This Week's Poll
In this final installment of this 3-part series on managing your client schedule I'm going to give you some guidelines to use to keep your schedule tight and profitable. The bottom-line here is that either you control your schedule (and your profit) or it will control you. Here we go.
Kathleen's Top 7 Scheduling Guidelines
1. Be honest with yourself about how clients think about...
a. ...controlling their schedules.
Clients are consumers. When they stand at your lobby window it's Black Friday in their minds. They want what they think they need, when they want it, at the price they'd like to dictate. If you let them control those facets of your business you won't have much of a business, and you will need counseling.
Clients, especially the new ones and the ones who think nothing of cancelling, will push you to get their way unless they feel adequate push-back from you. They expect it so, just like we tell them behind closed doors, you need to establish your boundaries from the very moment you meet them. If you won't do that then you have no business telling them to do it in session!
b. ...spending their money.
If you had to write a paper about the strategic process by which mental-health clients think about utilizing their benefits and their discretionary income to pay for your services, do you think you could do it? If you don't fully understand how the consumer plans to utilize benefits and savings, how can you possibly devise a services payment plan that works best for them? You can't.
80% of the market has very expensive benefits they want to use before they dig into their personal savings. You have to understand that "benefits-progression model" and allow them to use it before you head straight for their cash reserves.
The other 20% have the discretionary funds (until the economy tanks even further) to pay your self-pay fee. Typically this group is looking for a very nichey treatment modality and are able to pay cash. But given a choice, even this well-funded group would rather use the benefits they've already paid for if given the option.
We'll probably expand upon this particular point in a blog post next week because this is critically important.
2. Identify which days of the week you'll be working then frame the blocks of time you are available on each day.
I suggest that you identify the days and times your preferred clientele are available and take that into consideration before setting your work-week business hours in stone. That may sound a bit contrary to what I just said in #1 but think about it like this...if a restaurant owner decided he wanted to be open for lunch from 2-5 because it was better for him and his staff, well, he's not going to do very well because the local businesses typically let their employees go to lunch between 11 and 2. See how that compromise needs to work?
3. Keep your schedule tight so that the only gaps in it are the ones you plan for.
My first suggestion is that you utilize scheduling software that not only automates the scheduling of your clients for you based on their payment method and the time slots you've allocated for them, but offers the client choices that butt up right next to your other scheduled appointments. Software can do that for you while you're doing something else. We use Full Slate.
Think of it as an automated scheduling assistant. You still get to make up the rules. Remember, either you run the system or the system will run you! Aren't you busy enough already?
4. Schedule consistent down-time for yourself.
Schedule your lunch hour every day and do not vary. A counselor running on fumes is no bueno for the client. I could give you a list of reasons why skipping meals isn't a good productivity idea but it's the same list your mother gave you. So give her a call (if you can) if you need to hear it again.
Schedule "business productivity" time to catch up on client notes, insurance filings, etc. I use Mondays for this. If it turns out you don't need it for that purpose then you can open that time slot up last minute and see if you can fill it.
5. Draft a Cancellation Policy with teeth, publish it, and stick to it.
Let's face it, this issue is the bane of any client-serving professional's experience; people who cancel and expect to pay nothing for your wasted time. Or even worse, the dreaded "No-Show". What are the boundaries you're willing to establish and enforce for your practice?
a. You show up for your appointment and pay me the agreed upon price for my time.
b. You may cancel once with at least 24 hr notice (maybe 48 hrs if your schedule is not typically full) and pay nothing.
c. If you cancel with less than my 24 hr notice then you will pay me my agreed upon fee for the time slot you just burned. (EAP clients are handled differently.)
d. It's all in my Intake Packet and they initialed the little box so it's not like they don't know this stuff.
They'll play the game anyway, pushing you as far as hope will carry them in order to see if you'll enforce your own policies. See that you do or you will have just bought a huge problem, one client at a time.
6. Draft rescheduling guidelines for handling clients that need to reschedule.
80% of your cancellations will be from clients who don't normally cancel anything but have had a last-minute, unexpected life-event happen to them (flat-tire on the way to your office, house fire this morning, or picking up a sick kid at school). That's called "life" and is normal. These people should be given the benefit of the doubt and handled accordingly.
The other 20% are the chronic cancelers and they do it to everyone. They cancel last minute if they bother to call at all; they think it's "normal". You can recognize a chronic canceler by the excuses they give such as: "I don't feel well", "my allergies are bothering me", or the weakest of them all, "I forgot". Two things to know about dealing with this group.
a. These people should always be responsible for paying your cancellation fee before you see them again or they'll just do it again. Ask me how I know.
b. If you have self-scheduling set up on your website then these clients immediately lose their self-scheduling privileges and must call you directly to schedule/re-schedule.
Then, and this is critical to this strategy, you pick out 2-3 time slot options that work best for you this time. If they no-show or last-minute cancel again, you want to have created a scenario in which you have other things you can do and don't suffer a wasted hour.
For example, if you normally do paperwork on Monday mornings from 9-noon, you might re-schedule a chronic canceler for Monday at 9AM. Then if he doesn't show up, well, you have your normal paper-work routine to fall back on. A 20%er only gets to waste a prime client slot once. After that, you pick the slots that work best for you. Make sense?
Then it's time for a come-to-Jesus meeting with that client.
7. Use cancellation/no-show hours to be "business productive".
It's going to happen. If you find yourself on the short end of a cancelled session then do something productive like client notes, insurance claims, etc. Don't waste the hour texting your friends or BS'ing with other counselors in the kitchen. If you have a stout Cancellation Policy in place you're probably getting paid something for the hour so getting ahead on paper-work makes that time a double-win for you. Unless you waste it.
You're running a business and a business without profit is just a hobby. Establish your scheduling framework guidelines and don't stray from them. Draft your guidelines, publish them and stick to them. Get paid for your time or you'll need to re-examine why you're in business. You got this!
Plan Smart. Be Safe. Serve Others.
Kathleen Mills, LPC-S, CEAP
Got An Opinion?
These posts are my beliefs based on a) almost 30 year practice as a mental health provider and b) my own research. Whether you agree or disagree, please feel free to leave your civil, constructive comments below. I try very hard to back up my liberty-based statements with my own experience and/or verifiable facts and I would ask you to do the same. You do not need to be logged in to leave a comment.