Building a Successful Mediation Practice
The purpose of this article is to provide some suggestions with regard to building a successful mediation practice from a business perspective.
The odds are that you will not be an overnight mediation sensation, although such cases are reported. Ultimately, clients will come to you because of your well-earned reputation. This reputation will likely be earned in part by your professional efforts prior to becoming a mediator and in part by the reputation you develop as a mediator. Most commonly, for those who are committed to the development, it will take between one and two years to firmly establish a mediation practice and to be able to make a reasonable living.
While one can argue that you will develop yourself as a successful mediator most quickly by devoting yourself full-time, a more moderate and sustaining approach may be to "keep your day job" and complement those efforts by developing a mediation practice as an augmentation of your other professional work. Perhaps the ideal would be to work half-time or so in your traditional professional work, preserving about half-time for your mediation business development.
You are wise to plan your mediation business development, including, ideally, a strategic plan, financial plan and marketing plan. There will be plenty of opportunity to be insecure as you develop your mediation business and, during such times of insecurity, it is nice to be able to look back on a well-thought through plans.
One of the nice things about mediation is that the business can be run on a relatively low overhead. For example, it is not unusual to utilize a home office as a practice base. You will need to arrange for quality meeting environments. These can often be secured at low or no cost. Minimally, the mediator will need a computer with quality word processing capacity, a quality printer, a flip chart and, increasingly, a modem connection to the internet.
I often suggest to developing mediators that they print their stationary and cards early and begin distributing them because it is unlikely that they will get a first quality case for six months and they had might as well get the time clock moving. There is some truth to this. It will take some measure of time to spread the word as to your existence as a capable and available mediator.
Perhaps the first thing to do as a developing mediator is to develop a good understanding of the surrounding mediation community, including any state and local associations and standards. One will want to be sure to identify any generally accepted qualifications requirements, for example training and experience requirements that might exist to receive mediation cases by referral from the court, administrative agencies and other public entities. It would also be a good idea to look in the yellow pages to understand the apparent number of practicing mediators and how they are representing themselves. It would be wise to interview established mediators as to their impressions for the best way to develop oneself within a particular community.
Niche, Niche, Niche
It would be a mistake for a developing mediator to market themselves as a "mediator for all occasions." The reason for this is practical, not necessarily philosophical. Even if mediators might generally be able to capably assist in a wide area of disputes, which is likely true, the reality is that, to successfully market one's mediation services, the mediator needs to develop a limited number of marketing targets. It will benefit you to come to be viewed as somewhat of a specialist. It is impossible to market to every one (although the internet may change this). Even if one could market to everyone, the American professional mentality is one of going to specialists. If one wants to be a divorce mediator, you should market your self exactly as that, and not a general mediator.
It is recommended that the developing mediator identify somewhere between two and four primary areas of practice development. It is then suggested that one of two approaches then be taken:
(1) The developing mediator pour a relatively small amount of resources and energy equally into each of the identified niche areas of practice and measure the relative response rate of the preferred niches (presumably next focusing marketing efforts on the most responsive niche).
(2) The developing mediator focus their practice development efforts on their first preferred niche, with a goal of creating this most favored work area, only moving on to secondary niche areas of practice as time permits and financial needs require.
What Does One Do Following the Identification of One's Niches
It is critical that you seek to inform as many decision-makers and opinion leaders as possible within your chosen niche(es) if you are to become successful as a mediator. You want to establish in these people's minds that you are a mediator; that you are available; and that you are capable and committed to practicing in the situations they encounter.
Get on the Internet
I am amazed at how quickly the internet is coming to complement mediators' work. Emailing and electronic forums are becoming a preferred medium for many mediating groups to communicate. One of the advantages of so working with mediation participants is that, following the mediation intervention, participants, if they desire, can continue so effectively communicating in the established effective way. There is no doubt that mediators will increasingly utilize the internet as an electronic extension of their office, commonly continuing participant discussions between meetings, including on-line facilitation, and, in due time, audio and video capability, which will ultimately create an on-going "asynchronous" meeting environment.
In terms of promoting oneself, the internet is also rapidly becoming the new electronic yellow pages. One would be wise to carefully select an internet mail address that conveys one's commitment to mediation and also consider the development of a quality web-site. In these regards, it is recommended that developing mediators consult with www.mediate.com on the world wide web and register in their "Locate A Mediator" database. Quality websites are now available for as little as $200/year!
Do a First Class Mailing
Notwithstanding the tremendous development of the internet, it still will likely make sense for the developing mediator to send out somewhere between five hundred and five thousand "first class" mailings. The "first class" refers both to the postal rate and the quality of the contents. It is first recommended that the mediator invest in good looking stationary, on a heavy weight paper, preferably custom designed and, quite possibly, with two or three colors. To a meaningful degree, the mediator's greatest resource for marketing their business is quality letterhead.
In terms of what should be enclosed in this mailing, clearly a short cover letter, with perhaps two or three paragraphs, briefly introducing oneself is a good idea. One should also enclose a more substantial piece of client information or a brochure (either personally developed or from a national organization) is a good idea. Finally, it is recommended that the mediator provide some opportunity for participants to easily identify themselves as a person interested in receiving continuing information about mediation.
For example, the mediator might include a postcard return for those who would like to stay, at no cost, on the mediator's mailing list. Or, the mediator might include a postcard return for those who would like to attend a free professional seminar. Or, the mediator might include a questionnaire for other professionals who would complete the questionnaire so as to be in the mediator's referral book. Essentially, any technique that is able to identify those within the broad mailing group who are most interested in mediation will pay rich dividends down the line.
Perhaps the best target marketing group for mediators would be barbers and beauticians! While I say this, obviously, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is truth in the concept of marketing to those members of our society who learn early about the existence of a conflict. For example, one may want to consider marketing to the clergy, therapists, accountants and others who hear early (perhaps even before attorneys) of disputes.
One also wants to make one's services known to the relevant sections of the state bar organization, but do not expect lots of referrals from attorneys, many of whom still understandably view mediation as "loss of business." Still, it is wise to provide quality information to many members of the bar, knowing that one will very likely someday have a mediation with that attorney or a client will ask the attorney if they know of a certain mediator (you). Personnel and human resource professionals, school counselors, ombudspeople and all kinds of governmental agencies may be contacted to inform them of your services.
Work with your Responders
Those twenty to one hundred people who show responsiveness to your marketing efforts should be labeled "responders" or "cream of the crop" or the like. Once such a responsive group has been established, it can be further developed by a follow-up mailing and/or phone call, quite possibly even inviting the responder to lunch.
Make Lunch-time Presentations
It is also recommended that you make yourself available to the various community groups including Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanis, Parents without Partners, environmental groups, business groups and the like, to see if they have any interest in sponsoring you to make a twenty or so minute presentation at one of their up-coming luncheons. When one makes such a presentation, it is recommended that you focus upon the essentials, for example comparing negotiation, mediation and arbitration; helping people to understand how mediators assist participants to move from positions interests; and explaining the interface between mediation and lawyers and the law. It is also recommended that some short exercise, video or demonstration be utilized as a discussion centering device.
I recommend against your running a full page ad in the New York Times. On the other hand, you may want to consider a two or three inch small ad that would run weekly or so for ten to twenty weeks in a newspaper of local distribution. The mediator wants to spread their subliminal presence out over time. Many newspapers have "business builder" rates for small ads running on a weekly basis. Note that in this ad, if you have a quality web-site, you would want to feature that web-site address.
The Yellow Pages
While one almost certainly wants to be in the yellow pages as a convenience to clients and potential clients, it is recommended against investing substantial amounts in yellow page ads. Through the Yellow Pages, one mostly gets "shoppers." It is wise, however, to simply include a line or two to establish credibility and to identify your niche areas of practice. Again, it is recommended that you include your email and website address right in the Yellow Pages.
The Splash Effect
One of the more impressive and effective marketing efforts that I have heard of was by a colleague, Chip Rose, of Santa Cruz, California, who recorded a fifteen minute description of mediation and his services and sent that audio tape to all of the mental health professionals in Santa Cruz County. Chip had a very nice label on the tape promoting his practice and, essentially serving as a large plastic card. It is doubtful that many people (immediately) threw those cassettes away (I still have mine). They are a steady visual reminder of Chip's practice, in addition to the quality audio content. With traffic ever worsening and audio duplication costs very reasonable, the audio medium for spreading information about your work is worth considering. Other techniques along these lines might include refrigerator magnets, post-it notes printed with your name address and phone, and the like. You definitely want to get the word out. No one will be bringing you your mediation business on a silver platter.
Mediators differ in how they set fees. Some mediators have participants pay as they go. Others request a deposit to be applied against earned fees. In any case, it is highly recommended that fee agreements be clarified in a signed writing. It is desirable that mediator fees bear upon participants and encourage them to make progress. The temptation maybe to reduce your fees as a budding mediator, yet you will quickly realize that you will be working much harder as a mediator than in virtually any other professional capacity and that these fees are very much earned. Further, remember that you will have at least two and often more participants paying the mediation fee. This being said, mediators' fees range from free (volunteer programs) to a "bottom" rate of $50 an hour or so all the way up to $400 per hour. Obviously, you will increase your fees with your success. In the short term, however, it is recommended that you do not under sell yourself. People generally expect to get what they pay for. If you under price yourself, they will wonder why you are working for so little and may actually come to question your competency on this basis!
While noble work, mediation is also, at least for the private practitioner, a business. Unless one can make a reasonable profit, one will not be practicing as a mediator for very long. There are exceptions, for example those who do not really need money and are able to volunteer on an unlimited basis at community mediation programs and the like. However, for the rest of us, being able to get a successful mediation practice going as a target that can only exist for a limited amount of time. My hope is that the suggestions in this article are helpful in thinking not only about how you will start offering quality mediation services, but also in terms of how you will continue being able to afford to offer those services.