It’s a fact of life – slowdowns in client traffic are a matter of when, not if. However, there’s no reason why such a slowdown should lead to financial or business ruin. In fact, it may be a blessing in (albeit very effective) disguise!
Why Does Client Traffic Slow Down?
There are many reasons for the ebb and flow of clients. It could be as simple as the time of year. Some months, people seem to be more motivated to seek therapy, but much less so in others. Holiday season? Too busy to go to therapy! Post-Holidays? Cue the mad rush as we realize things aren’t as merry as the pre-Holiday commercials made them seem. Another possible culprit is an economic downturn that makes people less willing or able to spend on a visit to their therapist. Finally, it could be that your marketing channel and/or message hasn’t kept up with a changing market.
Three Keys to Recovery
The first of three keys to recovery is preparation. There is no question that client traffic slowdown stresses both you and your business. Reduced revenue means your profit is down or even turned into loss. If you prepared for this, setting aside a cash reserve, you can weather the temporary downturn without stressing, using the reserve to cover expenses you can’t reduce or stop (think rent, utilities, etc.).
However, what if you haven’t set aside such a cash cushion? That’s like the rhetorical question, “When should I plant a tree for lumber I need now? ” The answer is, “Twenty years ago! ” As true as that answer may be, if you didn’t plant the tree 20 years ago, planting it today won’t solve your immediate lumber problem. However, not planting it now will mean you have no solution 20 years from now either.
The second key is keeping a positive outlook. This is critical for two reasons. First, it helps you avoid getting stuck in 'deer in headlights' mode. Second, it makes those actions you do take much more likely to be effective.
This leads us to the third key – taking decisive action. As many (erroneously) quote Albert Einstein to have said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Even if it wasn't good ole' Al who said it, doing nothing different means that while your results may change, that’s certainly not predictable.
What You Can Do Right Now
First, if you’re reading this before suffering a slowdown, pat yourself on the back and start setting aside the above-mentioned cash reserve. As a rule-of-thumb, after covering expenses and taxes and paying yourself a salary, set aside half the remaining profit as a cash reserve until you get to at least three to six months’ worth of your fixed expenses plus marketing costs. You can’t do this if clients are already not coming in, but if that’s the case now, at least put creating such a cash reserve high on your to-do list for after you recover.
If you’re already in a downturn, it’s crucial to slow down the bleeding as fast and far as possible. Identify and cut all discretionary spending (excluding marketing) as deeply as possible. If the downturn is significant, include both your business and personal spending. The latter will allow you to reduce or delay your salary, which will extend your business breathing room. Next, triage whether the problem is a general one, or limited to your marketing and/or your niche. Ask your colleagues to see if most of them are also experiencing the slowdown, and the scope of the problem should become clear.
If the slowdown is a general one that’s not due to typical seasonal changes, it may be related to the economy. There’s not much you can do to change your clients’ financial situation, but you can adapt your marketing to address it. In recessions, people are more stressed, so their need for therapy support is likely to increase rather than decrease. However, you may need to change your messaging to something that speaks to your clients’ current stress and how it affects their lives and relationships. You may want to consider offering support that requires less of your time per client, and can thus be offered at lower cost. This may include group sessions, brief phone consultations, email support, etc. The point here is to be creative in making a difference for your clients in a way that meets their needs, but that works for your business too.
If the slowdown is limited to your practice, it’s time to refocus and sharpen your marketing. Perhaps you need to redefine (or define, if you’ve never done it before) your ideal client. What are those ideal clients' pain points and where do these clients hang out online or offline? How can you place your message so they see it when they're ready to consider therapy? Make sure your marketing speaks to those ideal clients' pain points using the same wording they might use. While you’re at it, use the same process to refocus your website copy, profiles on directories and social media, etc.
Calculate your cost of client acquisition (marketing spend divided by number of new clients) vs. your average client lifetime value (average sessions per client per course of therapy multiplied by your session fee) in general. Better yet, calculate this for each of your marketing channels so you see which ones are most efficient. For the most efficient ones, increase your marketing spend if that’s practical (e.g., spending more for a directory listing may not be possible unless there’s a premium option that makes your listing stand out).
The most important point here is that marketing is the one place you do not want to cut back spending during a slowdown. That’s what will restart the flow of clients, so you should try to put more money there, not less. However, you have to make sure your marketing is effective and efficient before pouring in scarce money.
If fewer clients are coming to you, that means you have that much more time for marketing that doesn’t cost you a dime (how’s that for reframing? :)). Start blogging, or if you already do it periodically, up your frequency and do it weekly. Find a blog that may be popular with your ideal clients and pitch a guest post. Consider starting a podcast, or if you’ve been podcasting periodically, do it regularly. Look for a local magazine or newspaper writer who may be open to collaborating on a story related to the kind of therapy you provide. Perhaps this could even turn into a series. If you enjoy research, consider conducting a study or survey related to your niche. Then, send out a press release to industry or niche media outlets or blogs that cover that arena. You could also offer free seminars, webinars, or lectures where your ideal client may see you. This could be at the local library, Rotary Club, community college, church, etc. The idea here is to turn your suddenly free time into a public-relations resource.
Good Fortune is where Opportunity Meets Preparedness
Reality is what it is, and that will sometimes feel like a problem. The unavoidable slowdown in client traffic likely ranks high in your “real problem” list. We have to acknowledge that this is one of those things we can’t change, but that doesn’t mean we have to take it lying down.
First, prepare for the inevitable ebb in business by setting aside a significant cash reserve and by writing down all the steps you would take to improve your marketing if only you had the time for it. Doing this when you’re not under pressure will automatically make your mindset much more positive. Then, when the slowdown occurs and you suddenly have the time, pull the marketing plan out of your drawer and implement it.
When a slowdown comes knocking at your door, if you respond by keeping a positive outlook and taking immediate and effective action, you may find yourself piercing its frightening disguise and seeing it for the opportunity it hides.