The choice to use reviews of your work is a hot topic among my clients. Psychotherapists of all types are conflicted about whether client testimonials constitute a dual relationship that is forbidden by their professional code of ethics, or whether they may be permitted if certain privacy protections are used. This blog aims to cut through some of the arguments, for and against.
First, is there a difference between a testimonial and a review? Maybe a slight one. Testimonials are typically about the results a client has achieved from using your services, while reviews are more about you -- your warmth, your helpfulness, your ability to get right to the heart of the matter and help resolve it. In essence it is a difference of directional focus.
Are Testimonials Good for Marketing and SEO?
Marketing wisdom says absolutely, testimonials are essential not only for building trust but also as part of Google's algorithm for search engine optimization. In marketing jargon, they are called social proof. And the more well known the names of those giving testimonials, the more valuable is that social proof.
But even testimonials from unknown people have value, especially when a specific initial problem is named, and a resulting change is noted.
The credibility of testimonials comes not as much from the problem / result statement, but from some kind of identification of the writer. Where names can't be used, the client can choose a pseudonym, or you can use initials, occupational tags and locations. For example:
Cautions for Therapists
Kudos presented on your own website may not carry as much credibility as those on review websites like Yelp, or even those dropped in comments on your Facebook page. The difference is in who has control of the submitted testimonial. Those left on 3rd party sites can't be altered or deleted by you, and thereby have more authenticity than those on your website that you could edit.
You might not even know you already have reviews. Find out by Googling your own name and the name of your practice, if it is different from your personal name. If you discover reviews, it will be smart to check the hosting website once a month or so, to stay on top of new comments.
Reviews left on 3rd party sites also pose a danger, especially for businesses that work with emotionally stressed people. Just like you can't upload a bunch of favorable testimonials to those sites, you also can't delete the negative ones.
You can, however, score public relations points for handling a negative review with sensitivity, apology and a make good offer. This is common in industries like retail and restaurants, and could be done by clinicians as well.
Make good is a business term that means what it sounds like -- it's an offer intended to make up for something going wrong, or to make good on an advertised reassurance or promise. For psychics or psychologists that might mean providing a free session to re-establish trust and rapport with a disgruntled client.
Requesting Testimonials -- Allowed or Not?
Marketing coaches usually advise making it a habit to ask for a testimonial you can use to further market your services whenever you are coming to the end of working with a client. This is a standard business practice, but it's one that some clinicians have interpreted as highly problematic.
Especially among social workers, requesting testimonials from clients after psychotherapy has been completed is often considered taking advantage of the client. I've heard it said that it uses the client for personal gain, and if that were true, it would indeed be ill-advised. Another argument is frequently that mental health clients are emotionally vulnerable, prone to wanting to please the therapist, and susceptible to being over-powered in some way by such a request -- all of which I hope is not the case when they have completed therapy.
For those who are concerned about the dual relationship issue, the answer is simple. Just don't ask for a review.
But what if the client volunteers a testimonial because you have done such an excellent job for them, and they want others to know?
My personal ethics would say, Hooray, you have empowered your client to be fully functioning in the world, and you have every right to use their testimonial.
Other clinicians may feel pressured by colleagues or NASW, CAMFT, the APA, or CACREP to decline such use. My suggestion is do what you can live with, and what honors and supports your client as an independent person with the power of choice. Discuss with them whether they mind if it becomes public knowledge that they have had therapy, and ask how they would like to be identified. Then, it is within the client's rights to decide to release their testimonial for your use, and may become an empathic rupture if you don't use it.
The FTC Gets Involved
Few website owners know this -- the Federal Trade Commission regulates the use of testimonials in advertising, and even on websites. If you do have a page of kudos or some other display of testimonials that are in your control, you are required to place a disclaimer nearby. The disclaimer must read something to the effect that individual results will vary. You can read my disclaimer here.