Reader E. writes:

“I was wondering how you handle when people start to ask for free advice. I am starting out my practice and want to come out of the gates honoring my abilities and not giving things away for free. I don’t mind a general question here and there, but when someone keeps asking very detailed, specific questions where my education and experience really comes into play – I want to set that boundary.”

This is a common practice challenge, particularly for startups. Early in your practice, you may not yet have the confidence, experience and poise to deal with the patients who constantly ask for free advice. I’ve written before on pro-bono work, but this is a bit different. How do you deal with those clients who seem to have a knack for getting you to cough up free advice?

First, Change Your Mindset
What’s really at the root of giving out too much free advice? Often it’s a failure to truly value the service you’re providing. This leads to a subconscious reluctance to bill for your time.

Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you’re really worth it. Try adding up how much you’ve spent on education and starting your practice. Then look at how much it costs per month to operate. It’s likely no small number. Your expertise is worth money, period. You need to “own your fees” – be comfortable with your rates, and feel no reluctance in billing for any amount of time. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever do anything for free, just that you should feel comfortable billing when it’s appropriate.

Know What Free Advice Isn’t
Not every question that arrives without a check attached constitutes free advice. A patient calling for clarification is not asking for free advice – they’re trying to correctly follow the advice you’ve already given. An inquiry as to whether you can help someone with a specific condition isn’t free advice, it’s simply a sensible inquiry into how you can help. You may even want to dole out “freebies” to good patients – the kind who come often, pay promptly, and refer frequently.a

The easiest way to tell if you should be billing is this: if you feel like someone is taking advantage of your time, then they likely are. They may not be doing it on purpose, but nonetheless, it’s time to start handing over the invoice.

Adjust Your Paperwork
It’s important to let patients know the deal. State outright on your intake and consent forms that you bill for phone and email consultations. Decide your rate, and clearly state it. This will brush off a few advice-seekers, and give you (and your staff) a clear process for billing the rest.

Use Your Staff to Turn Advice-Seekers Into Bookings
It’s easy to bill people when they’re in your office. The office is where money changes hands – patients expect to spend money in your place of business. Try to respond to requests for free advice by getting people in for official visits.

Use your staff to help with this. Have them screen your calls, and book appointments instead of transferring advice-seeking calls through to you. If someone emails you asking for advice, simply reply with something simple and pleasant – “It sounds like we should get you in next week for an appointment. I’ll have Susan call you.” Just CC your receptionist, and he/she can call the patient and book the appointment.

If you don’t have staff, use the same line. “It sounds like we should see you in person.” Be diligent in this.

Explain Why
It’s potentially unsafe, unethical, ineffective and dumb to diagnose remotely – by phone or email, for example. One of the strengths of most CAM modalities is the ability to see a broader picture of an individual’s health, and you can use this as a tool to deal with free advice-seekers. Simply tell them that you need to see them in the office to get more details.

Be persistent. When a patient asks, “Can you just tell me if such-and-such herb will help my diabetes?” tell them no. Every patient is unique, and you need to see them in the office. In the end, they’ll get better treatment, love your service, and refer more patients to you instead of getting advice based on poor information, then complaining that your services are lousy.

Bill Them
If you absolutely can’t dodge someone (on the phone is typically the toughest to deal with), just bill them. Period. Once you’ve decided your phone consultation rate, just send a bill. Don’t be afraid – you’re a professional and your expertise is worth money. It’s critically important that you learn to respect your time. Until you respect it, other people won’t.

The truth is, if you have patients who are trying to get free advice from you on a regular basis, they’re really not the patients you want. If they corner you on the phone, just bill them. You’ll either convert them to solid, paying patients, or you’ll lose them. Either way, you’ll be further ahead.

Related Posts
Pro Bono Work and Discounts: What’s a CAM Practitioner to Do?
What Makes a Great CAM Patient?

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1 Response » to “How To Handle Free Advice-Seekers”

  1. Anonymous says:

    So true, what great advice. I will try out these tactics in the future.,

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