In a previous article we discussed the importance and applications of marketing in counselling. There was a particular focus on the initiation of a counselling practice. Although marketing has an important, and often overlooked, role in developing a counselling business, there are several other fundamentals that are just as important to build a successful practice.
In this article, we’ll discuss the basic rules of engagement in business: how to effectively start and maintain a counselling practice from legal, ethical and managerial perspectives. If you have the tools, get ready to step into the business world with the right knowledge.
Out of School, Into the Office
It all commences with the mindset. Transiting from a student lifestyle to a working lifestyle (or from a student/working lifestyle to a working lifestyle) requires a change in the person’s mindset. In the case of building a business, it gets even more serious. As a student, the consequences of a bad assignment or being late to a class are engrossed by the student. In a counselling business, bad planning or service delivery will affect the counsellor and the clients: there is more responsibility, thus the need for more accountability.
It is common that recently graduated counsellors are highly motivated to build a successful practice. It is important that such drive and motivation are directed to a precise framework of action. Such a framework will be based on the fundamental needs of a business, along with other particular requirements of the profession.
Legal and Accounting Matters
Before going into practice, whether it is on a full time, part time or voluntary basis, counsellors should seek appropriate accounting and legal advice. There are basic requirements which any business must observe, and they can be vastly different according to each country and respective industry regulations. InAustralia, most cities have Small Business Advisory Groups which are government-sponsored and which are established expressly for this purpose. In many cases the advice given is free or very inexpensive.
There are many questions which need to be asked prior to starting a business. Following are some of them, most applied to the Australian business context:
- Should I register a Business Name and if so, how do I do it?
- Should I form a Trust or a Company and if so, why, when and how?
- Should I register for an Australia Business Number (ABN)? If so, how?
- Should I register for GST (tax) and if so, how do I do it?
- What kind of accounting format do I need?
- Am I required to register under Workplace Health and Safety Regulations?
- Do I need insurance (indemnity or other) and if so, what?
- What if I employ someone. What procedures must be observed?
There are many issues which must be sorted out before going into business. “First-timers” who are completely unaware of most of these requirements should get appropriate advice in order to avoid very problematic outcomes. Such advice, in Australia, can be sought through the Internet on governmental websites such as www.business. gov. au (ABN, GST and PAYG registration) and www.asic. gov. au (company registration). It is imperative the counsellors make use of these services while they are in the planning stages for their practice.
Moving to the accounting side of things, keeping records is a fundamental practice to any business. Keeping appropriate financial and taxation records are just as important as keeping good client records. A visit to an Accountant prior to setting up a practice is essential as he/she can provide advice on such matters as GST, maintaining cash flow records and taxation policies and procedures. The Accountant should also balance Income and Expense Statements on a regular quarterly basis.
Good accounting and financial advice is essential to the success of any business. Whilst arguments which suggest that ‘small business is top heavy with red tape’ may well be valid, we cannot use this as justification for non-compliance. When going into business and providing a service to the public, counsellors take on the responsibility to ensure that their business is operating legally and ethically from all perspectives.
Advertising and Promotion
Advertising in a local newspaper to promote a counselling service is a common practice for counsellors. The previously cited article focused on the marketing aspects of setting-up a counselling practice. Now we shift the focus to effective advertising strategies which are common for local advertising.
The Yellow Pages is a popular place to advertise and a recommended ‘investment’. There will be times when a local newspaper will run “Health and Wellbeing” features or similar supplements. A good strategy is to contact the newspaper for a schedule and advertise in alignment with it for good exposure (and positioning).
Counsellors must advertise in the “professional services” section of the paper, not in “personal” or “entertainment” sections as they may prejudice the image of the business (bad positioning). Finding out about “specials” like three days for the cost of two and effective distribution days can also provide a benefit in cost and delivery.
Finally, if you are going to try Letter Box flyers, it is important that your flyer is professionally designed and presented and is delivered to houses that meet your demographic market.
The Office Setting
Setting up the Professional Rooms correctly is extremely important and must be carefully planned. The room setting will enable one of the most important aspects of a counselling session, which is providing a safe, relaxing and comfortable environment for the client. It will also reflect the professionalism of the counsellors and play a decisive role in the client’s decision-making process in whether to return for another meeting or to look for another practice. So what are the major aspects which need to be observed?
The colours used to paint both the room background and the décor should be modest, comfortable, settling and non-aggressive. Ideal colours would be soft pastel shades including green, blue, lilac or cream. Bright unsettling colours such as lemon and hot, aggressive colours such as red are unsuited to the supportive counselling environment. The décor should be conservative and not include primary colours or items which are attention getting.
There is no need for the counselling room to be either overly large or small. Think in terms of there being three people in the room each needing his or her own “space” and yet allowing for a close comfortable supportive environment. If the room is too large there may be a need to use a partition to create the required area. Seating should be comfortable and arranged in a circular plan. Lounge type chairs are preferable and it is important that the counsellor sits at the same height as the client(s). It is most inappropriate for the therapist to sit higher than those who seek support as this may be interpreted as threatening.
Smoking when with a client is unprofessional and even illegal in some states across Australia and the world. There is no need for the counsellor to offer refreshments (such as tea or coffee) during a session, but it is wise to have a jug of water and glasses handy. People often become dry in the mouth when they are stressed and a glass of water can be very settling (not to mention that it would avoid the need to interrupt the session). Having a box of tissues is handy too.
Finally, seeking counsel is a common practice in counselling. If the counsellor is working with someone and would like a second opinion, he or she should inform the client of such decision. If counsel is obtained, make sure not to disclosure the client’s personal information (such as their name).
Maintenance Tasks and Service Quality
Keeping records of interviews and counselling sessions is not an indispensable activity, but it is recommended for reference and backtracking. If the counsellor decides to keep records, there are some basic rules he or she should follow.
First, the counsellor should always let the client know that he or she wants to use a recorder and if there is any expression of disagreement or displeasure by the client, the counsellor should not go ahead or even try to convince the client that he or she should. With taping however, it is often a better practice if a recorder is used to make notes immediately after the session. It is usually helpful to make brief written notes during the session and then develop these more fully immediately after the client is gone.
Prior to taping, the counsellor must record the verbal permission of the client at the beginning of the first tape. This can be done by simply turning the recorder on and saying ‘we’re ready to start now (name) and as you know we will be recording our sessions so we can later go back and see how much progress we’ve made. Is that ok?’, or something along those lines. Preparing a numbered Tape Register so that the tapes are arranged according to each client is desirable. One way to do this is to use an Alphabetic Card Index System.
Finally, we take a look at the counsellor fees. In order to find out how much to charge per session, the counsellor should some local marketing research (e. g. calling other practitioners in the area and ask). Despite where the counsellor works, he or she will discover that the capacity of people to pay will vary greatly, and it could therefore be wise, especially in the developmental stages of a practice, to take some work for whatever fee the client can afford to pay. Many very successful counsellors still give time each week to do volunteer work at Community Centres, Aged Care Homes, Hospitals and the like (good networking as we discussed in last edition’s publication).
Communication and Motivation
Effective communication is fundamental to the success of any business, and in professional counselling its importance is disproportionately high. The basis for effective communication is trust, and it is with this in mind that counsellors proceed and hone this special skill.
Effective communication implies both the ability to speak and listen well. Effective listening (especially in counselling) means listening in a caring way to what is being said, accepting the other person has a point of view, and accepting the right of the other person to have an opinion which may be different from the counsellor. Therapists need to be careful not to judge others for whatever reason and through non-judgement offer the best possible advice.
Last, but not least, the most intrinsic factor of all: motivation. All these guidelines will not be effectively implemented unless the counsellor is willing to build a successful practice. That means a practice which is ethical, legally compliant, supportive to its clients, and with a well defined framework of tasks. In the end, it takes that one extra yard, that motivational boost, that additional drive, to succeed in the world of business. As Henry Ford used to say “if you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right”. What you think?
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Pedro Gondim is a writer and publisher for the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. The Institute is Australia's largest counsellor training provider, offering the internationally renowned Diploma of Professional Counselling.