Testimonials are what marketers call social proof—the modern-day word-of-mouth referrals. But aren’t testimonials distasteful at best, and illegal or unethical at worst? Many health and wellness professionals still have the mindset that they should never use testimonials to promote their practice.
But the rules around testimonials are changing. Every professional code of ethics I know of allows you to ask at least some people for testimonials. Some current codes even allow you to ask current clients for testimonials, as long as the client isn’t unusually vulnerable. It’s not just about the rules or marketing your business. Testimonials can be a powerful tool to help individuals find and connect with the right service provider for them. They can streamline an already daunting process by emphasizing what existing clients find to be particularly special or unique about your services.
Ethical Guidelines on Testimonials
Ethical guidelines make distinctions between groups of people you might ask for a testimonial. Asking current clients requires the most caution, and some codes put a blanket prohibition on doing so. Asking former clients is more often allowed. And every code allows you to ask colleagues and others who may be familiar with your work—but who aren’t clients, and never have been—to vouch for your skills.
Of course, in all cases, you shouldn’t ask for a testimonial from anyone who is unusually vulnerable, for whatever reason. If they’re distressed or agitated, if they’re likely to hear your request for a testimonial as a demand, or if they’ll feel obligated to give you one even if they’re uncomfortable doing so, they’re not someone you should approach.
The most recent group to update its code of ethics was the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) in December 2019. Under this new code of ethics, CAMFT only prohibits solicitation of testimonials from current clients who are “subject to undue influence.” This means they allow for the solicitation of testimonials from everyone else, including other current clients. Obviously, ethical rules about exploitation or misuse of one’s role still apply, regardless of what group of clients we’re talking about.
That phrase “subject to undue influence” turns up a lot in modern ethical standards around testimonials. And there’s a specific reason why. In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) determined that music teachers had been illegally restraining competition by having standards in place that prohibited members of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) from soliciting students from other teachers.
The FTC ruled that ethical standards that limit competition among independent providers aren’t enforceable. Since that ruling, professional associations have to walk a fine line of protecting vulnerable clients from exploitation while still allowing for competition among business owners. Testimonials are one way providers can “compete” with each other and market their services.
Asking vs. Telling
A key thing to understand about the ethical standards on testimonials is that they apply to the solicitation of testimonials—in other words, the process of asking for them. Even if you don’t ask for them, and even if you find the whole idea distasteful, clients can and will write and post reviews of your services online. Websites like Yelp, Angie’s List, HealthGrades, and many others serve as repositories for reviews of your practice, submitted by anyone.
So when it comes to the question of what to do about testimonials, there are a lot of ways you can handle them. You might take any of these common approaches.
- You don’t impose on your clients, but you do ask other individuals you can for testimonials. Depending on the rules of your profession, this may include some current or former clients. Of course, you should never require anyone to provide a testimonial, reward a good testimonial, or punish a bad one. You can clarify, where appropriate, that you like sharing uplifting stories that may inspire or empower individuals seeking services like yours. You may be surprised at how many current and former clients would be happy to provide a testimonial for you.
- You don’t ask current or former clients for testimonials, but you do ask colleagues and supervisors for them. When posting testimonials online, make sure their relationship with you is clear.
- You don’t ask for or use testimonials, but you do keep an eye on sites like Yelp and Angie’s List. You might even claim your listing on such sites, if only to be notified immediately if anyone submits a review.
It’s important to note that under the most current ethical standards, each of those circumstances is fine. There’s nothing inherently unethical about using testimonials. Many current ethics codes allow providers to actively solicit testimonials from former clients. And in some cases, they allow you to solicit testimonials from at least some current clients, too.
How to Avoid Risks Associated with Testimonials
Practitioners who engage with the world of testimonials commonly find themselves struggling with three key questions: how do you protect your clients from the risks associated with posting a testimonial? How do you handle a bad review? And how should you address any judgment from colleagues?
Protecting Clients from Risk
Most clients are fully capable of exercising their own judgment when it comes to the risks associated with providing testimonials anywhere online—and those who aren’t would not be good ones to approach for a testimonial at all. Even so, it can be helpful to remind those who you ask for testimonials that there can be risks involved anytime they speak publicly about having been in therapy.
It also can be helpful to take the steps you can to minimize those risks. For example, when gathering testimonials for your own use, you might provide clients the opportunity to be anonymous, or to be identified only by first name.
Responding to a Bad Review
If you get a bad review, it’s probably unwise to respond in any way. Since an online review isn’t a release of information, even when a client talks about their work with you online, you don’t have permission to reply.
If a client posted a review that you disagree with or are concerned about, it may help to contact the client and talk about it. Don’t reply on the review site. If they expressed a legitimate concern or problem, then it makes sense to try to resolve that issue. It would also be worthwhile to clarify that it would be more effective for them to bring concerns directly to you in the future.
Addressing Any Judgements from Colleagues
Even when your reviews are all positive, your colleagues won’t always respond well when you start using testimonials in your marketing. If they find the use of testimonials distasteful or even exploitive, you might sense their scorn. They might even tell you about it directly.
There’s nothing wrong with opposing the use of testimonials. But here’s the thing: social proof works. Prospective clients are often eager to hear about your services from people other than you because they’re more likely to give more objective insight into the services you offer. Consumers trust other consumers. That’s what makes it the modern version of a word-of-mouth referral.
So if a colleague judges you for using testimonials, ask them to consider widening their stance, as testimonials can be used effectively without exploiting vulnerable people or misusing your position.
You can also just thank them for the feedback, and enjoy all the new clients you’ll be getting as a result of using social proof effectively.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes, and is not intended as legal or ethical advice. All practitioners are responsible for understanding the legal and ethical guidelines that apply to their situation.