The Art of the First Client Contact: 10 Tasks
By Barbara Griswold, LMFT (October 14, 2016)
During a practice-building consultation, a therapist asked me, “What do you say on the first phone call with a client? I mean, what exactly?” It was a great question.
In thinking about my response, I realized that the first client contact is not an easy undertaking. It is part skill, part art, and all about balance. You need to allow the client to tell their story, and to show the empathy that will sow the seeds of connection and rapport. This starts a good clinical relationship and at the same time increases the chance the client will show up at the first session. However, you also need to quickly accomplish many important tasks related to clinical screening and finances.
I’ve listed 10 Tasks of the first call, with some sample phrases:
1) JOIN. Sound warm and upbeat. Give hope and praise.
- “I know it isn’t easy to make the first call and reach out for help. I’m so glad you called me.”
- “Have you been searching a long time for a therapist? It shouldn’t be so hard to find a therapist. I really admire your persistence.”
2) BRIEF SCREENING: Are client issues in the scope of your practice/competence and appropriate for outpatient therapy?
- “Before we set up the appointment, it would help to know a little about the issues you are dealing with, so I can get a sense if I might be a good fit for you as a therapist. In a few sentences, can you give me an idea of what is going on that has made you decide to get counseling right now?”
- After client tells story and you ask follow up questions: “I’m sure you’ve just told me a small portion of the story, but already I can hear you’ve really been through a lot, and that you are dealing with a lot of stressful things. I’m so glad you reached out — there is no reason you have to go through this alone.”
- “From what you’ve told me so far, your issues are ones with which I have a lot of experience, that I help clients with every day. So I’d be happy to set up an appointment for us to meet and see if it feels like a good fit.”
3) THEIR QUESTIONS.
- “Did you have any questions for me?” “Oh, yes, that’s a great question…” In my experience, individual clients most often ask about my therapy approach, while couples most often ask what my success rate is at saving relationships. Practice some answers for these questions using non-technical language.
4) FEES/INSURANCE. Fees must be clear before the client walks in the door.
- “So before we pull out our calendars, let’s get boring business stuff out of the way. The charge for the first session is $___ and then after that for a ___ minute session is $___. Do you have insurance that might help cover this, or will you be paying yourself? “
- If you are not a provider for their insurance plan, or they don’t have insurance, and the client indicates they can’t afford your full fee: Say,”I understand. How much do you feel you could afford?” then negotiate an agreeable fee from there, or refer if necessary. You may also say “While I’m not a provider on your insurance plan, many PPO or POS plans will give partial reimbursement when you see any licensed provider. Or you might have a MSA/HSA plan at your work that would help pay for your expenses. Do you know if you have one of these? You may want to call your insurance or benefits dept. and check your ‘out of network’ reimbursement benefit. You would pay in full at the session, and I would give you an invoice to submit to your plan for reimbursement” (you may also offer to check their coverage for them).
- If you are a network provider for their insurance: “Well, good news! I am a preferred provider for your insurance, so I will take care of the billing for you, and you may only have to pay a copayment. If it is OK with you, I’d like to call your insurance before we meet to check your coverage, to be sure you don’t have any payment problems down the line. Sound good?”
- “Let’s look at scheduling. This week I have these openings…”
6) DIRECTIONS/PARKING INSTRUCTIONS:
- “My office is located at ________. Do you need directions?”
7) CANCELLATION INSTRUCTIONS
- “Great! Now, if you do need to cancel, please e-mail me/call me with as much notice as possible. Also, please give me your e-mail/phone number on that day in case I need to cancel.”
8) INSURANCE INFO (IF APPLICABLE):
- “So before we hang up, why don’t you get your insurance card, so I can check your insurance for you?” (Note: In my book, available at www.theinsurancemaze.com/store, I have a list of questions to ask the client here, and the 13 essential coverage questions to ask the plan when you call).
9) CONFIRMATION AND FINAL INSTRUCTIONS:
- “OK, so let’s confirm: Our appt. is Monday the 4th at 6 PM.”
- “If you will come 15 minutes early, I’ll leave some forms on a clipboard in the waiting room for you to fill out” or “I’ll e-mail you forms to fill out — please return them at or before the session.”
- “Please bring your insurance card (if applicable) and/or your payment/copayment of $___, which is payable by cash/check/credit card to the session.”
- “Any final questions?”
- “It’s been so nice talking to you, and I’m so glad you called for support. I’m looking forward to meeting you on Monday, and to working together.”
One final recommendation: Even if you make first contact by email, talk to the clients on the phone before they come in. In addition to screening for client appropriateness, this direct connection will decrease the chance of a no-show.
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Anything I left out? How do you handle that first call? What tips do you have? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I welcome your feedback for a possible follow-up article. — Barbara
Could you benefit from some affordable coaching around your practice? Contact me at email@example.com