For therapists, coaches, body workers and anyone else whose business is based on client sessions, at some point you will have a client not show up to their appointment. This can bring up many emotions; everything from concern for the client's well-being, to questioning your own self worth, to anger at the client wasting your time, to joy that you suddenly have more free time. All of these feelings are valid, and that one involving anger is trying to tell us something. The anger is probably trying to tell us that you need to examine your boundary setting with your clients. When it comes to boundary setting around no-shows, a cancellation policy is an important tool.
First Rule of Cancellation Policies: Have One
When I started my practice I didn't have a cancellation policy. I was just so excited to get to work with someone, and frankly my schedule was so empty, I could easily reschedule. As my practice filled, I ran into sticky situations where the communication had not been clear. I had to refine my process and implement a cancellation policy.
Ideally, a cancellation policy should be provided to a client during the scheduling or contracting phase. If you use an online booking software, your cancellation policy should be included as part of that process. If you ask clients to sign an agreement, waiver, or contract, the cancellation policy should also appear there. If neither of those exist, or you just want to be really thorough, you can always put it on your website.
Acknowledge the Cancellation Policy
Sometimes practitioners get tripped up when they need to enforce their cancellation policy. Let's say your client didn't show up, but then they got back to you and they had a really good reason / you really like that client / this was the first time they missed / etc. So now you don't want to enforce your cancellation policy. We love to be nice to our clients, and that's great. You don't have to enforce your cancellation policy. But it is a good practice to acknowledge that it exists, because otherwise it kinda doesn't exist.
When a client cancels last minute, let them know. Let them know what your policy is and that they were in violation. From there you can state the consequence as laid out in the cancellation policy (e.g. "as per my cancellation policy I'm sending you a digital invoice for the session you missed."), or you can explain that you're waiving the policy in this instance. This means that your client will know not to expect you to waive your fee the next time something comes up or their appointment slips their mind.
Enforcing a cancellation policy can be uncomfortable. We're often fearful that clients will be upset. Keep in mind where the responsibility really lies. They made an appointment and they missed it. You held that time available for them, forgoing other uses of your time. Their anger or frustration is likely to stem from them being angry at themselves for not being able to make their schedule work or remember their appointment. It benefits them more to have the appropriate consequence as motivation for modifying their actions such that they show up to their commitments. Also, you deserve to have clients who respect and value your time, and who can maintain their commitments.
Make Your Cancellation Policy Work for You
There's no one way of writing a cancellation policy. Come up with one that works for you. Maybe you consider a "last minute" cancellation as 24 hours, 48 hours, or a week's notice. Maybe there are "last minute" cancellations and other kinds of cancellations with separate consequences? Maybe there's some kind of fee if they cancel no matter what. Does your cancellation policy count on the first session? (If your work requires they sign an agreement or contract, then it might not be possible to charge them for a missed session before they've signed that document.) Maybe you require a deposit in order to book? Is the consequence of cancellation your full fee, a percentage of your fee, or a flat rate? Is there a point at which if they cancel too often that you'll refuse to book them any more?
Create a policy that you can apply to every client and that values your time and your schedule. Most people don't decide to work with someone or not based on their cancellation policy, so set whatever boundaries work for you and clients will follow them as long as they know what they are.
Refine Your Cancellation Policy as Needed
So, you wrote this great cancellation policy and then someone cancels and follows all the rules, but you're still mad at them. Well, it looks like that cancellation policy isn't actually describing your boundary.
But this is actually a really good thing. You have in writing what your policy is. Your client has cancelled too late, and they're facing the consequences. If this doesn't meet your needs, now we have a starting place to refine from. What changes could be made to your policy that will appropriately value and honor your time, while still being reasonable from a consumer's perspective?
This is also a good opportunity to look at your prices and the schedule you keep, and ask yourself if they're setting you up for success. Does your pricing appropriately value your time? Can you earn enough at a regular capacity level that you can get by? (e.g. you're not panicking on paying the bills when someone cancels.) Is your schedule honoring your needs so you can deliver the best service to your client? Have you had a weekend recently? ...what about a vacation? These are important elements of work-life balance when you're running your own business.
Cancellation Policies Are Tricky
Hopefully this post has given you some things to think about in regards to your cancellation policy. Cancellation policies are only one of the ways we form boundaries with our clients, but it is a fairly fundamental way. If you're having trouble forming or enforcing your cancellation policy, contact me and we can trouble shoot.