I remember when I first started in private practice as an intern, the first phone call with a potential client completely freaked me out:
What do I say?
How long should the call be?
How do I figure out if we are a good fit?
How do I show my true colors in a brief time so they feel comfortable scheduling with me?
If these questions feel familiar to you, you’re in good company. In this article, I cover the steps you need to know to dive into the initial phone screen in counseling private practice.
The Best Initial Phone Screen In Counseling Private Practice
I’m not the first therapist to broach this topic on the internet. You can do a Google search of “first phone call private practice” and you’ll find all kinds of advice on the subject. One thing I’ve noticed though is most people tend to simply present the way they do the initial call, but this might not be the best format for you.
Wanna know the secret to the best initial phone screen? Doing it in the way that’s best for you, not copying the way someone else does it.
We all find our own groove for how we do the initial screening: some do short structured calls while others do longer, more free-form calls. It’s important that you have the freedom to develop a screening process that reflects your brand and who you are.
The Best Initial Phone Screen For Your Practice
Even though the initial phone screen looks different for everyone, there are a few key steps you can walk through to help you arrive at the right phone screening structure for your counseling private practice.
Ready to dive in? Thought so!
1. Identify how much time you’re willing to spend on an initial call
Some therapists prefer to have brief phone calls and allow a majority of the screening to occur during the initial assessment in-person, other therapists prefer to do a thorough phone screen to ensure clients walking through the door are a good fit and likely to commit to additional sessions.
Depending on which of these you prefer (or something more in the middle), it will impact how long your initial phone call will be.
Ask yourself whether you prefer to prioritize having a potential client schedule an initial intake session or whether you prefer to ensure the client is likely to see you for more than one session. From my experience, shorter phone calls (around 10 minutes or so) make it more likely for clients to schedule an initial session, but then no-show rates are high, and for those who come they’re less likely to return for a follow-up appointment.
For me personally, I’ve opted for longer calls around 30 minutes. Doing so helps me confirm that an individual will likely attend for more than one session. I used to use a strategy of shorter initial calls, but then I grew frustrated at how flakey people were about therapy. Longer initial calls help me stay sane with my practice and only meet with people who are serious about committing to the process.
Even though I’ve opted to invest more up-front during my free initial phone screen, it fits best for my personality and my practice. Take some time to explore how much up-front investment is a good fit for you.
2. Identify non-negotiable traits of your ideal client
Who is your target market? If you have a client calling who is outside of your niche, it’s important to be able to identify that quickly so you can appropriately refer them out. Make a list of the non-negotiable items in your practice. Starting here may help keep you from going through the rest of the screening, only to find out you need to refer out based on a simple disqualifying factor.
For example, I primarily work with with young adults both individually and for premarital counseling. That means I refer out all kids, married couples, families, and older adults right off the bat. I’m also not in-network on any insurance panels, so I refer out any clients looking for an in-network therapist. Usually, you can pinpoint these items in the initial email before you even chat on the phone, but sometimes people do still reach out over the phone for their first contact. It’s helpful to screen for these items early in the phone call to make your calls more efficient.
No idea what your niche is? I have an article for that! Check out my article about finding your niche in private practice and circle back to this article when you’re ready.
3. Identify your Therapeutic Style
Though the initial phone contact is not therapy, it’s important to embody the same therapeutic style during the first phone call that you do when you meet in-person.
Put differently, this is a type of Brand Consistency: who you are should be the same in person as you are on your website, in email, and over the phone. Are you a structured CBT therapist? Then consider a structured approach over the phone.
Personally, I use a more Gestalt therapeutic approach, so in the initial phone screen, I use a looser structure of gentle guidance. I help the potential client identify what it is they are seeking support with and to paint a picture of what they hope for if counseling is successful.
By being consistent, if a potential client feels comfortable with how you interact with them over the phone, they likely will feel comfortable with you in-person and are more likely to stick around for more than one session.
4. Do a brief assessment
In addition to checking the potential for harm to self or others, create a checklist of items you need to ask to identify if you might be able to help this potential client. Are there certain presenting issues you stick to within your niche? I like to ask questions that help me quickly pinpoint the likelihood that someone may fit within my niche.
For example, I work primarily with issues of identity, anxiety, and faith-related issues. I have a quick checklist of questions to run through about symptoms of anxiety and self-perception that I run through. If people don’t broadly fit into these checklist items, I refer out.
Take a moment to identify what items to include in your assessment checklist to help you decide who fits within your niche. This might be a little bit more open-handed than the non-negotiables of step 2. For example, I definitely refer out all teens as I’m not equipped to work with them, but I don’t necessarily exclude an adult whose presenting issue is only a little bit outside of my usual niche (assuming I have the appropriate training to work with them).
5. Circle back to logistics
It’s our duty to inform clients of our rate at our earliest convenience. Be sure to check in about questions the potential client may have about your schedule, insurance, and fees before scheduling an appointment. If a client has a pressing question about logistics at the beginning of the call, I like to answer right away because I don’t want to waste their time if my fee is too high for their budget, I don’t accept their insurance, or our schedules don’t match up.
Be sure to have a plan for ironing out those logistics in the initial call regardless of whether the potential client inquires about them. Here are some key logistics I make sure we go over before we hang up:
- Location accessibility
- Initial paperwork requirements
6. Decide on Follow up
I send a follow-up email confirming our appointment including the details of my address and what to expect upon arrival. I also reiterate the fee and attach the intake documents for them to view before filling them out in the office. This also gives clients the option to print out the forms and fill them out in advance if they prefer. If our first appointment is more than a week out from our initial call, I send out a reminder email the day before, as this tends to catch many people who have cold feet and otherwise would no-show.
However you approach a call, pick a strategy that allows you to lead with confidence. You can experiment and fine-tune with each initial call until you land on a strategy that works for you.
Ready to dive deeper into starting a private practice? I have a free guide for that! Check it out here to grab your free guide: Start a Private Practice in Counseling
Hopefully, these tips help you get started so your initial phone screen doesn’t feel completely directionless. Until next time, from one therapist to another: I wish you well.