When was the last time you thought about the stages of change?
You may have been taught the stages in graduate school, or you may reference them daily, either with yourself or your clients. What has surprised me the most over the years is that, the more proficient I become in mental health marketing, the more I observe and experience how pervasive the stages of change are not only in all providers do clinically, but also in the various aspects of your business.
Believe it or not, the healing journey a person goes through in therapy is nearly the same journey a person goes through when they are in the process of becoming a client.
Let’s unpack that a little more.
As a refresher and reminder, I understand that there are various interpretations and definitions of the stages of change out there. For the remainder of this discussion, we’re going to work with the following:
In the same way that you would approach a client in one stage of healing differently than you would approach a client in another stage, you want to do approach prospective clients who are in different stages of becoming a client differently. It is always best to customize your approach to the client’s particular needs.
For example, you probably would not leap into a deep, multi-layered revelation with a client who is first engaging and building rapport with you, and similarly, I would not recommend that you send a client a bill who is hearing about you for the first time. There is a fitting time and place for each action, at each stage. When appropriately tuned in, each action is not only beneficial for your business, it is profoundly supportive and impactful for the client.
It helps that the stages of change, or the stages of healing, that you may already be familiar with are quite similar to the stages a prospective client goes through when they are considering becoming your client.
Better yet: these very stages are the core to all marketing. Understanding how and why to speak directly to clients at different stages can empower you to attract more clients and support clients in coming to the work better prepared for the real journey ahead of them: healing.
Last week, we wrote about how the “less is more” mindset can help you simplify your marketing and spend more time on therapy. These stages -- which in the business world are often called a “marketing funnel” -- are one of the things you can keep top of mind to reground and refocus your efforts, which can also help you to set boundaries. If one of your efforts is not supporting your prospective clients in moving forward through these stages, you have permission to cut it out. Yep, let it go. Focus your time, energy and money elsewhere.
One more thing before we dive in: it is important to note that, just like in therapy, every client’s client journey is unique. Though these stages are a general framework that broadly applies, prospective clients may skip a stage (or several!), follow the steps in a different order, or visit and return to various stages in a non-linear pattern. That said, the client journey is an invaluable framework for understanding your prospective clients and improving your marketing efforts.
Okay, okay, let’s do this. At long last, let’s walk through the client journey together, and discuss how you can improve your marketing each step of the way.
When you begin working with a client in the therapy room, the first step is often to help the client feel at ease and lay the foundation for a relationship of trust. The client may not even be aware of the real problem that brought them to therapy just yet, and they may not be ready to change their behavior.
The first stage of a person’s journey to become your client looks very similar. They may not know what specific challenge is having an impact on their life, and they could have no idea that therapy is the solution.
For example, take a prospective client who is having trouble sleeping. You may hypothesize or inherently understand that there is more to the story than meets the eye: they may be going through a period of heightened uncertainty at work, which may cause them to feel anxious, which would reasonably interfere with their sleep. However, the client may only see that they cannot sleep.
The goal of the first stage is the same whether the client is first learning about their obstacles, first learning about you, or is in their first session with you: build trust and help the person on the other side of the room or screen feel at ease.
Tools like content (written, video, or audio) can help you begin to build a relationship with clients when they are first discovering and researching their dynamics, long before they are in their first session with you.
The first question to ask yourself is, “Where is my ideal client looking for information when they are in this stage of the process?”
Taking our same sleep-deprived prospective client, if they are your ideal client, if they are having trouble falling asleep or they are lying awake at 2 in the morning, what is likely their next thought? What is their next action? For example: are they scrolling on social media, or are they googling “how to sleep through the night”?
The prospective client may also be talking to friends, doctors, colleagues, support/identity groups, or other connections about what they are experiencing.
Once you identify a few outlets where your client may be seeking support in the “engagement” stage, you can design a way to reach them and provide them the support they are seeking. For example, with our same prospective client who is having trouble sleeping, you could write a blog post on how to sleep better that mentions therapy as a resource for a blog or website that your ideal client is likely to read. You could also put together a handout to share with doctors on how to tell if a sleep problem could be due to physical or mental causes.
Please note: there is no “right” answer here, the answer highly depends on you, the particulars of your practice, and the skills you have that are unique to you that you’d like to weave into your marketing strategy. Know that there are hundreds of ways that you can uniquely reach your clients and you do not need to do all of them. You, over time and with trial and error, will identify and understand the channels and strategies that you prefer, and you have permission to say no to everything else (at least for right now).
As an example of content for the engagement stage of the process, our founder, Alyssa, wrote a piece for our therapy seekers about three ways to calm anxiety right now that helps people find relief from anxiety while learning about how therapy could support them.
The most important thing to keep in mind at this stage is that potential clients are very early on in the process of understanding their experience and whether therapy is the right fit for them. They may not even realize that therapy is the solution to their problems. They may still have a bit of shame about what they are going through, or a bit of ambivalence about alleviating the underlying dynamics.
To reach clients in this phase, you should be focused on education, helping them understand the challenges they’re facing, and support.
The more you can weave in a little bit of gratification and relief right away, the better. Ideally, prospective clients find value in this interaction on its own, which will both support them in what they’re going through right now, as well as encourage them to trust you and gradually, viscerally understand the value that working with you in more depth will provide.
For example: returning again to our prospective client who would like to sleep better, if your perspective or tools that you share educates about what the client may be going through, while also providing suggestions that may support them in gaining a few additional Zzzs, the prospective client will gain hope that there is a solution out there, and will gain confidence that you are a resource they can trust.
After building engagement and rapport comes the time for assessment. For your client, this is the time when they begin to better understand the challenges that brought them into therapy and identify the patterns that underlie their behaviors.
For prospective clients, this is the stage when they have identified that therapy is a potential solution to their problems and they are evaluating their options and choosing which form of support or treatment to pursue. The prospective client could be considering a few different therapists, different forms of therapy, or even therapy compared to alternative forms of support (like medications, yoga, alternative medicine, or meditation apps).
In the assessment stage, your prospective client may be looking for therapists in online directories or insurance databases, using MyWellbeing’s therapist matching service, talking to connections for referrals, or even reviewing your website and a few other counselors’ sites.
For example, our prospective client who is looking to sleep better may realize that anxiety plays a role in their sleep challenges. They may look at the profiles of a few therapists, while also trying the natural sleep aid melatonin, buying a white noise machine, and starting a yoga practice.
To help clients in the assessment stage move forward into therapy, it is really impactful to assist them with their analysis of their options. You could write a piece for the prospective client on why addressing the root of their anxiety through therapy is a more effective and lasting solution than trying to address their sleep challenges alone, or how therapy could uniquely benefit them. You can also provide prospective clients with advice on how to move forward, like our piece on how to find a culturally competent therapist.
The next stage of the therapy and client journey is action. In therapy, clients work on their actions and behaviors to address problems during this stage. In their journey to therapy, prospective clients are at the point where they are ready to move forward into therapy.
A client at this stage is on your website, directory listing, or answering machine scheduling an initial meeting with you. Of every part of the client journey, you have the most control over this part of the process. It is crucial to make it as easy, comfortable, and stress-free as possible for the client to move forward with you. Some suggestions: set up an online calendar so clients can book a free consultation with you directly from your website and call prospective clients back as quickly as possible (ideally at least by end of business day) to show them that you care and promptly confirm scheduling.
However you set up your process for scheduling initial consultations, it should have as few steps, and as little friction, as possible. Prospective clients are often exhausted by the time they reach this stage of the process of starting therapy. They are likely overwhelmed by the number of therapists they have contacted. Making it as easy as possible for them to move forward is important primarily for their own wellbeing, and also for the success of your practice.
We have written a whole separate piece on how to help clients move forward in a free consultation call here.
After action comes maintenance, when you help clients identify and work through triggers and other challenges to maintain their recovery and work on long-term challenges.
In the client journey, the maintenance phase is the duration of your work together. It focuses on how you can provide them with additional support outside the therapy room and keep them engaged in therapy.
Marketing does not belong in the therapy room. However, there are ways that you can use your marketing work for new clients to support your existing client base.
The main place you’ll be contacting existing clients is on your website and through your email list. You can share your latest blog pieces or other content with your email list if those posts will help existing clients as well as prospective clients.
For example, let’s go back to Alyssa’s article on three ways to calm anxiety immediately. This post was written for prospective clients who are just starting to learn that therapy might help them. However, the three tips (breathe, reduce stimuli, remind yourself that you are safe), could help anyone who is dealing with anxiety and serve as an additional support to clients in their time between sessions. As such, we also shared it with our email list of current clients and subscribers, and doubled the impact our content was able to have to help others.
With limited time and resources, you will likely want to focus your marketing efforts on gaining new clients. Any time that you can use your marketing work to help both new and existing clients at the same time is a valuable opportunity to make a bigger impact in less time. Less is more, right?
It’s important to remember that not every piece will speak to multiple groups. Your articles on how to choose a therapist, for example, would be best shared with prospective clients, not sent to current clients.
Termination is the ending of the therapeutic relationship and of the client journey. However, the support system you’ve built with your marketing content can be there for clients, even after they leave your practice. With clients’ consent, you can keep them on your email list and send them tips and tools to help them live their lives with a little more therapeutic perspective.
Hopefully, termination comes when the client is truly ready to leave therapy. Unfortunately, we have seen clients leaving treatment early or pausing due to the financial pressures, especially during turbulent times like the coronavirus pandemic.
If you work with clients who want to return to the work when their financial situation is more stable, you can also include them on your email list of supportive tips and tools. That way, you can continue to support them through this tough time in a way that is less of a costly lift for you, and they will remember your kindness when they have the resources to return to therapy, or when a connection of theirs is looking for a therapist.
As you’re working on your marketing, think about the path your clients take to therapy and how you can simplify it for them. Answer their biggest, most burning questions.
One of your superpowers is likely being able to intuit your clients’ needs when you are speaking with them and working with them in the room. Lean in to that.
While we hold shame around marketing, like we are persuading someone to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise want to do, let’s think about marketing as a powerful way to ensure that the people who need your unique support are able to find it and receive it with less overwhelm and stress.
You are doing your community a service. Your ability to identify what your clients need at each step and communicate it to them will help them, while making you an even more successful private practice owner and impactful therapist along the way.
Thank you for all that you do. We hope that this piece is supportive for you and gives you an opportunity to receive, as someone who so often gives. If you have any questions along the way, or topics that you’d love for us to cover in more depth, let us know. We’re here and happy to help.
Match with the *right* clients for your practice while growing your professional community.
Mariah was Head of Growth at MyWellbeing. She is a marketing expert in the areas of content strategy, digital advertising, business growth, and anything related to helping therapists grow their practice.