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Initial Phone Consultations: Should You Offer Them?

    On 16 May, 2024

Some therapists offer free initial phone consultations as a standard, while others provide them conservatively or don’t offer them at all. In some cases, they can be beneficial and allow you to find the client you want to work with, but if not handled well, they may pose a legal or ethical risk and devalue your services. In this post, we discuss best practice guidelines and share some Dubai-based therapists’ approaches.

Checking for a good fit

The most common reason therapists offer screening calls is to check for a good fit between the therapist and the client. During the call, you can give the client a glimpse of your personality, and they can check if they feel they can work with you. Their response to your style, combined with your experience, will help you judge if you are a good fit for the client. 

Dr Sarah Sease, a clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist, believes that offering free consultations serves both the clinician and the client. She asserts that free consultation is a good idea for the clinician and any client. ‘I mainly offer it because it allows potential new clients and me to see if we would be a good match regarding personality, treatment approach, and fit for their goals.

Psychologist and psychotherapist Firdous Mohammed advocates strongly for the benefits of a 15-minute pre-booking consultation. ‘…as a counseling psychologist, the benefits of a 15-minute pre-booking ‘consultation’ far outweigh any negatives.’ Mohammed emphasizes the significance of establishing rapport and comfort between therapist and client within a limited timeframe. 

Counseling psychologist Bruna Moubarak offers complimentary introductory consultations. Her approach allows individuals to gauge the nature of the therapeutic process and assess their compatibility with her technique without immediately committing to a session.

However, some therapists we spoke to found that a brief call seldom gives enough information about the fit for the therapist or the client. An assessment session is more likely to allow the therapist and the client to get to know each other and decide on the best course of action. 

Creating the frame

Make sure that you are clear about the topics that will be discussed, either before the call or at its very beginning. Moubarak explains, ‘During these brief consultations, which typically last 10 to 15 minutes, I aim to address clients’ questions and provide them with a clear understanding of my therapeutic approach without delving into a quasi-session.’ 

Dr Ola Pykhtina, psychologist and owner of the Wellness Hub, adopts a selective approach to free consultations. She highlights the importance of keeping the consultation brief to avoid inadvertently morphing into a therapy session.

While the advantage of such introductory consultations lies in providing potential clients with insights into what they can expect and fostering a connection with the therapist, Moubarak acknowledges the inherent limitation of the brief interactions. She notes, “Such brief interactions may not cover all potential questions, and queries may persist.” Therefore, opting for a more extensive, longer initial consultation with the therapist can prove more beneficial in assisting individuals in making informed decisions regarding the prospect of working together.’

Moubarak’s point is apt, as, during a brief call, the therapist cannot obtain sufficient information about the client’s motives. An assessment session will help you understand what the client is looking for and advise them better.

It is worth remembering that free consultations may establish a client-psychologist relationship. You may feel that the client-therapist relationship does not start until the client has booked their first session. However, the client may consider the initial phone call the beginning of the therapeutic relationship, especially if you give advice or make suggestions. There could be legal implications if anything goes wrong because of your advice.

Making referrals

If you work ethically, your aim is not to sell your services to potential clients. You assess whether the client is a good fit or if there is someone else the client would benefit from seeing. You may not work with more clients, but you will work with more clients that you enjoy working with. 

Both Sease and Mohammed acknowledge the value of initial calls in facilitating appropriate referrals for clients requiring specialised care, ensuring that clients receive the support they need effectively.

Valuing your time

Amy Novotney found that some clinicians are concerned that free consultations devalue psychologists’ services. Clients may be looking for quick, free advice and may not realize how much work the clinician has taken to achieve their level of expertise. Other clients may not be willing to commit to therapy if they have been able to speak to the therapist for free. Rosie Gilderthorpe reminds us of another issue worth considering: ‘…a free consultation can encourage people who can’t really afford your services to come along and have a chat with you.

Gilderthorpe recommends that you ‘...make sure that you have a boundaried period of time in your calendar for free consultations, and that it is worked into your fee setting, so you know that you need to charge a little bit more for your paid sessions to pay yourself for the time you’re spending to do free consultations.’ 

One of the therapists we spoke to, who wanted to remain anonymous, rarely offers initial consultations. As they already have a full caseload and a long waiting list, adding free calls to their schedule would place them under undue pressure. However, they provide all potential clients with detailed information about their services, availability, working hours, location and insurance. ‘Any questions clients have can usually be answered in a brief email or are deferred to the first session. I offer an initial call to clients less than ten times a year.

How to offer free consultations well and ethically

1. Before the call

Ensure the potential client knows your fees, working hours, location and availability before you schedule a call. This will reduce the number of calls you have to make.

2. What to call it? 

Emphasize to the potential client that the call is not a session. Instead, you can call it a screening call or a brief introductory discussion.

3. How long should it be?

Value your time and expertise! The call should last from five to ten minutes. Any longer than that, the potential client may ask for advice or suggestions. You don’t want to take a legal or ethical risk and give advice without establishing a client-psychologist relationship, including the full intake process. 

4. Set boundaries

Before the call, or right at the beginning, explain the purpose and duration of the call. You may say that you are not initiating a client-psychologist relationship. You will answer questions about your qualifications and approach and give both of you a chance to see if your personalities match. Explain that you cannot give advice, diagnose, or offer therapeutic services.

5. Refer out, if necessary

If it is obvious that you are not the a good fit for the client, refer them to a colleague who can assist. A good referral is helpful for the client as it saves them time looking for the right expert.

Alternatives to free calls

If you realize that you could spend your time better than offering free consultations, here are a few options that can save you time and give the same benefits as free calls: 

  1. Write a blog post about your services. You can publish it on Hoopfull! Our blog guidelines are here.
  2. Record a video where you answer the most frequent questions and give clients a sense of your personality, approach and style.
  3. Ensure your initial email to clients clearly outlines your services, availability, and fees.

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