The pros and cons of a free first session is debated regularly amongst therapists but the truth is, there simply isn’t a definitive right or wrong answer. Quite literally, it's your business and up to you how you choose to run it.
But that’s not very useful when you’re trying to work out what to do!
So let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons involved to help you make your choice about whether to offer therapy clients a free first session
My experience of charging Vs a free first session
Money is often a difficult subject for therapists, and as such the default position for many new therapists is to not charge. Which sounds attractive as it means there are no awkward conversations about money to have. So you don’t have to step out of your comfort zone
And that's where I started when it came to free first sessions.
When I first started out, I used to offer a free consultation. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I now realise it was mainly due to my own lack of confidence around charging for counselling.
When I stopped offering a free initial session, I was surprised to find there was no difference in the number of enquiries or people contracting with me. And I have anecdotal evidence from talking to other therapists that they experienced the same.
So could it be a lack of confidence that puts you off charging for your time from the onset? Worth some reflection, or discussion at supervision.
It's also worth considering that in many other health and well-being professions like acupuncture, chiropractor etc, the initial appointment has a higher price than a regular appointment because they usually allow more time for detailed history taking.
Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of offering a free first session.
Offering a free first session
1. Therapeutic relationship
Clients have the opportunity to meet you to see if you're a good fit.
The therapeutic relationship is paramount amongst all modalities, so giving potential clients a chance to meet you can really help the therapeutic relationship get off to a strong start.
You have the opportunity to meet the client and ensure you're working within competencies and refer on if not.
It gives the client the chance to 'shop around' for the best fit counsellor - which is great for the client, but wastes your time.
The session might be free for the client, but it’s not free for you. If you rent a room or have to travel, you will be out of pocket.
But it’s not just a financial cost as it can take a lot of emotional energy. That first session can be tough! There is a lot happening, and it’s a lot to hold.
The first session can be exhausting, so don’t underestimate the effort involved. Remember, some people charge more for a first session due to the complexity.
Also, you are using all your skills and knowledge and should be paid for it (in my humble opinion)
2. It balances the relationship
In the therapy room, it's all about the client - of course. But things become difficult when therapists always give and there is no reciprocal take. Charging clients a fair fee is part of good counsellor self-care
It takes up a lot of time. 3 enquiries is 3 hours of unpaid work, and that's a lot!
When starting out, offering a free initial session could be more possible as you may have more time available, but once your practice builds, could you find the extra hours a week for unpaid client work?
Or maybe it’s as simple as just not having the time. Maybe you have other commitments - another job, kids etc which mean you just don’t have the time or energy to work for free.
When I started out I was a single parent and I worked part time. Honestly, I didn't have the energy to work for free.
4. Free choice?
If the client has a free first session, they may feel obligated choose you as their therapist, which defeats the object of the free first session.
If they have to pay for the first session, then you know they are serious about committing to therapy.
6. Cost of living
Maybe it's as simple as you just need the money - which is absolutely fine! We all have to pay our bills. It's really not good self-care to put the needs of others above our own to the point when you get into debt or make yourself ill.
Some other ways counsellors manage the initial appointment
As I've always said, it's your business, your rules, and therefore you can try other things out to see if they are a good fit for you.
There really is no right or wrong answer, only what feels right for you. But remember, nothing is written in stone and if what you currently offer no longer works for you, you can change it.
If you'd like more help with money and mindset, check out the Grow Your Private Practice book. Just click the button below.