Marketing Your Family Mediation Practice

Marketing is hard work. It’s a day to day struggle that will by turns madden you, vex you, challenge you, and thrill you. Whether you like it or not (and let’s confess, most family mediators do not), you must market your practice if you want it to thrive.

Can I Make a Living as a Mediator?

This is a question you’re entitled to ask and have answered. The answer is yes, but the odds are against you.

The Odds of Success

Look around you at the people who are successful divorce mediators. You will find relatively few who do it full-time. Most of those doing well in divorce mediation today are continuing to train, continuing to provide therapy, or continuing to provide legal services in addition to their mediation practice. My guess is that that you could get the full-time private family mediators in the world together in one living room – maybe 40 tops.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t many full-time mediators. There are. But they tend to be annexed to court programs or to non-profit agencies that are paying their salaries and providing a full load of cases to them. The advantages of this approach are that you mediate more or less full-time, and you don’t have to mess with doing what we’re discussing here. The disadvantages are that someone is deciding for you which cases you will take, how long you will spend on each case, how you will report your activity, and how much money you will make.

Are You Sure You Want To?

Divorce mediation is exciting, powerful work. But like any work that is exciting and powerful, there are some things about it that are difficult and unpleasant. Let’s deal with them.

You can’t connect with your clients. Most of the people doing divorce mediation today are driven by a desire to help people. Most divorce mediators really are nice people. Because they are nice people, they long to connect with their clients, to relate to them on a personal level. But danger lurks in that desire to connect. The nature of mediation is that you must maintain your neutrality above all. The moment you begin to connect with your clients, you risk connecting with one of them more than with the other. For most mediators, then, the appropriate strategy is to avoid connecting with either spouse. If you’re mediating full-time, you’re avoiding connecting all day, every day. Is this where you want to be?

You have to  learn to accept failure. Most good mediators make it clear that they’re not working to reach an agreement. The decision whether to reach full agreement really is up to the divorcing spouses. The dirty little secret, though, is that most of us want very badly for our clients to agree. It’s sort of why we’re there. And unless you’re a “strong arm” mediator who pressures clients to settle, somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of your cases will not result in agreement. You will assure your clients and yourself that this is okay, and it is, but trust me, it feels like failure.

Can you graciously accept your clients’ decision not to agree? Can you resist the temptation to twist arms to get a deal? It’s easy to say and hard to do. If you can’t, maybe you don’t want to spend your life doing this.

Many of your clients aren’t lovable. Another reason divorce mediation is so exciting is the chance it offers to make a difference in the lives of people who are hurting. You deal with people in crisis, and you offer them a way to get through that crisis with their dignity intact. Know, however, that people in crisis are often distressingly selfish and almost always distrustful. They will sit in your office and assure you that the children are their number one concern and then behave the next day in ways that ridicule their own statement.

These are good people, loving and caring parents, who will recover soon enough and move on. But you won’t see that, because by then you will remind them of some of the most miserable days they’ve ever spent, and they will avoid you. This is part of what makes the work exciting. Can you accept it?

You won’t get rich. As we’re discussing here, you have the tools you need to make a decent living as a mediator. You can pay for a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on your table. You would be a rare bird indeed, however, if you’re able to use family mediation as a way to amass a fortune. It’s like being a talk-show host: it’s just too much fun.

“Easing into” Full-time Status

Ask most any veteran mediator how to get started in the field, and one of the first things he or she will tell you is “Keep your day job!” They’re right. You should leave your job to start your family mediation practice only if you have no choice. The first reason for this is that, as discussed above, you may discover you don’t want to be a full-time mediator. If so, you certainly want to discover it before you’ve closed off other options. The second reason is that your income from family mediation will grow very slowly. Unless you have a pile of cash from which to draw or have someone willing to support you through the lean years, you’ll need to have some way to live while you’re working to build your practice.

The typical model is to go into maintenance mode with your existing profession, doing what you need to do to keep it going but not taking on any new initiatives or trying to expand it. During your off hours, you work to develop your mediation practice, finding a place to handle your first few cases, lining up the first few cases and getting your feet wet. Slowly you build your experience base, honing your mediation skills, learning how to market, learning what to charge, and deciding whether this is something you want to do exclusively. As your mediation practice develops, the income you receive becomes more significant as a percentage of your total income, until it becomes clear to you that with full-time effort you could replace your previous income (or at least replace as much of it as necessary for you to live). Then, and only then, do you calmly and graciously give up your day job.

How Do I Get Cases?

All the skills you’ve developed and the love you are willing to share won’t count for squat unless you can get cases. You don’t have to be a master salesman to persuade people to use you, but you do need to be willing to work at it and to have a low incidence of success when you’re getting started.

Referral Sources

This is the traditional and time-honored way to get mediation cases. You want to find the people who talk to people who need your services and convince them to recommend you.

Attorneys. Nearly every family mediator getting started sets out to network with attorneys. It can’t hurt. It rarely helps. Here’s why:

Attorneys hold on to cases. I wish I had a nickel for every divorce attorney who told me when I was starting out, “I’ll sure be sending you some business!” It never happened. I don’t think they were lying; I think they were speaking with the best of intentions. I think they were simply thinking in the abstract.

In the abstract, mediation makes sense in many of the cases they’re handling. When the client is actually sitting in their office, though, they always confront a cruel calculus:  “I can represent this client the way I know how to do, using a process I know has worked countless times before for countless clients of mine, and realize a total fee of perhaps $2,500. Or I can recommend to this client who has sought my help a process I don’t fully understand and over which I have little control, and realize a total fee of perhaps $500. Which course should I take?” Duh!

Attorneys refer to each other. Because more and more attorneys are engaging in divorce mediation (many of them using a caucus style that is more comfortable to attorneys), the tendency of most divorce lawyers when they do refer cases to mediation is to refer to other divorce lawyers who will use that caucus style. It keeps them in control, it allows them to stay fully involved in the process of resolving the issues, and it produces a fee for each lawyer on the order of what he or she would receive to prepare and try the case.

So what does this mean? Does it mean you shouldn’t network with lawyers? Absolutely not. It simply means that you don’t expect them to send you business. Instead, your goal is to neutralize them. You want to keep lawyers from derailing a client who decides for other reasons to use you. When a potential client of yours tells his or her lawyer that you’re under consideration, you want your potential client to hear “Oh, yes, I know her; I think she does a good job.” You don’t want your client to hear “never heard of him. I tell you there are so many people out there calling themselves divorce mediators who don’t know beans about divorce.”

Mental Health Professionals. With one caution, I can tell you that mental health professionals make great referral sources. Here’s why:

Mental health professionals resonate with divorce mediation. Their training and professional spirit stress the importance of talking out issues as a way to deal with them, so they quickly understand how mediation can be helpful in resolving the issues that needed to be decided in divorce.

They know divorce is imminent. Because therapists at their best work in an atmosphere of extraordinary honesty, they often know before anyone else in the community that a given couple is heading toward divorce.

They often enjoy the confidence of both spouses. Because they’re usually so studiously non-confrontational, therapists can make recommendations that both spouses will consider seriously, even if they’re not seeing both spouses.

They appreciate your attention. Is it offensive for me to say that most mental health professionals are poor? I don’t mean to imply that they’re destitute, but money is still enough of an issue for them that a free lunch can make an impression. If you set out to cultivate a mental health professional, the chances are that he or she will remember you.

So what’s the caution? With the advent of managed care, many mental health professionals are experiencing pressure on their revenue, forcing them to find new ways to make money. More and more of them see mediation as a way to do that. Over time, expect mental health professionals to develop some of the same case-hoarding tendencies that lawyers have now.

Ministers and rabbis. I think ministers and rabbis want mediation to work, but with rare exception they’re not good referral sources. First, despite what they would like to think, they usually don’t know divorce is imminent until it’s too late. By the time they learn about the divorce, the parties either have already finished it or have squared off in their separate corners in adversarial divorce.

The second reason ministers and rabbis aren’t good referral sources is that they usually end up trying to do it themselves. Our Judeo-Christian heritage encourages us to look to our minister or rabbi for help in life crises, and ministers and rabbis welcome and encourage this. Partially out of a desire to be the problem-solver, and partially out of a desire to save money for their congregants, they often try to act as the intermediary, leaving no legitimate role for a professional mediator.

Certified Public Accountants. Far too many CPA’s have allowed lawyers to make up the rules for them and have decided that divorce is an inherently adversarial process. Those CPA’s will be unlikely to refer cases to you. Every now and then, however, you will find a CPA who gets it, who understands that he or she can remain neutral for both spouses in divorce and can provide superior service by doing so. When you do, you’ve probably found a great referral source. I say probably because CPA’s like ministers are inclined to do-it-yourself mediation. The good ones realize, though, that they can make more money elsewhere and that you can do the actual mediation process better than they can.

Financial Planners. Financial planners make good referral sources and don’t have a professional axe to grind. If more people used them, they’d be worth your spending more time cultivating them. As it is, they’re certainly worth your calling on them and staying in touch with them.

Bankers. Bankers make it their business to know what everybody’s up to. They rarely know that divorce is imminent in time to recommend you, but their recommendation carries real weight because their financial expertise is accepted.

Insurance salespeople. Insurance salespeople often get involved in divorce, but again, it’s usually after the die is cast about how the couple will resolve the issues between them.

Talking Directly to Potential Clients

For most successful mediators, referrals are the icing, not the cake. For your practice to thrive, you need to find some way to talk directly to the people who may need you.

Developing a marketing focus. You need to be your own full-time vice president of marketing. This means that you’re always talking about your business. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors, both your neighbors at home and your neighbors at your office. Tell the guy who cleans your clothes. Tell the lady behind you in the supermarket line. Talk about your business. I don’t mean you are constantly delivering some canned sales pitch. Ask them how their business is doing. Compare notes. Talk about the frustrations you experience and some of the fun things about what you do. The idea is that when they think about mediation or about divorce they think of you.

Don’t be afraid to bring up the research results that show that divorce mediation works. Click here for a full analysis of research on divorce mediation.

See if you can’t get on the civic club “rubber chicken” circuit. Civic clubs are always hungry for interesting programs, and they will gladly give you a try.

How to get started. If you’re not accustomed to talking about your business, the first few times you do it will seem awkward and artificial. Just keep at it; it will feel more natural later. Practice with entrepreneurs. Most of us love to talk about our business and to hear about the struggles and successes of other entrepreneurs.

Getting started on the civic club circuit is mostly a matter of whom you know, and whom you’re willing to ask for help. You want to find people who know people who plan programs, then suggest a program idea or two you think might be appealing. Know this: it would be unusual for a civic club to invite an unknown to speak about divorce mediation. It’s too narrow and too much of a downer. On the other hand, you might very well be able to put together several topics that would appeal to a broad audience and would also allow you to talk about your business. I have a talk I do on “What To Do After You’ve Screwed Up,” another on “How to Get Along With Jerks,” and another on “How To Get Your Marriage Into My Office,” all of which are well-received and easy to place.

The three-hit rule. It would be rare for a person to decide to use your divorce mediation services simply because they heard you speak at a civic club. What you’re striving for instead is multiple exposures. You want them to hear about you from their therapist, then read something about you in their civic club newsletter, then have a friend say they ran into you at a concert and you impressed them. On the third hit, they’ll call you.

Show Me the Money

So you’ve gotten cases and you’ve developed your skills. You’re providing that much-needed service you always envisioned you would be. Now how do you translate that to cash you can spend? You need to get paid for your services.

How Much Should You Charge?

In one sense, this question is so easy to answer it’s silly. You should charge what you’re worth. Or maybe it’s easy to answer but requires a different perspective. You should charge as much as you can get. Or maybe it’s still easy to answer but requires a still different perspective. You should charge whatever you need to charge to continue providing your services. Or maybe you start by asking what your clients can afford to pay.

So if what you charge depends on how you ask the question, it follows that how much you decide to charge will depend to a significant extent on your philosophy – what makes you tick. There is probably no wrong answer, and there is a right answer only for you, not for everyone else. There are some principals, though that can help you think through what to charge.

You need to charge enough to be credible. Find out what the going rate is for lawyers in your community. You don’t want to dip much below the low end of that range. To charge less would communicate that your services are less valuable – not where you want to be.

It’s Okay To Charge Less When You’re Brand New. I offered to pay my first two couples $10 per hour to mediate their divorce. Neither couple took me up on it, and I frankly didn’t expect them to. But I continue to believe that my offering to pay them connoted more professionalism than offering to mediate for free (which I actually ended up doing) or for a really lowball rate like $10 per hour. After the first two cases, I increased my rate to $40, and six cases later I increased it to $125 per hour. A year later I raised it to $150 per hour. Three years later I raised it to $200 per hour, where I hope to keep it for some time to come.

Starting at a lower rate allowed me to be totally honest with my clients about my level of experience. That was important to me. The alternative is to give your clients the impression you have enough experience to charge a “market” rate, even though you’re just starting out.

It’s Okay To Charge For Startup. Lots of mediators charge a separate fixed cost for preparing the Memorandum of Understanding. Others charge a startup fee. Either way, it’s a recognition that you have some cost and time that will be required outside of sessions regardless of how many hours the mediation takes. I’ve elected not to charge a setup fee, because of the way I operate, but I have no objection to it if it works for you.

How To Eliminate Collections Problems

It’s hard to go wrong collecting money the day of the session. This is easy for therapists to figure out but sometimes difficult for attorneys who are accustomed to collecting a retainer and then sending a bill after services are complete. I think the quicker you get into the habit of asking and expecting payment at the time of the session, the simpler and more pleasant your practice will be.

What if they “left their checkbook at home”? For starters, it’s your job to raise the issue of payment with your clients on the phone before they ever come to your office. You might practice saying something like this as part of every introductory conversation: “I know you’re concerned about money (they usually are, though they often won’t ask about it). I charge 250 dollars startup fee plus 125 dollars per hour. I’ll need you to pay me the startup fee and pay me for the first two hours mediation at the beginning of our first session. That means you and your spouse will need to bring your checkbook and pay me $500 before we get started.” That may sound hopelessly mercantilist to you, but I believe your clients will appreciate the clarity about what is expected.

Even if you do this, however, you’ll still have clients who wait until the end of the session and tell you they don’t have their checkbook. At this point, you’re going into recovery mode. Get a signed agreement from both of them that they owe you the money, then ask who can bring you the money later that day. The longer they can wait before they pay you, the less likely you’ll ever see that money.

One more thing you should consider if you’re going to do family mediation on a regular basis. Set yourself up to take Visa and MasterCard. That’s really all you need; most everybody who has Discover or American Express can also come up with a Visa or a MasterCard if that’s all you take. The monthly cost to accept Visa and MasterCard is about $20 per month, and you will pay about 2% of charge volume. The nice thing about taking plastic is that it does away with a lot of the “I left my checkbook at home” stuff you get from clients.

Your worst no-show and payment problems will be with first-time clients. After the first session, they pretty much know the routine and will plan to pay on the spot. That’s why it sometimes makes sense to take payment at the beginning of the first session. That way, if they left their checkbook at home. You can stop the session until they figure out how to pay you.

Don’t sweat bad checks or chargebacks on credit cards. The incidence of both is low in divorce mediation.

Learning To Ask for the Money – and Get it

If you’re the kind of person for whom this comes easily, you probably don’t need to be reading this. If this is difficult for you, there’s really no silver bullet – it’s a matter of practicing until you feel comfortable asking for and expecting to be paid. Women in particular can often accomplish a great deal by paying attention to the inflection in their voice. A voice that rises at the end of a phrase is asking for approval. A voice that falls at the end of a phrase is giving instructions and calls forth response more easily.

Keep a receipt book so you can easily write your clients a receipt when you get the money from them. You may be surprised at the number of clients in divorce who pay you in cash (you’ll probably see $100 bills regularly), so you also want to be prepared to make change.

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