Knowledge Share

Determining Your Practice Identity

By Le’Ann Solmonson, PhD, LPC-S

March 2024

Some counselors may be hesitant to define a practice niche because they fear it conflicts with their ethical responsibility to provide services to any client who walks in their door. This comes from what I believe is a misunderstanding of Standard A.4.b. of the ACA Code of Ethics, which states we do not impose our values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors on our clients.

To better understand the ethics of developing a practice niche, let’s consider the difference between bias, preference and specialization. A bias is a prejudice or strong inclination of the mind. It is often based on your own values or a preconceived opinion about something or someone. A preference, however, refers to having a greater liking for one thing over another. A specialization is an area of practice in which you have received specialized training or in which you have experience and competency. For example, some counselors specialize in working with individuals with substance use disorders or with children and adolescents, and they build their practices around these clients.

Screening clients based on a bias is problematic, but screening clients based on a preference or specialization is not. In fact, having a specialized practice often leads to greater job satisfaction among counselors.

Determine Who You Are

To help you determine your practice identity, consider your personal traits and strengths.Ask yourself:

  • What skills do I have as a counselor?
  • What are my greatest achievements as a counselor?
  • How do I approach problem solving?
  • How do I deal with challenges?
  • What makes me feel successful?
  • What positive traits do others identify in me?
  • What motivates me?
  • If I could only work with one type of client for the rest of my career, who would they be?
  • Reflecting on who you are and what you want professionally can help you identify the type of clients or issues that you want to work with.

Identify Your Ideal Client

Consultants who assist counselors in building and marketing their practices often ask counselors to identify their ideal client. To do this, make a list of clients with whom you have really enjoyed working. Then, make a list of clients you do not enjoy working with or those you have found to be challenging. Next examine each list and look for commonalities such as age, gender, profession, educational levels, presenting issues, motivation levels and progress made.

After you have identified your ideal clients, build a profile of them by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What causes the client stress?
  • What frustrates them?
  • What do they want most in life?
  • What challenges does the client face that brought them to counseling?
  • What would their life look like without those challenges?
  • What do they value most?
  • What are they passionate about?
  • What changes does the client want to make?

You can then begin to develop a marketing plan to attract clients who fit this profile.

Marketing Do’s and Don’ts

A common mistake counselors often make is creating a website or professional profile that uses clinical jargon or language that only other counselors understand. When you list your degrees, credentials and training, the client probably does not know what any of that means. In fact, the average client does not know the difference between a counselor, a psychologist and a clinical social worker. They are looking for someone who understands what they are experiencing and can help them improve whatever situation is causing them distress. They are not looking for a list of acronyms or initials.

Instead, you want to use language that conveys you understand your ideal client — their preferences, values, aspirations and challenges — and that you can help them work toward achieving their desired goals.

For example, you may target clients who have difficulty with setting healthy boundaries by using the following language: “Tired, frustrated, overwhelmed — our days are filled with long lists of demands, so we often end up just going through the motions. Getting on top of life feels impossible. There’s just too much to do. I have been there and want to help you break the negative cycles that are keeping you trapped. Imagine learning to effectively communicate with others so that you get your needs met. Imagine being able to say no to one more commitment without feeling guilty. Imagine a daily schedule that includes some ‘me time’!”

Once you have captured their attention, it is OK to list your degrees, credentials and training. There may be some clients who are looking for that information.

Marketing Platforms Tips

Your practice identity also influences how you portray yourself on marketing platforms, such as websites, therapist directories and social media. Consider what you want to convey beyond words: The images, colors and fonts you use also provide clients with a visual representation of you as a professional. You want to make yourself approachable to the ideal client. So, if you are marketing to professionals, a more formal look may be suitable, but how would you change your profile if your ideal clients were parents of children and adolescents?

Make sure your website is mobile friendly. Many people use phones and tablets to search online, so if your website does not display correctly on those devices, then your hard work to create an attractive website will be undone.

Use the same language and approach for therapy directories, such as Psychology Today, as you do for your website. Also keep your profile updated frequently to ensure you stay at the top of the search list; if the page is static or rarely changes, then it drops in the list.

If you use social media, be prepared to keep it updated. Create a plan for how often you will post and what content you will use. Post content that is relevant to the clients you hope to attract. Also make sure you maintain professional boundaries. Keep your professional profile separate from any personal profiles you have. Because professional accounts are often public, it’s also a good idea to limit people’s ability to comment on posts. If you do allow comments, check them regularly and delete anything that might be inappropriate or negative.

Determine Who You Are Not

As a counselor, you are never going to be able to meet the needs of all clients. When a potential client reaches out, spend some time gathering information that will help you determine if your practice is a good fit. And don’t be afraid to say no if they aren’t; just be sure to have some referrals ready to help them find a therapist who can better meet their needs.

Developing a practice that increases your feelings of self-efficacy and overall enjoyment
in your work is an antidote to burnout and overall dissatisfaction. And in the end, your clients will benefit.

Key Takeaways
  • Know who you are and who you are not. (Your traits and strengths can help you determine your practice identity.)
  • Identify and build a profile of your ideal client.
  • Develop a marketing plan that attracts your ideal client.
  • Make yourself approachable to clients on marketing platforms.
  • Avoid using jargon in professional profiles and websites.

Author Bio

Le’Ann Solmonson, PhD, LPC-S, is a licensed professional counselor in Texas, private practice owner and retired counselor educator. She is a past president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, Texas Counseling Association and Texas Counselors for Social Justice.

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