Session 11 of the Selling the Couch Podcast is here!
My guest today is Deb Owens, LPC, CAADC, CEAP.
Deb and I connected through a MeetUp group she started here for therapists in the Philadelphia area.
Deb jumped into the world of private practice in 2010 and started on insurance panels before deciding to go the private pay route.
In this session, you’ll learn:
- What Deb learned from being on insurance panels versus private pay.
- Some small changes you can make in your office to make clients feel more comfortable.
- Deb’s screening process to make sure that clients are a good fit.
- How to decide whether to put session fees on your website.
- The importance of language on a private practice website.
- How Deb explains informed consent to her clients.
- Some tips about personal disclosure on a private practice website.
- The biggest business lesson Deb learned from her time in private practice.
LINKS AND RESOURCE MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE:
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I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Deb Owens about her private practice journey!
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Deb, thank you again for joining me. I’m grateful that we were able to connect and appreciate your honesty.
Until next time!
HERE’S THE FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THIS EPISODE
Intro: Welcome to the Selling the Couch podcast where our goal is to help you achieve your counseling private practice dreams. And now the man who once hiked across the canopy of a rainforest psychologist and podcaster, Melvin Varghese.
Melvin: So yeah, I got to hike across the canopy of a rainforest. It was actually our honeymoon in Costa Rica. And so they have these bridges that are made out of metal and they are these hanging bridges that are set up on the canopy of this rainforest, and you can get to certain parts where there is a clearing and you can see Arenal which is a active volcano. I think it exploded last time– sometime in the 90s but it was one of the most phenomenal things I’ve ever seen. Hey, what’s up everyone? Thank you so much for joining me for session 11 of the Selling the Coach podcast. Today’s featured guest is Deb Owens. So Deb and I met through a meet-up group for therapists in the Philadelphia area.
Deb is a licensed professional counselor in private practice, but she also consults and offers training and team building through contracts with several fortune 100 companies. So the thing that stood out to me about Deb is that she really cares about her clients. As she puts it on her website, “I’ve always been curious about the experiences of others. This is my super power. I can’t imagine doing any other kind of work.” In today’s session of Selling the Couch, Deb Owens shares a private practice journey that began five years ago, lessons that she’s learned along the way and some of her best advice for private practitioners. Here is my conversion with Deb Owens from Debowens.com. Hey Deb, welcome to Selling the Couch.
Deb: Thank you. I’m happy to be here, my pleasure.
Melvin: Deb, one of the things that– when I have new therapists on I love to ask them either a quote or a mantra that’s guided them on their private practice journey. What would that be for you, and then more importantly how could someone who is just getting started in private practice, how could they use that on their own journey?
Deb: Well there is an old Hindu saying that there are many roads up the mountain and only a fool runs around the mountain telling everyone that they are going the wrong way. So for me part of finding your voice and the type of practice you wish to have is to really get in touch with that there are lots of different ways to do this work. You don’t need to emulate every person out there. You can find your own path, your own journey and your own way to have a successful integrity based practice.
Melvin: I like that quote because it’s such a great reminder. Like if you search online there is– therapists are all building all sorts of different practices and I think what you are saying is at the end of the day, I think the most important decision to make is figure out what fits for you and what aligns with who you want to be.
Deb: Exactly, authenticity.
Melvin: Yeah. How did that quote– when you were first starting out in your private practice six ago, how do you think that quote applied to you?
Deb: Well I knew people who had been in private practice for a while as well as new people and I just think that over time I would look at what they’d done, I’d look at their style, I’d look at the type of clientele they had, and I would benchmark myself and either feel I was a failure or a success. And over time I learned that that just wasn’t necessary. I had to decide what was right for me. And I don’t think there is any way to hurry that part when people attend webinars and learn things and read things to say, “Can I do this quicker or can I get up and running sooner?” I think you have to take your time and some of this takes a year or two, to develop your voice, your expertise, your niche, to know how to find your own path.
Melvin: What I hear you saying is that there is definitely like a psychological part to building a private practice, and a lot of it sounds like it’s just about being patient on the journey.
Deb: No doubt. Unlike others, my first anxiety wasn’t about filling up my practice. It was actually whether or not I would like it and be good at it. That was my initial question. So when I had a full time job and was just sticking one foot in and renting one day a week a co-space from someone else, I really was trying to find out, can I do this? Will I be good at it? Will I love it? Will I get good results? How will it work?
Once I made that commitment then of course like everyone else there was a period of anxiety which lasted a good part of a year of you know, how am I going to make this work, having weeks where you’ve got a couple of cancellations and your first thought is oh no, but over time that goes away. You learn to ride with the ebbs and flows, to just ride the waves, to expect them to come back again and again, and then at some point you find out that you’re at capacity and you think, “Wow! How did that happen?”
Melvin: Yeah, it’s a great story. Just thinking back on your journey as you were going from that place of feeling anxious and worried, how did you know you were making that transition from a place of always being worried about whether you were going to get clients to knowing that– hey it’s going to be okay?
Deb: I think for me the first year I was on insurance panels and when I made that transition off panels that was the high point of my anxiety, because now I was charging a realistic and yet high fee for my services that was at least double what insurance would pay me. So I knew that that would take a little more effort. And for me the only way to deal with the anxiety was with data.
So I started with a pen and paper at the end of each week wrote down what my income was because in the beginning when you go private pay, it’s a little scary to have days when you only have three clients, but then you realize you’re earning more income with three clients than you were with seven with managed care. So to me it was really about the data and then also just having those ebbs and flows occur enough times that you habituate to it.
Melvin: It’s a very practical exercise, right? In a way I think it takes the emotion out of starting any sort of a small business. As you’ve built your own private practice over the last five years, one of the things that you said that you’ve gone to kind of a private pay model. How did you decide to go the private pay route?
Deb: Well lots of my colleagues take insurance and I think that’s fine. Many of them are in parts of the country where the insurance pays well and without much hassle. But in my area it really is not the case, and I wanted to do hybrid at first. I thought I would stay on one panel and then build the rest privately and give out of network super bills. But overtime even with the one panel I was left on, I just had one episode where I probably spent 11 hours tracking down a $600 payment that I knew was owed me and they agreed it was owed me, but it took many, many months of effort and I just had had it.
So for me part of it was just a spontaneous feeling towards the end of that. I’m done with this. I can do better than this. My fear was that with this change in model that you would then not be able to work with a range of people that span different socio-economic backgrounds, and I’ve actually found that’s not the case. So it might have shifted a little so maybe it goes from 80, 20 to 70, 30 in terms of the population, but overall it’s really about value, and if people connect with you, feel you’re the right resource, you were recommended to them and you do excellent work and sometimes they may not even have to come as frequently or as long of a duration and they accept that. They see the value of a quality practice.
Melvin: Deb, what are some of things that you do to build that sense of connection with clients to make them feel comfortable and wanting to work with you?
Deb: So of course part of it is that I really try to niche to three populations that I’m good at. And when people stated in the beginning “You have to have a niche,” well I couldn’t make that happen sooner than it happened. I had to practice and see different clients and find out who I did the best with, and work with those populations. So obviously most of it is about results, it’s about that human connection, it’s about taking extra time to come up with links that you might send them or articles or apps when you think of them at off times. Part of the luxury of not having to see as many clients when you’re private pay is not being as rushed so that you really do follow up.
You get a release and talk to their doctor or their husband’s therapists if they are in marriage therapy with you. You take that extra time.
I go back to a turning point in my practice, on Craigslist I found an old Mad Men era refrigerator that was actually a piece of furniture that looked like it came from a law office from the 70s. So I put that in my waiting room and I remember struggling with why I should I spend $10 on putting water bottles in there since it was less money for me, but I finally just made that leap.
And I know it sounds silly– and not all my clients even want the water, but it just created a vibe when they came in to give them the message, this is a different kind of practice. I’m interested in your comfort, if you weren’t able to stop for coffee at the coffee house which is right down from my office we have a machine there; people can make a cup of coffee, grab a drink and just get comfortable. And I saw that even people who don’t take a beverage, how it sets a tone. For me, the fact that I even sweated about that is kind of comical and it just shows you how much I’ve changed.
Melvin: I think there is something very powerful about that, right? Like even in that process of offering coffee or having water there, it’s in a way– I think you’re starting to establish rapport.
Melvin: What are some of the other things that you have done to build that sense of connection or trust with your clients?
Deb: Well the truth is– and of course it’s a lot easier to do this since I’ve been full the last few years, but I really want to screen people before they come to see me. I strive to give them a message on every page of my website and in every conversation I have that I want to spend at least 10 minutes on the phone making sure I’m the right fit for them. Many, many times I refer people on to other therapists who I think are a better matchg. And sometimes it’s even for issues that I’m comfortable with, but I look at it like hey, I can do a B + job but if another clinician can do an A job, then they deserve that.
So part of it is that I really do mean that and people pick up on that. If they are my perfect fit client, then generally we have good rapport in the beginning because they realize that this is something I specialize in, and they tend to share a little bit more and I have an attitude of confidence right away that I give off to them which is real and legitimate. You can’t make that up. I couldn’t have had that my first year, I can have it now.
Melvin: One of the things that you said was, you go through that screening process of actually figuring out whether a client is a good fit for you or not. Tell us a little bit more about your specific screening process.
Deb: So what I found in my first year was that I had more intakes and I would even go online and hear therapists bragging about how many intakes they had that week, and I realized that’s not my goal. I want people that are going to stay with me, do good work, be a good fit, and remain in treatment and get results. I wanted to have fewer intakes. That was my goal. So I think when I made that shift, part of the screening was to just be absolutely sure this is the right client for me.
And I also, unlike some therapists suggestions, I put my fees and the fact that I’m out of network right up in center. I even called the page on my site, fees and insurance so it’s not hidden anywhere because I found in the beginning a lot of therapist coaches would recommend we withhold that information, or try to lure people in and then discuss it or spring it on them.
Not only did that feel disrespectful to me and not genuine, but I never want to forget how much courage it takes someone to pick up the phone. So I didn’t want to put someone in a position of calling me and engaging then realize they need someone on such and such panel, although I’m very happy to recommend people on panels and give them suggestions. I just don’t want to be less than transparent.
Melvin: I feel like you are bringing up– like the theme that’s really sticking out for me so far in our conversation is really starting to see your private practice from the perspective of a potential client, and what are some of the ways that– big and small ways that you can stand out and you can make potential clients actually feel like your services are worth pursuing.
Deb: Exactly. And even the way I handle my forms, I do have them on my website so they can download them, print them out and bring them but I make sure on the phone to not assume that people know the purpose of these forms. So I explain what it is on the phone, I explain to them that it’s going to take about 15 – 20 minutes, that rather than waste time in the session they can do that on their own and bring it with them.
And even on the website, on my forms page I say that again so they understand what informed consent is. Sometimes when you just throw it on people and they see a whole bunch of rules and regulations and things about confidentiality and “legaleze” speak, it can be a turn off. So I want to make sure to soften that a little bit by explaining that that’s something we are required to do and that’s it’s important and that they take their time and read it through, so that they understand the business agreement that comes with coming to therapy.
Melvin: Deb, you are bringing up a good point which is the importance of language, I think both when we talk to our clients and also on our private practice websites. Before we talked, I spent some time just looking through your website and I loved the language that you’re using on your website. And I wanted more specifically spend some time just talking about your about page. What motivated you to write it in the way that you wrote it?
Deb: So that’s another evolution. I don’t particularly think my website is outstanding, I actually think it’s fairly mediocre and average. What I did find on the about me page was I really respected that a lot of younger therapists are much more comfortable putting their personal information out there, and I do believe that that helps engage clients, however as a mom and a wife I really don’t want to share too much information.
So I went from having a very technical sounding bio which really just explained my degrees, my license, where I worked, that sort thing to try to soften it, to add a little more voice, to say a little bit about me personally, but I think if you read it, it doesn’t go too far in that direction. It’s just not my comfort zone. So while I’m willing to share a little bit about my personal journey, I really down peddle it.
And the only way I found to do that was that I actually wrote in the first person voice, the first part of the bio which is really just me talking, and then I later shift to the third person where I just kind of share what my credentials are, because I do think that’s important and I think for some clients it’s not that important, but every once in a while I get someone, particularly someone who is educated, someone who is a physician or an attorney and they want to know.
Melvin: Deb, what are some of the things that you would encourage someone that is just getting started in private practice. What are some of those things that you would say it’s okay to disclose on an about page or on a website, versus some of the things that are not okay and they might be kind of stretching that line?
Deb: I don’t know that I– even though I am very opinionated person I actually am comfortable with people making that choice themselves. I do think that parents of young children do need to think through though how their child is going to feel when they are a teenager. So I think sometimes people write these excellent blog posts and share a little bit of their foibles dealing with their six year-old or seven year-old and its cute and engaging, I love it. I love reading them and I find them exciting, but I do wonder at 16, how is that person going to feel? So to me, we all have different boundaries, different expectations about that, I think everybody really has to make their own decision about it.
For me, I’m probably a little more guarded than some people. I probably share a little less, on the other hand since a third of my practice are couples in marriage counseling, I think people do want to know that I am married for many years and that gives some credibility in that regard. I know some therapists talk about their own issues or struggling with anxiety– I don’t really feel I need to go there. If I think it’s appropriate with a given client, I may share that, but I don’t really feel I need to put that out there on my web presence. But again, totally respect people that do and actually find it compelling.
Melvin: What I hear you saying is it really should kind of depend on what feels comfortable for you, but at the very least there is some wisdom in at least taking a step back and saying, “What are the implications of what I’m putting out there?”
Melvin: Deb one of the other questions that I wanted to ask you was, now you’ve been in private practice here on five years, what would you say is the biggest business lesson that you have learned in these past five years?
Deb: I think in addition to what I talked about, about screening and only taking on clients that you feel really good about, has to do with just the basic things. On almost every online group I see therapists struggling with the issue of charging for late fee, and I think that as the years go on you do become more confident following through with that, but I also want to make sure I’m never so rigid that I don’t take into account that many people have things come up.
And I think sometimes it’s fine to be flexible as well and there have been times when I probably was too flexible and afterwards thought I blew it and I shouldn’t have given that person a break, but I’d rather be that person than the one who holds the line, and no matter what this is the deal and never takes the client’s situation into account.
I have a lot of young families and if their child gets sick at the last minute, I’m just not going to charge them for that. Now if they do that five times in a row, I’m going to have to reconsider and have a conversation. But for the most part, I’ve trusted my clients to cancel if they need to, and I’ve not often had to charge them, but I will if I need to. Interestingly I get very few cancellations anymore and most reschedule to another day that week.
Melvin: Deb, one of the other areas of– we’ve have talked about this of your website that you have started to blog fairly recently. So I wanted to pick your brain a little bit about that. How do you decide on what to blog about?
Deb: So I think my blogging is an example of how a little bit can go a long way, because I’m really not a blogger. I put out maybe six posts a year and they are fairly random, they are not on any theme. Unlike some people, I don’t niche enough that I could make the blog focused. So I’ve noticed some people that always blog about family issues, or parenting and then I think you really have a voice with that, and I actually respect that and think it’s phenomenal, but I’ve ended up with more or less three areas that I specialize in.
So my blogs tend to be all over the map that way, but they tend to happen with me organically. I know it would be great if I wrote more regularly and if I put out shorter versions of it on different topics, but I am busy. My practice is full, I don’t have a lot of time for it, I am not a great blogger, but every once in a while something peculates up in me; I start thinking about it for a few weeks.
So my last blog was really– I was taking the train to center city Philadelphia; I kept noticing the yellow line up the rail road track. I started thinking about using that metaphor with clients, and I thought about writing it down and a month or two went by before I did write it down. And I put it out there and I talked about risk, and taking risk and crossing the yellow lines and what that meant.
And again, it didn’t get me a lot of organic SEO because that particularly blog posting didn’t have a lot of words in it that would come up naturally when people are Goggling topics, but it also was just something that meant something to me in terms of a metaphor for the treatment process.
Melvin: What I hear you say as much as it is for clients I think part of it is your own journey and what resonates for you, and really if part of your inspiration is blogging and blogging is what feels intuitively right and what really starts to resonate with you at an emotional level.
Deb: Exactly. And the fact is even though my blogs are on my website; the fact is probably 95% of clients don’t bother reading them. Those that do, if it resonates with them and it makes sense then they’ll bring that up usually in the initial phone call, and I’m happy that it gave them a window to my voice to make sure I was the right fit for them.
Melvin: Deb, thank you so much for doing this. So we are at the Hot Couch round. Are you ready?
Deb: I am.
Melvin: What’s a daily habit that you believe contributes to your success?
Deb: I practice mindfulness.
Melvin: What’s an online resource that has been invaluable to your private practice journey?
Deb: So I do participate in some of the Facebook and Twitter groups for therapists and I find that useful. There is one particular group that’s a secret group meaning it’s closed and only open to 20 of us that started this journey together. Every single member of that group has gone on to have a kickass private practice, group or individual, and we really learn from each other without a lot of marketing noise. We just kind of share freely with one another and that’s been an excellent resource for me.
Melvin: What’s your favorite business related book?
Deb: A particular book doesn’t really stand out. What I’ve done is read Harvard Business Review HBR, which has a lot of business articles that have nothing to do with therapy, nothing to do with our field but to me, they just put me into a mind frame of understanding that business world. I do corporate consulting at a fortune 100 company which has kind of allowed me to understand that a little bit better as well, although even that info doesn’t translate well into a solopreneur type of private practice. But once again I find that when I read articles in HBR, that have nothing to do with therapy, they really make sense to me and I can usually decipher it and translate it to something that’s important for me to learn.
Melvin: What’s one tip that you would give to someone who’s just getting started in private practice?
Deb: I think you have to pace yourself. I think with all those get rich schemes online where people are saying this coach can help do it this way or do it that way, there is no way to hurry this. It takes a good two years no matter what you do to build into a full practice. Some people have young children at home, are still working other jobs, so obviously that might take a little bit longer. But I also think the anxiety needs to just be tampered down, to have patience, to earn trust, and I know this sounds simple–to trust that if you do good work that overtime, having a full healthy robust practice is just a natural occurrence.
And I’ve even had referrals from people– clients who I didn’t think I did great work with. People that came to me and maybe they weren’t really looking for therapy, or they were ending their relationship and didn’t want to commit to work on it. And still I’ll get a call a year later saying, “I was recommended by so and so.” Those word of mouth referrals are gold. People come in with an expectation of success, they come in with an expectation that you’re competent, they stay with you longer, I’m thrilled to have them because I know this person was referred by someone who either had a good experience with me, or from a colleague who knows me. So I make room for those clients no matter how full I am for that reason.
Melvin: And your last question is, imagine that you were starting your private practice all over again. You have $500 and your laptop, what is the first step that you would take toward building your private practice?
Deb: So I really think even though I’m sure this has been beaten to death, but you must have a website in this day and age. And even though some therapists are techies and are really good at creating their own websites– but if you don’t have good SEO and it doesn’t come up then what good is it? So I think it’s worth it to pay somebody with expertise to do a decent job, and you’ll end up doing 80% of it yourself anyway because you are the one that has to write the copy. But at least let that person help you with some of the SEO or techy type of things and then you can keep it going yourself. To me I think we are all leery in the beginning, people don’t have a lot of money when they are starting private practice, it’s hard to take that leap of faith.
But really even people that are referred by word of mouth want to go to your website and get to know you. And many people don’t get past that first page or two. So they are not going to spend hours looking at your site, but there is something there that makes them think you’re the right person for them.
Melvin: And Deb, you are off the hot couch.
Deb: Thank you.
Melvin: Deb, if folks want to know about you what is the best way to touch base with you?
Deb: My website is www.debowens.com, that’s my name. (215-802-6521) I am primarily a therapist, so I see about 20 clients a week. Two days a week I do corporate consulting as a therapist onsite at a Fortune 100 company. I have a monthly clinical supervision group that’s been running for four years and is always full. As far as private practice couching I don’t see myself competing or out there the way some of these coaches are that have this robust online media presence with all kinds of webinars and graphic designs and web based trainings or whatever. These folks are excellent and happy to see how they help clinicians. What I have been doing is different, just a 1-3 session model where people use either phone or live or online 1 on 1 coaching with me that’s authentic and focused towards them. Helping them learn from someone who is doing it, who knows the struggles and nuances and isn’t trying to upsell or coerce people to sign up for whatever. There’s a need for this approach too.
So I do it as a side line, it’s not my main business, it’s not the primary thing that I do, but I strive to be an alternative to some of the over the top things that are out there that really push people to spend thousands of dollars on experiences that while they are helpful may not be targeted specifically towards them or affordable. So I tend to coach the way I do my practice which is narrow the focus, try to be the different person, the different voice, and to really just help people to find their niche, help them build good SEO on their website, help them make that journey if they are trying to shift from insurance to a non-insurance based practice. So share what’s worked for me and customize it for them.
Melvin: Awesome, sounds great. Deb, thank you again.
Deb: Thank you Melvin.
Melvin: Hey everyone hope you enjoyed that conversation with Deb Owens. So I was taking away a couple of things from that conversation. The first of which is just the importance of language on our website, and I think especially in this day and age, it’s very important to communicate on your website that you are a person and that you are relatable. I think just the ability to do that goes a long way. This was really a struggle for me. I got so used to writing academically that it was a bit of a transition in learning to write just to an audience. So it’s something that I would encourage you to continue to work on and just being able to put things in a language that’s easy to understand.
So a website that I’ve actually come across recently is called Hemingway App. It’s an app where you can put in texts and it tells you at what sort of a reading level that your text is appearing, it’s really cool and it’s really handy. So ideally what you want is at about a seventh or eighth grade reading level. The other thing that I was taking away is this idea of how much is too much disclosure, and I think the thing to remember is it really does vary for everyone.
So for me on the blog, I tend to be a little bit more self disclosing like I talk about the fact that I am married, I have a picture of my wife and I, I talk about some of the stuff of growing up in India and coming to here in the US, and some of my experiences, but there is also things that I don’t talk about and that is with intention– I don’t talk about my extended family because I want to protect them. I would say the same things for you. And I think whatever that line is for you, what are the things that you want to disclose on your website and what are the implications of that? But also, what are the things that you don’t want to disclose.
So at minimum I would say spend some time thinking about that and make an informed decision. All of the resources that Deb mentioned on today’s session are available at Sellingthecouch.com/session11. Thanks again everyone for joining me and I will see you on the flipside.
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