It's that time of year again - when the insurance coverage is dwindling and even though many people have theirs renewing in the new year, they spend all of their money on gifts for loved ones. Let's face it, acupuncture and Chinese medicine treatments just aren't top priority.
There's also the problem of time. The holidays are usually madness, running around meeting with friends and family for lunches, suppers and open houses. Again - not a lot of time to schedule in an appointment.
These slow times occur in my practice two times a year: September and January. I know that most patients are sincere when they say they'll call when they've settled into the school routine or after the holidays are finished, but then, other than monetary constraints, something very familiar to me happens: time just seems to pass them by. Pretty soon, weeks and even months have gone by before I see them again and I hear the same-old, "I can't believe I haven't seen you since December!"
It's no fun when the clinic slows down, mainly because as human beings we get stuck in a pattern. So the key is to keep the mental faculties in motion even though there's more ebb than flow in the acupuncture practice. The other lesson herein is not to ride the highs and lows on either end of the spectrum.
The first and most important thing I do is pour more energy into the patients I have. Focusing my efforts on what I do have instead of what I don't have puts my heart in the right place. It also helps hone in on the patient-practitioner relationship, which yields results and is more important than the bottom line. Watching where the money goes is part of a healthy business, but concentrating efforts on the patient directly relates to how much money I make. By pampering the patient, I get more repeat business which will get the patient talking about their treatments to friends and family, which leads to more referrals.
Because typically there will be gaps in my schedule, I'm able to spend more time with patients. This gives me the opportunity to talk to them about their lifestyle and how a simple change in dietary or exercise habits might yield better results. I get to take time to show them stretches and teach them about their bodies where when I'm busy running multiple rooms, I'm mostly just in fix-it mode.
I love to add in all the modalities I can fit in an hour when I don't have to leave to tend to someone else. When I'm slow, I spoil the patients that are sticking with me. They get moxa, cupping and tuina after their treatment. They get front and back treatments in the same session. Lastly, I get to try out some new techniques or protocols that I've learned and have time to talk to my patients for immediate feedback. A slow clinic is really just an opportunity to grow as a practitioner.
While I'm putting more energy into the clinic environment itself, it's just as important to put some good vibes out into the world as well. This is what I call the 'do something, do anything' mentality. Every September and January, I send a letter to all my patients telling them to come back to see me. I do this because, again, months will go by and they will have forgotten that I'm part of their usual routine. I imagine my letter as being just a gentle reminder.
Businesses, especially after the holidays, will not have as many notices on their cork boards. This is a perfect time to do some grassroots marketing and put a poster up about my practice. Getting the word out reminds people that I'm still around and ready to help them. And while I'm writing up a poster, I take the time to write an article for the local paper or magazine to keep my name out there in the community. All these reminders will bring patients back sooner than if I'm to wait for the busy times to pass.
Another thing that I do when the clinic slows down is take time for myself and my side-projects. I have found that things slow down right about the time I need to take a small break. This allows me to spend more quality time with my friends and family and catch up on all the things I like to do. Healthcare practitioners make the worst patients. I'm usually flying all over the place, eating when I can, and staying up late after my children go to bed to work on personal projects or catch up on things with my wife; I'm a normal human being trying to make a dent in the world. Downtime at the clinic allows me to make more time for the ones I love, plan my meals and catch up on sleep.
Industry-wise, I know of practitioners who take their down-time to develop new continuing education credit courses, write articles for magazines, write books, re-design their website or update a blog. Perhaps it would also be a good time to join a local or online community and discuss what types of advancements can be made in the field. My Chinese medicine association is always looking for volunteers to help push our profession forward. Networking with other Chinese medicine practitioners, chiropractors, massage therapists, physiotherapists and medical doctors is a great way to keep getting the word out. Keith Ferrazzi's book title, "Never Eat Alone," says it all. I like to use this free time to catch up on business relationships and nourish them.
The key to getting through any slow period is to not get stuck in a rut – and it's always a mental rut. Paralysis by analysis – that is, over-analyzing the problem to death only to get nowhere – is very common. By concentrating my efforts on four important areas: patients, marketing, side-projects and me – I gain traction and the clinic numbers always improve.
When the energy starts to ebb, it reminds me of my first year in practice – the time where I saw little-to-no patients and had awful thoughts of leaving my newfound alternative and complementary industry behind to go work for somebody else's company. However, when I look back at that time I fondly remember the slow steps I took to gain momentum and therefore clientele: nurturing each new patient as if it were my last, keeping in contact with existing patients because they would keep coming after rapport was built, and grassroots marking via posters, talks, articles and networking to constantly remind my community of my services.
What drives all of these steps from the back-end is the ability to change my thinking from what I can get to what I can give. This is very hard to do because slowing down in the clinic directly relates to financial wellbeing, which leads to worry and fear. Sometimes these situations give weight to the old adage, "When you've reached the end of your rope, tie a knot on the end and hold on!" However, the more times there is an ebb in my practice, the better I handle it. It's mostly a mental stumbling block and I'm careful with the language I use because that projects into the real world.
A transition from busy to slow is not all that bad because it's just a transition and that means that I'm still in transition – from slow to busy again. By using positive language instead of saying, "The clinic is dead," which is a permanent state, keeps the focus on the transition. This is akin to calling the Five Phases the Five Elements. Elements are solid, non-moving objects in nature, while the word 'phases' implies movement.
There are two major facets of working through a transition: waiting for something to change and doing something about it. We, as human beings, are very not very good at either. That's why the 'doing' part is so important, as it gives the illusion of control while slowly getting the networking and marketing wheels turning once more. It's a mind-game in itself that creates a sense of calm and slowly builds momentum to get more done - a snowball effect that is even used with debt reduction.
It matters not whether I'm starting a new practice, moving to a new location nearby or transitioning through the holiday season, these are the tools I used to build a successful practice and are still working to this day. I hope that they will work for you!
Click here for previous articles by Kenton Sefcik, RAc, DiplAc, DiplTCM.