If you’re trying to build your private practice, at some point you’re going to get the advice that you should offer free initial consultations. This advice is all over the internet and I’ve even been given this advice unsolicited from just about everyone. The basic idea is, you offer to give potential clients their first session for free so that they can get to know you and clear up any misconceptions they have about therapy. This sounds great on paper, but fails on execution. The first objection that comes to mind is that most clients drop out of therapy after just the first session anyway. Depending on which study you look at, between 30-60% of clients drop out after just one session. My thinking at the time though, was that my retention rate is really good, so this might work for me. Only about 10% of my clients leave after just the first session, and 80% see therapy through to the end. So I decided to give it a try. I gave away many of these free sessions before I finally learned my lesson. Here are the reasons why I stopped. I recommend anyone considering giving away free initial consultations read this:
1. They’re very demanding: Although these are people getting a free service, I found that they were much more demanding than even my clients that pay out of pocket. They ask for, no demand, your very best appointment spots or a really inconvenient weekend time. I also found these people to be surprisingly rude and even insulting towards me right off the bat. You would expect someone whose getting a free session to be at least a little appreciative, but that was consistently not the case.
2. They want a one session miracle: Even though I would make it very clear that the point of the free consultation was just for us to get to know each better and determine if we were a good fit, that was not the client’s intention at all. Every. single. time. they would come into my office expecting me to solve all their problems in just that one free session. Of course, that’s both impossible and unethical, but they wanted a Dr. Phil style session where they could wrap up all their issues in 60 minutes. When that didn’t happen, they got mad at me.
3. It was a lot of pressure: Since you are essentially auditioning for the client, you feel a lot of pressure to be brilliant and perform. The client will also demand this from you even though you just met them and don’t know enough about their case yet to give them those brilliant interpretations they are demanding from you. They will then insult you, probably just so that they will have an excuse to not set up a follow up appointment.
4. They have no intention of becoming your client: Like I said, I did a lot of these free consultations and even though I have a 90% retention rate, not even one of these free consults came for a second appointment and I really don’t think I’m the reason why. Every single one of these people got the very best of me, but they simply have no intention of ever being anyone’s client. Period. I truly believe that the types of people that do free consults just get what they can from the free session and then just keep doing free sessions with other therapists until the problem’s solved.
5. You will feel angry: I’m not an angry person, but I felt really angry about what happened. I felt disrespected, used, ripped-off, and resentful. I think that if I had continued to do free initial sessions I would have become cynical and it would have affected my work in a negative way.
6. It’s bad for the profession as a whole: When we give away our services, we’re sending the message that therapy is essentially worthless. Even if the client does choose to continue on with you, I think it cheapens their view of you overall. This can’t be a good thing. Dentists, surgeons, and automechanics don’t give you a free first session. Why do we have to? I think it sends a bad message and doesn’t work anyways, so let’s stop devaluing our work.