Cultivating Referral Sources

Whether newly in practice or long-established, referral sources are the lifeblood of your business.

It’s no surprise to you, I’m sure, that people are most likely to make an appointment with you if they are directed to you by a person they trust. You can have the snazziest business card, the best brochures, and a fabulous website. But unless there are people who tell others that you are effective and kind, your practice is bound to falter.

Developing relationships is the key.

Other professionals are more likely to refer to you if they have met you and have had the opportunity to experience your style. But, like you, they are busy. Cultivating those relationships requires identifying ways to make yourself familiar and available at their convenience or at events or activities they are attending anyway.

In the spirit of brainstorming, here are some ideas for cultivating your network of referrers.

Meet and Greets: If you don’t already know referral sources in your city or town, start by making personal contacts. Reserve three to five hours a week to meet with school counselors, clergy and other potential referrers. Sometimes, they will be happy to get out of their offices and to visit yours. Often, they will only have time for you to drop by their offices for a brief hello. Make every effort to accommodate their schedules.

First impressions matter. Have a polished “elevator speech” ready, i.e. a two-to-three minute synopsis of who you are and what you do. Stress how you can be helpful to the population they serve. Then be interested in finding out more about their needs. You are a therapist. You know how to listen to people. Listen and offer what you can to be helpful. Leave a stack of your brochures and cards.

Guest lectures and workshops: Service groups are regularly looking for speakers. Develop some half-hour to hour-long free talks to offer to their members. Consider the local Rotary, the Women’s Club, Parent Teacher Organizations, and day care centers. Stay for coffee and chat afterward. These talks are an opportunity for people to see you up close and personal.

Join community organizations: I know. I know. The idea of joining an organization or two may feel daunting in an already crowded schedule. But one of the primary ways to make the acquaintance of other professionals is through local organizations. You own a business. You are probably eligible to join the local Rotary, for example. There are also organizations like the League of Women Voters, the Chamber of Commerce or a local Women’s or Men’s Club. Join at least one and be an active member.

Join your professional organizations: Many of our professional organizations have local chapters. The American Psychological Association (APA), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) for example, have state and local groups. Attend meetings and conferences. Present whenever you can. Make it a point to meet and talk to people you don’t already know. When a client presents with a complaint or diagnosis they either don’t have the training to support or that they prefer not to treat, colleagues refer to one another.

Pro-bono work: Offering your professional services free of charge to a struggling school or day care or family center helps staff get to know you. Therapists I know serve on boards that need the perspective of a mental health professional. One therapist volunteers an hour of free parent education consultation each week at a community center. Still another offers a few hours of consultation each week to teachers in a small private school that can’t yet afford to have a counselor on staff.

Offer free trainings to clinic staffs: If you have a specialty that is under-represented in your area, offering a workshop to the staffs of local clinics can also result in referrals. Therapists in my area, for example, have carved out niches for themselves as specialists in such topics as adult autism/asperger’s, intellectual disabilities, or LGBTQ issues. They present helpful trainings at the staff meetings of local clinics and large practices.

CEUs: Beginning as well as experienced therapists need Continuing Education Units. If your local community mental health clinic doesn’t yet have the capacity to grant CEUs through the APA or NASW or other professional organization, volunteer to help the administration tackle the paperwork. (It’s not as difficult as people imagine). Offer to provide workshops in your specialty areas. Become a familiar presence at such trainings presented by other professionals by volunteering to staff the registration table or by doing the introductions.

Listserves: This is a relatively new phenomenon. In many areas, local therapists have created a listserve for themselves. In my region, more than 500 therapists who are located within a 25 mile radius are in constant email contact with each other. Every day, I receive anywhere from five to 20 emails from other therapists who want to refer a client they can’t personally serve because they aren’t on the correct insurance panel or they don’t specialize in the age group or diagnosis or requested technique. If your area doesn’t yet have such a service, start one.

This article has listed a number of ways to introduce yourself to other therapists and to others in your professional community. But introducing yourself isn’t sufficient. To be the first name (or at least one of the first names) that comes to mind when someone needs to refer a client, it’s important to participate actively in a number of these strategies. Choose at least a couple of activities and enter them into your calendar as a regular part of your work week. Take those hours as seriously as you do your client hours. Over time, you will become a familiar and trusted resource in your community.

Developing referral sources should be a part of a larger marketing plan. For suggestions for a more comprehensive plan, see:

Six Marketing Essentials for the New Private Practice .


Cultivating Referral Sources

Marie Hartwell-Walker, EdD

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D. is an author, licensed psychologist, and a marriage and family therapist who has been in practice for more than 35 years. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central and one of the therapists who answer questions at Ask the Therapist.


APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2017). Cultivating Referral Sources. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 5, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 May 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 May 2017
Published on All rights reserved.