Have You Found a Niche?
by Corporate Relations & Business Strategy and Communications Staff
Psychologists are increasingly seeking creative ways to remain competitive in today’s changing marketplace. While one way to stay competitive involves practice diversification, many psychologists also have discovered another way: developing a niche practice that involves providing professional services to meet a specific population's needs. By offering unique, focused services to targeted populations, psychologists can generate a steady flow of clients, raise their visibility and increase their income.
A wide range of niche practice areas exist, from health care services such as disease management to organizational issues such as workplace stress reduction. Other niche areas focus on forensic services, such as divorce mediation, or childhood and school issues, including special education evaluation.
Identifying a Niche Practice Opportunity
The first step in developing a niche practice is identifying a viable area of expertise. Consider the following factors in cultivating a niche area:
Analyze the Needs of Your Community
There must be sufficient need for your service in order for it to represent a viable niche practice opportunity. Conduct an environmental analysis as part of your business plan and update it periodically.
If your analysis reveals that there is an unmet need for a specific service in your community, examine how you can meet that need. In addition to traditional mental health areas such as psychotherapy and assessment, consider nontraditional areas. For example, as psychology continues to expand into health promotion, prevention and disease management, opportunities exist in these new arenas for professionals with relevant training and experience.
Talk to as many people as you can when you participate in community and professional association events and activities. Listening to others’ perspectives will give you a more thorough understanding of developing trends and salient issues related to a niche area.
Find the Right Match
A niche practice should take advantage of your particular strengths, skills and training.
“Make sure your area of specialization is a good match for you,” says Christine Farber, PhD, a psychologist specializing in providing services for trauma survivors at the Traumatic Stress Institute in South Windsor, Conn. “It should fit with your skills and talents as well as what you love to do.”
Some psychologists with niche practice areas find it important to take steps to avoid burnout. Dr. Farber advises niche practitioners to find balance. “I have found that doing administrative work, such as budgeting and program development, complements the emotional commitments required by my niche area of trauma work."
Seek out Volunteer Opportunities
If you are interested in a niche area but have limited knowledge or training in it, consider volunteering at a facility where you can develop skills in that area. In addition to gaining knowledge, volunteering provides the opportunity to gain experience and a professional network that can help you if you decide to pursue work in that area of specialization.
Volunteering and professional networking steered Michelle Rone-DePolo, PsyD, toward her niche area. A pediatric psychologist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of autistic spectrum disorders at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism, Dr. Rone-DePolo met the executive director of the Center for Autism through her state psychological association. “I had no autism training, but I asked her if I could volunteer at the center. I became an unpaid supervised volunteer, shadowing the executive director and observing her doing evaluations. Six months as a volunteer turned into a formal fellowship, which turned into a staff position.”
Positioning Yourself to Compete
In pursuing a niche, you need to position yourself to compete successfully in the marketplace and leverage the benefits of a niche practice. Related factors to consider include:
Is there Potential for Revenue?
Look for areas of specialization that offer revenue and growth potential.
Developing a niche practice can open doors to additional professional opportunities and revenue sources. You may gain the opportunity to participate in a variety of revenue-generating activities related to your niche area, such as developing specialized treatment approaches and assessments, serving as a consultant or expert witness, collaborating on research and publishing projects, participating in workshops, giving lectures or teaching.
However, be aware that your community's needs — and the demand for your niche services — may change over time. Protect and strengthen your practice by staying on top of trends in your community and your niche area, providing a variety of products and services related to your niche area, and diversifying your revenue sources. Relying on a variety of revenue streams, referral sources and payers can protect your practice from unforeseen events, such as a health insurance payer drastically reducing or eliminating reimbursement for a particular service you provide.
Who Is Your Competition?
Identify the other service providers in your geographic region and area of specialization in considering your ability to compete successfully in the local marketplace. If you can make your niche practice stand out — for example, by offering special services or pricing strategies — you are more likely to succeed.
Offering specialized services can give you a competitive advantage. As one of only a few psychologists in Cleveland who specialize in autistic spectrum disorders, Dr. Rone-DePolo has few local competitors. “What’s good about being in a niche is that there aren’t many people doing this kind of evaluation. It makes me more marketable.”
Marketing a Niche Practice
The key to promoting a niche practice is to identify your target market and effectively communicate messages about the availability and benefits of your niche services. Raise the visibility of your niche practice by:
Identifying and developing relationships with key referral sources concerned with your area of expertise. For example, if your niche involves working with children, referrals may come from interactions with teachers, childcare workers and pediatricians.
Networking with colleagues such as by joining relevant professional organizations and attending professional meetings. APA has 53 divisions representing many subfields of psychology that may relate to your niche area. Attend professional meetings, stay updated on the current research and participate in discussions on professional listservs.
Demonstrating your expertise and success stories with colleagues and the community at large by writing and speaking to relevant groups. Build awareness of your services by writing freelance articles for newspapers, consumer publications or your state association, and by holding workshops for your colleagues in psychology as well as for the public.
Participating in community organizations and activities to increase awareness of your services and to remain educated about issues in the community. For example, if you work in business consulting, participate in events organized by small business organizations, employer groups, human resource management associations and rotary clubs.
Demonstrating Competence in a Niche Area
Pay close attention to any professional guidelines, laws and regulations governing the niche area. The APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct specifies that psychologists may only provide services in areas where they can demonstrate competence gained through education, training, supervised experience, consultation, study or professional experience. Consult your state, provincial or territorial psychological association for information about relevant legal and regulatory requirements in the jurisdiction where you are licensed.
If you are not yet fully qualified to provide a service, seek continuing education and consultation or supervision. Some practitioners consider gaining specialty and proficiency designation in various areas of practice. There are a number of options, including various board certifications in specialty areas. In addition, APA has approved practice guidelines relevant to niche areas, including child custody evaluations and the treatment of older adults.
Dr. Rone-DePolo recommends finding a mentor and encourages practitioners to seek out professionals who are actively working in their desired niche area. “I had a mentor who showed me the ropes,” she says. “Contact someone who is doing the work that you want to do. Ask if you can shadow them.”
Share Your Experience
If you work in an interesting niche area, we’d like to know. E-mail us with your area of expertise, how you got started in that area and how providing niche services has affected your practice.