, or at a clinic (and what sort of clinic or organisation type). If private practice is the preference, then determine if that means based at home or in a professional office workspace. Sometimes shared office arrangements with other counsellors can be beneficial.

Additionally, if you are able to offer extended hours of operation to provide counselling services, this can encourage increased clientele for your business.

Marketing dilemmas

Farhan Raza, a business education advisor and business and project management trainer, would agree. “To be effective [from a business perspective] you need to do your market segmentation, targeting, and positioning early on,” he says. For those whose eyes glaze over when they hear marketing terminology, let us explain: it’s about figuring out what slice, or segment, of the market you wish to serve, working out how to target that demographic, and then positioning yourself so that the potential clients in that segment will see you as someone who can supply what they need.

Raza continues, “Figuring out how to position yourself is important. Someone should help you at the beginning so that your positioning matches your objectives.” An example offered is that of the counsellor who works in alcohol and drug counselling, but then realises how little he likes dealing with addiction issues. He might find much later on that he is particularly comfortable helping people through loss and grief. But if the counsellor does not establish these goals and practice preferences until later in the piece, Raza laments that “all the money, time, and effort you have spent on market segmentation and positioning is wasted.”

Baker offers that, in order to establish the preferences, it is helpful to gain as broad an experience as possible while still in training. “Volunteering for an organisation can help you to do that and also consolidate your learning,” she says. For some people, the counselling pathway can be a meandering journey and the process of elimination can help to arrive at a niche area of special interest.

The formal route

Raza notes that a counselling practice is really a small (usually) or sometimes medium enterprise, so those counsellors who haven’t been in business before should look into some of the resources available. AIPC’s sister College, COLAB, offers two Diplomas that can help:

There is also a good resource put together by the Australian government: The site helps those starting a business choose a business structure, write a business plan, and register their business. For those who are already running their business, the site also has a page on growing one’s business, employing workers, and managing tax and finance issues, plus there are short videos, templates, and other tools to help.

Baker and Raza both spoke favourably of the professional development training course, Marketing your Private Practice/Build a Successful Practice, run by Optimise Potential.

The D.I.Y. route

Baker stresses that “forward planning” — even while in training — is helpful. She advocates setting up a basic (meaning: free or almost so) website and a business Facebook page. Getting an online profile is imperative. In addition to having a presence there, ACA offers space for counsellors registered with it to create a profile (and even to link it to the counsellor’s page). Baker herself went further, making the decision to outsource marketing, as she didn’t wish to spend time or money on that. Instead, she located a company which performs that service for its network of counsellors.

Word-of-mouth: 20th century and now

What about the old “word-of-mouth” way of getting clients? Baker chuckles. “If I had depended solely on that, my practice would not be full now,” she says. However, word-of-mouth referrals do continue to direct some new and return clients her way. Raza explains that the network circles contacted through that route were naturally smaller. In the 21st century, “word-of-mouth” is done differently. Raza offers that around 35% of small businesses use email marketing and 48% employ social media. And ultimately, one’s connections on social media — particularly the professionally-oriented LinkedIn — help a person to widen the network and find out what is going on in his or her circle.

Prepared to work on the business as well as in it?

Ultimately, we have to face the reality that, if we want any kind of thriving business, we must work at building it up. Clinton Power, founder of the Australia Counselling directory, notes that, in the beginning, he worked 15-20 hours per week on his counselling business, building it up (Australia Counselling, 2018). Baker and Raza would undoubtedly agree that there is no such thing as a “free launch”. But by observing a few basic business principles as you are starting or building up your practice, you can avoid the lame statement that you could have a great practice.