When I and a partner set out to build a mediation practice, I think we purchased every manual, subscribed to every podcast, and attended every course under the sun to attempt what most professionals said would be impossible. In fact, the first instruction most seasoned mediators gave us was “Don’t quit your day job.” Well, too late, I’d already quit my job as a medical practice manager to pursue what I was born to do- mediation. I jumped with both feet into a venture that would truly allow me to work at what I loved, but that was also going to demand a lot of growth on my part.
I quickly learned that what makes me a good mediator does not make me a good business owner. You can’t be neutral, subtle, and painstakingly patient to run a competitive business. Mediators want to change the world using the unique gifts and skills we possess, and we’re good at it in our own special way. But that’s not enough to succeed in business. My partner was better at seeing this than I was, and I owe a debt of gratitude to him for pushing me to succeed and become established in my profession.
You must determine that it’s going to succeed, and that you’re going to do what it takes to make that happen, even if your Meyers Briggs survey says it’s impossible. Too much patience will leave you in the dust hoping that whatever you’re doing, or not doing, will eventually pan out if you just trust the process. In mediation, you help others get at what they really want. In business, your interest in what others want must lead to what you want…paying clients. We mediators have the hardest time digging down deep enough to say “I want to charge $X per hour, see X number of clients a month, and spend X number of days in Europe with my family every year.” We have to know what we really want (and why) in order to see this through.
My specialty is family mediation. Here’s what I’ve learned about my clients. They are angry, hurt, and exhausted. Most of them have already spent their contingency fund on months, sometimes years of counseling or litigation. If they’d have known there was a quicker, cheaper option that brings satisfaction 90% of the time, they would have done it a long time ago. It’s a much harder sell, now, though not impossible.
Our empathetic heart wants to reach out and help. We cut our rates, even volunteer our time to show the world that mediation works! Then we go heat up our top-ramen while our clients go spend their PFD on a new snow machine. We want a good rapport with our clients, and can’t bear the thought of talking with them about how much we should be charging them, especially when they’re already stressed out. Ironic, isn’t it? We teach people how to engage authentically in tough situations, and then chicken out when it’s our turn. You have to be confident about the impact you’re going to have on your clients’ lives, which will help you be confident about your rates. It took a lot of training, soul-searching, and practice for me have phone conversations that left to my clients knowing that dropping a retainer on my desk is the best decision they can make at this point.
Now, this is assuming people are actually calling and asking for your services. A very small (though a growing) number of people are actually looking for a mediator. They just know they want the problem gone and still think mediation is when you sit in the park with your legs crossed and hum. The golden silence we’re so good at leveraging does not work in the business world. We can’t wait for the market to speak up and ask for us. We have to tell them, tell them, tell them, what we as mediators can do to make their lives better. There are several ways to do this. In our experience, some work, some don’t.
I learned that print ads don’t work in this business. Phone books, newspapers, magazines, coupon books…nothing. Radio ads weren’t worth the money either. So how did we double our calls from one year to the next? The most rewarding effort was public speaking. I spoke every chance I got about the damage of poorly navigated conflict and the magic of well-navigated conflict, using testimony after testimony from my own case history. The message was always about imparting fresh perspective, hope, and tools to the audience. And they got it. Not only were they grateful for life-changing material, they had brochures, business cards, a website full of articles and an email subscription to my newsletter (which I blasted all over social media) to get more. They knew where to turn when things heated up. Every speaking engagement lead to at least one new client, usually more.
How else did we do it? We went to the people who regularly see our perspective clients when they need us most. Pastors, counselors, litigating attorneys, accountants, bankers, HR directors… Who is seeing your prospective clients right now? We bought a lot of coffee and lunches, and made a lot of phone calls. At first I hated it, because I was trying to check all the conventional marketing boxes. However, when I realized that building relationships, which is what I do best, was actually the best marketing, I began to enjoy it and see much more fruit from it.
Now, back to advertising, I already told you print and radio didn’t work for us. Did any paid advertising work? Yes! Google. Once we knew what our clients were searching on the internet, we built ads for dirt cheap to lead right to our name and number. More and more people are asking Siri, or Google, or Cortana how to solve their problems. When you figure out what those problems are, you can direct them right to your contact page or phone number the next time they say “Okay Google...” This was, by far, our highest return on investment.
By now you’re expecting me to tell you about my family’s annual trip to Europe, right? Didn’t happen. Our practice, like so many before us, didn’t make it. What, why are you even writing this article? Remember the first advice we got from seasoned professionals? Don’t quit your day job. It takes most small business two to five years to settle in, which means you better have another source of income during that time. We went at this together for about three years before closing shop. We did a lot of mediations, and helped a lot of people. Looking at the trend in our financial statements, we most likely would have turned the corner within the next six months…traveling Europe within the next eighteen. Neither of us, nor our families, had another six months in us.
When your target audience, the people who need your services the most, are also the most resistant to hiring you to help them, it becomes about culture change. This is why I continue my public speaking, training, and relationship building. It’s also why I’m invested in this organization, Professional Mediators of Alaska. PMAK is building community connections and reaching out to the public in ways that are opening doors for professional mediation to become a primary means of dispute resolution in Alaska.
I still have judges, attorneys, pastors, counselors and past clients referring cases to me. However, I’m building my practice while relying on other valuable skills for predictable income. Many successful practitioners couple mediation with another professional service such as a law practice, consulting firm, or counseling clinic. Very few mediators (that I’m aware of) live solely off their mediation work. Even the best of the best are making a good portion of their income putting on training and speaking events, and offering online courses.
Does this mean you should give up mediation and just get a j-o-b? Hell no! If you’re a mediator, you’ll never be happy not using your skills to make the world a better place. Just know that mediation and business management/entrepreneurship rarely go hand-in-hand, it’s a tough market, and a soul-searching learning curve. So don’t deprive the world of your gifts, and deprive yourself of living out your purpose. Use the lessons I’ve learned to make it past those last six months. Join me and many other professionals in building and promoting the field of mediation in Alaska. Together we are changing the world. Click here to learn more about PMAK and how you can get involved.
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