In The Business of “The Soft Stuff”

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When you peel back the layers of any business, whether it’s a 600 employee behavioral healthcare company or a small private practice, you find there are two main elements that make up that business. There are the products/services they sell, and there are the more complex and elusive “soft skills” that surround the core service/product.

Today, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate yourself based solely on the quality and uniqueness of your product or service.  A main reason why has to do with the fact that products and services can and are replicated.

There will always be a broad range of mental heath services from the truly outstanding to the mediocre.  These are undoubtedly differentiating factors, but they are not necessarily what tips consumers.

My advice to you – get out of the commodity business!  Another bit of advice – come to terms with the fact that we are all, to some degree, in the commodity business.

Make an effort to change how you sell and deliver your services.  Recognize the “softer skills”, the unique character elements that make you, you and figure out a way to make them come through loud and clear.

People buy the story, the experience and the genuiness of an organization and/or practitioner.  They’re connection may be based on the honest compassion and empathy that comes through when they talk with you over the phone.  They may connect with your “quirkiness” and sign up for your training knowing they will experience something unique and wonderful.  Or it may come from a simple gesture or a “reaching out” that tells them you’re the one.

The company I work for, Palmetto Behavioral Health, offers a wide range of mental health services on an inpatient and outpatient level.  We have a great team at all levels and we offer high quality psychiatric care.  But is this what distinguishes us in the marketplace?  Is this what will ultimately determine our success?

Our services, no matter how excellent, can be (and are!) replicated.

Today, Palmetto Behavioral Health works hard at being in the business of greeting people with compassion and understanding when they call or come through our doors.  We’re in the business of finding resources and connecting people to services that will help them even if it means sending them to a competitor.  We’re in the business of addressing problems with families and referral sources openly, honestly and quickly.  We’re in the business of stopping to check in with someone in our lobby who looks troubled to offer support.

We’re in the business of the soft stuff.



  1. Brian Sullivan, PsyD  August 25, 2009

    David, I’m glad you’ve written this. The soft stuff counts, truly. Like your description of Palmetto, I learned years ago to be that provider who tells referral sources, “If I can’t help, I’ll help find someone better who can.” And, I’m that provider who tells each and every client that my job is to work myself out of a job.

    That combination works well, but only if I’m sincere in each (which I am). I share this with trainees and interns regularly.

    I’d like to expand on your thoughts: You’re right – there’s a range of quality in our professions, but fortunately in my experience the quality is generally quite high. That’s a blessing for the public and those hiring us, but a curse for those who are seeking to grow a practice or get that first/next job.

    Therefore, I believe we should all do a better job of emphasizing for trainees and early-career folks the importance of distinguishing oneself, and becoming distinctive. Those concepts overlap, but they’re meaningfully different ideas also.

    We should tell them, “Differentiate yourself – focus on what makes you distinctive and distinguished. If you’re not already distinguished, then get busy – good work will distinguish you. But it won’t necessarily make you distinctive, and that’s the other part of the equation. Be a distinguished professional first and foremost – be active in your state or national professional associations, volunteer your time, and above all, provide good work. But also, don’t be afraid to be distinctive, because lots of people are going to make themselves distinguished the same ways you will.”

    Being distinctive (along with being distinguished) can make the difference in success. And, it can be done with good taste and restraint. As a bonus, it’s generally fun.

    Just as an example: I placed a Mr. Potato Head on my bookshelf to add a bit of whimsey to the office. Did I learn that in graduate school? No. I’m just being myself – my office isn’t full of toys – that’s not me. But the Potato Head and a few scattered Hotwheel cars are.

    Does it matter? Well, one word-of-mouth referral said, “My friend told me you were really helpful, and that you try to work yourself out of a job. I can respect that. She’s doing so much better now. She also said that even when you’re not all that helpful, the Potato Head pitches in.”

    Keep up the good work, David.

  2. Barbara Radin Fox  August 28, 2009

    Definitely ditto! Your article seems to me to ask us to do what we do well and don’t think for a minute that we can do everything well! We need to market our differences, which includes our areas of specialization, in addition to any “quirks” that set us apart!

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