One of the things I learned early in my career is that people really hate waitlists. One job I had I was hired specifically with the goal to clear the agency’s waitlist. It was my first day. I hadn’t even taken off my coat or sat down yet and I was handed a massive stack of files and was told to clear it. I went through every name and number and heard countless messages like “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for this call?!” I was yelled at, swore at, and hung up on. However, I did go all the way through the list and ended up with a full caseload starting my very first day. Later on that agency ended up closing their waitlist and some of my coworkers blamed that for why the company eventually went under. Once the waitlist was closed referrers turned else where. Once that happened, it was the beginning of a slow decline for an agency that had been operating for a hundred years in that city.
When I went into private practice, like most people, I decided that I was going to create the kind of counseling practice that I would want to go to. Since I hated waitlists, I decided I wouldn’t have one. I would just find a way to make it work. This meant extending my hours, working weekends, or referring people to other providers if I had to. After a while though, I found that this just wasn’t sustainable. Eventually you get to a point where you simply cannot extend your hours any further. There are also other reasons why it doesn’t make sense to refer out. If the client wanted that other therapist, they would have called them, but instead they’re calling you. They want a session with YOU. Why not let the client decide if they are willing to wait or not?
Another problem is that availability can change in an instant. Right now it looks like you don’t have any openings, but tomorrow you could have three. Clients cancel, their work schedule changes, they get better and decide they don’t need counseling anymore. And since clients tend to not be good about anticipating these changes, it can all happen without warning. When that happens you’re going to be glad that you have that waitlist.
So how should one go about creating a waitlist? Well, I think that the important thing is to be completely upfront with prospective clients that you do indeed have a waitlist. If you are able to predict how long of a wait it will be, let people know this. If not, I’m upfront with people that it’s really not something that I am able to predict at this time. Some people are willing to wait, others will tell you that they’re going to look into other options. Whatever the client wants to do is completely fine with me. Next I get their information and add it to the list. I’ll include the date they called, their name, their contact number, their insurance, and what their availability is. So an example would look like this:
7/7/15 Marina Williams
Blue Cross Blue Shied
Wednesdays after 6pm
If the client’s been on the waitlist for a while, I will send them a friendly email to check in. Often people will decide at that time that they can be more flexible then they orginally told me and then I’m able to fit them in. Sometimes people don’t respond at all and when that happens I decide that they are no longer interested and take them off the list.
So what if you get an opening? Do you offer it to the person that’s been on the list the longest? Yes and no. Let me explain. When an opening comes up, we often only have 24 hours notice at best. We need to fill it quickly if we’re going to fill it. Because of that I’ll offer the spot to three different people on the list at the same time. Here’s why: Some of those people won’t respond, some have found a different therapist, and some may have changed their mind about doing counseling completely. If you offer it to just one person and wait a reasonable amount of time for them to get back to you, you are gambling. If that person doesn’t respond, now it’s too late to fill that spot. You just wasted an opening when you have a waitlist full of people who would have jumped at the chance to have that appointment. It’s really not fair to the other people on the list.
If more than one person responds, it goes to the person that responded first. I’ll then explain to the other person that because I didn’t hear back from them soon enough I had to give it to someone else. I don’t lie, and am completely honest about it. I don’t see any point in lying about availability. People should know that there is limited availability and that spots go quickly.
In the end, I would still prefer to not have a waitlist. However, we all eventually get to that point where it’s simply inevitable. There are only so many clients you can see in a day and your availability can change at any moment.