Client Testimonials: How to Navigate Ethics and Marketing

As a therapist or the owner of a therapy practice, you are in the business of helping others with their mental health. As a business, you need to ensure that you make profits to keep going, and as a mental health clinician, you need to make sure that you’re doing this in an intentional, impactful, and ethical way. This is why the use of client testimonials can get tricky.

Using client testimonials in your marketing is a great move. It shows that your services are effective, enjoyable, and accessible, and having positive testimonials may encourage prospective clients to reach out. Often, therapists use testimonials on their websites, social media, or on brochures because simple word-of-mouth referrals often don't get enough traction to fill a caseload. However, there are standards when it comes to attaining and publishing these testimonials.

We’ve collated all of the information you need to know about using client testimonials in your marketing while staying ethical. Read on to learn more!

The power of testimonials for you and prospective clients

In nearly every other industry, posting testimonials or sharing reviews on your website boosts the potential for business, making it an incredibly advantageous marketing tool. In the mental health field, using client testimonials also has a great impact - and not just in getting your practice’s name out there.

Using client testimonials on marketing material shows that people in the community access therapy services. This might sound obvious, but it may help reduce the stigma of seeing a therapist. By sharing comments made by clients - potentially with their names or initials - people might find therapy a little less intimidating (“If he did it, so can I!”). It might also make therapy seem a bit less daunting - or scary - by making it more relatable. For example, if a testimonial stated that the client had issues with anxiety and felt burnt out at work, another person might connect with the anxiety or burnout and feel more comfortable reaching out for help.

This is especially important in communities where there is a general lack of trust in social services or the mental health field. Under resourced communities may find it difficult to fully engage with therapists or mental health clinicians - whether that’s from collective (or personal!) trauma, stigma, or cultural differences when it comes to emotional support. Immigrant communities might not come from cultures where seeing a therapist is normalized, so having a client testimonial that demonstrates the accessibility of therapy may increase the chances of inquiry. Story sharing is a great way for all of us to learn from others’ experiences, and testimonials are an example of short story of how therapy might help.

In fact, a 2016 study presented at the National Institute for Mental Health found that a testimonial or (written recommendation) for a mental health professional led to the greatest change in desire to see a given therapist, even more than a headshot or video of the provider.

So, are testimonials ethically allowed?

As many benefits as there are to testimonials, the question remains whether they are ethically allowed. The answer to this question is yes and no because it depends on many complicated factors, including who you ask for the testimonial, how you ask for it, and what licensure you as a professional have.

In this post, we share general guidelines when it comes to testimonials. However, please check with your licensure and state’s specific policies to confirm relevant best practices.

The “Who":

In many licenses’ code of ethics, you may ask the following people for testimonials:

However, in many licenses’ code of ethics, you may not ask the following people for testimonials:

The “How":

The best way to collect testimonials is to receive them unsolicited. For instance, when a client, without prompting, offers positive feedback or praise about your services. To use this information, however, you need to ask permission to add it to your marketing material. You’ll also need to ask this client how much identifiable information they feel comfortable with: their full name, their initials, or being anonymous.

Perhaps the second best way to collect testimonials is through third party groups (like Zencare!). Third parties would likely not influence your client, especially if that client is set on pleasing you as the therapist. On Zencare, it’s simple and straightforward for clients to offer feedback on their therapy experiences via an anonymous closed-loop system. A client can use our testimonial form to submit their thoughts without including their name. We will then send this testimonial to you, when you can then decide if you would like to include it on your Zencare profile.

If asking for a colleague’s testimonial, Zencare also makes it easy to collect professional references by having a simple form for a peer to complete - this makes another great addition to your Zencare profile!

Lastly, in order to ethically ask a former client, prepare how you’ll ask ahead of time because asking for a testimonial can be intricate. Finding a thoughtful, intentional, and deliberate way of asking the question in a non-imposing way may take some forethought, even if you have someone in mind that you think would be comfortable sharing their thoughts. To avoid asking this question in person, consider adding a section to your discharge process to assess comfort in sharing a testimonial or having their testimonial appear on your marketing. You might also ask via email or by providing a form to complete.

Always offer anonymity and a way out of the request, especially for the clients who might feel pressured by the ask.

Get the next email on managing your private practice!

The ethics of testimonials, by licensure

To learn more about your specific situation, please find your profession below:

Counselors

"Counselors who use testimonials do not solicit them from current clients nor former clients nor any other persons who may be vulnerable to undue influence." ACA Code of Ethics, 2014, C.3.b

While the ACA Code of Ethics allows you to ask current and former clients for a testimonial, you must discuss with them the implications of sharing a testimonial and obtain their consent to use it in your marketing.

Psychologists

"Psychologists do not solicit testimonials from current therapy clients/patients or other persons who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence." Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, 2010, 5.05

While the ACA Code of Ethics for psychologists allows you to ask current and former clients for a testimonial, you must discuss with them the implications of sharing a testimonial and obtain their consent to use it in your marketing.

Social workers

"Social workers should not engage in solicitation of testimonial endorsements (including solicitation of consent to use a client’s prior statement as a testimonial endorsement) from current clients or from other people who, because of their particular circumstances, are vulnerable to undue influence." NASW Code of Ethics, 1996, Revised 2008, 4.07.b

An important distinction for social workers is that they cannot ask to use a testimonial that was given unsolicited. So, if a client shares some amazing praise of your services, you would not be ethically aligned to ask them if you can use it as a testimonial.

The ethics of testimonials, by state

While most mental health clinicians follow national codes of ethics, state license boards may vary in their testimonial policies. For example, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists created a new code of ethics in 2019 that prohibits asking for testimonials from current clients that are “subject to undue influence.” Outside of this group, a California LMFT could ask other current clients, former clients, and colleagues for testimonials. This might be different in another state, say New York. That’s why it’s important to find out what your license and your state’s policies are when it comes to testimonials to ensure that you’re following their ethical guidelines on gathering testimonials.

How to manage online “reviews”

You might be wondering what the difference is between “testimonials” and “reviews” - which is a great question!

A testimonial is feedback gathered by you and used in your marketing material. A review is generally posted in a public place and might be written by someone who isn't even your client. Think of Google business reviews or Yelp reviews - this is information that you cannot control and gives the individual the chance to write negative feedback.

It might be tempting to respond to these reviews, especially negative ones. However, it can be tricky and even dangerous to write back or post a response. This is especially true if there is even the slimmest chance of ruining someone’s anonymity or offering identifiable information. For example, responding to a client’s negative feedback on Google may confirm that they're in therapy - for everyone to see!

Where to use testimonials

Now that you’ve checked your license’s and state’s policies on testimonials, asked for them deliberately and ethically, and written them up - it’s time to publish them! Here are a few places to list these testimonials to boost your visibility, relatability, and impact:

Collecting testimonials may seem like a tricky task, and it is! However, being ethical in your therapy practice means being ethical in all aspects, even sharing client feedback. Testimonials are a powerful way to portray the strength of your practice and we encourage you to use them (as long as you're following your license’s and state’s policies!). Your stellar therapy service deserves credit, and portraying your services in an ethical way in your marketing showcases a high degree of professionalism and dedication towards the well-being of your clients.