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How to build a successful business in the NDIS marketplace

A notebook with reading glasses.

Support coordinators have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. They need to get to know their clients, build relationships of trust with them and their support networks, foster positive engagement with the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and providers of disability and mainstream supports, and coordinate a team of wrap around supports designed to assist their clients to achieve their goals.

But what about their own goals? Where do they find time for those?

In recent months, we’ve convened an editorial roundtable to bring together support coordinators from across Australia in a virtual forum to discuss a range of topics and issues impacting them and their work. We’ve passed the baton to Elizabeth Hickey of AFA Support Coordination, one of our roundtable members, to cover off on a key issue arising from recent discussions – how to build a successful business in the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) marketplace.

In this article, Elizabeth shares her perspectives and learnings on how to build a business and juggle client needs and the delivery of quality service at the same time.

By Elizabeth Hickey

Elizabeth Hickey.

For any National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) business, no matter the size or type, balancing service delivery and business processes with bringing in the next client is vitally important.

One of the biggest issues facing many support coordinators today is ensuring they’re able to juggle the jobs that bring in money, along with administration and business building tasks – all while ensuring they deliver a quality service and avoid falling casualty to burnout.

For every business, but especially NDIS businesses, ensuring every client receives quality service is paramount, and should be the number one focus. As disability service providers, we should be aiming to assist all people with disability and their supports by delivering quality services that empower people, support choice and control, and help our clients to live in their communities in the way they’d like to.

When asked, most clients say they want a provider who’s approachable, able to assist and help in developing solutions to their problems, available when needed and willing to help them achieve their goals. Remember, without clients you don’t have a business, so the clients you already have on your books are more important than the clients you may potentially have tomorrow. By focusing on a quality product, everything else will fall into place.

Client load

Client load is one of the make-or-break points for quality service, staff retention and business reputation. Understanding how many clients you can work with, and what the client need actually is, is as individual as the clients you work with, and typically it can’t be pinned down to one number.

Every support coordinator will have a different skill level and different strengths, and this may impact on the number and type of clients they’re able to manage. While billable hours are key to the equation, remembering that your hourly rate includes an amount to cover administration and training (and then ensuring it’s implemented!) is important, as those two things will directly relate to the end quality of your service.

When looking at client load, you also need to consider the type of clients you work with and where they are on their NDIS journey. Ensuring there are a variety of clients with different levels of need in your business is important, so you can spread what’s required of you a little more evenly.

Allow for a balance of need, but also for movement through the service. When looking at client need, clients will typically fall into two different categories:

  1. The clients who require support to implement their plan when something goes wrong, and help to prepare for planning; and
  2. The clients who require more ongoing, regular input (on a weekly or fortnightly basis) to ensure they’re able to manage ongoing support and avoid or manage problems as they occur.

Having a mix of both types of clients can help to ensure that when things get busy, you’re less likely to have everyone calling at once.

Regular and ongoing review of your client load is critical, as is consideration for how many new clients you can manage at one time.

When onboarding a new client, you should think about the amount of time you have available to help get them set up and fully engaged, which can be intensive.

Making sure you know how many new clients you can work with, while also providing ongoing services to your current clients, should be a consideration for all businesses, and remaining focused on reporting and planning – and scheduling time to do this – is important also.

It isn’t unusual for a number of clients to need support and reports all at once, so knowing what your schedule looks like for reporting and planning can be important in ensuring ongoing quality.

Communication

One of the comments I regularly hear from clients and providers alike is that communication is key to providing great service.

Clients are individuals and, as such, each client will communicate differently. Ensuring their communication needs are met – both for routine needs, like putting service agreements in place and booking appointments, as well as for service delivery – can be a huge part of ensuring quality. If you can communicate in a way that meets each client’s needs, you’ll have the basis for a great service.

The NDIS Code of Conduct

All NDIS service providers (registered and unregistered) are bound by the NDIS Code of Conduct, which is a great place to start when measuring how well you’re working to provide quality service, and deciding where to focus for further business and worker development.

As an NDIS business, working to empower people with disability and their informal supports to make decisions about their lives, and providing supports that are safe and respected, is the basis of great service.

Understanding the concept of choice and control, and dignity of risk, allows providers to support people with disability to exercise their freedom of choice and explore what their life means. A good worker is someone who’s able to support a person in their choice, even when they may not agree with the decision the person has made.

The NDIS Code of Conduct is also a roadmap for reviewing your service delivery. You should regularly seek feedback from your clients – whether it’s through a casual conversation, informal and formal reviews or surveys, or even complaints – to identify potential improvements that can help serve them better.

Ongoing improvement and training for workers is paramount to ensuring that a business continually develops. Improvement can be something as small as changing an invoice number to better identify your business and make it easier for a self managed client to pay the bills, or as big as training in customer service, if that’s a weakness.

Systems and processes

Documenting every business process is vital to support delivery of a consistent, quality service, but there are times when documentation can cut into client time and compromise outcomes.

One of the biggest things I’ve learnt in business is that having the right systems in place can save time, help serve clients better, ensure you’re compliant and you meet the standards you’re upheld to, help manage risk, and make you even more attractive to new clients.

Many new businesses may not have the time or capital to invest in streamlined systems. However, even a simple system that’s easy to implement can make a huge difference to compliance and risk and the ease with which you can grow your business.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways I found to set up systems to manage different processes was to use the inbuilt forms tool through Google Workspace. This allowed me to create easy spreadsheet data entry for processing – including risk management, continuous improvement recording, personnel training/education registers, client intake and exit processes, and quality review recording. It allowed me to design and record the information my business needed, while keeping an easy-to-use record.

Once you have them in place, it’s important to review systems and processes to make sure they’re working and helping to reduce time spent on tasks that don’t create income. One consideration should be the time spent completing the different workflow tasks – both client directed and administration focused – and if you’re able to implement a system that will reduce the time required, sometimes paying for it up front is a better investment in your business in the long run.

Systems that assist, including business registers, and accounting and client management software, should be reviewed regularly and not set and forgotten. By continuing to consider different options and improving your business in small steps, continued growth will naturally occur, along with the ability to easily show compliant systems and supports are in place.

Comparison and why it can compromise service and growth

Every business is different, and both the systems you need and the clients you work with will vary. Identifying what makes your business special, and different to others, is important when considering how to balance the client experience and business development.

No NDIS business will, or should, suit all clients – because, just like the people we serve, each business is individual. Focusing on what you do well and providing a niche service can help to ensure everything your business delivers is quality.

It’s easy to fall into the mindset that you’re competing against all the other providers who do the same thing as you do for clients. But comparing yourself to others is probably the worst thing you can do.
The NDIS is still growing. In December 2022, there were approximately 573,000 participants, and this is expected to grow to 670,000 by 2025. By identifying your perfect client, letting people know who you work with, having a great reputation, knowing who else is out there, and then referring clients you can’t serve to others, you’ll benefit your business and ensure you get to work with the people you can best support.

Word of mouth

Working in the disability industry for more than 20 years has taught me one big lesson. For an NDIS participant, the best way to find support is to ask around.

Word of mouth is the best form of advertising for a business within in this sector, simply because people talk and the disability community is just that – a community. It’s close knit, extremely supportive, and will offer guidance to its members. So, doing the right thing – and being known for it – will serve you well.

When it comes to word of mouth, networking is key. Connecting with other businesses and having great relationships with others will ensure you’re able to access services, get help when you need it, and also refer clients if you’re not the right service or you don’t have availability at the time.

Connection to networking and training opportunities is also a fantastic way to ensure your business is participating in ongoing education and training and keeping up to date with changes, both in the NDIS and your local area.

Top tips for building a successful business

I’ve come to learn the following five things are important to building a successful business:

Communication

Work with clients to find the way they need you to communicate with them to get the best results. Communication can look like an in-person catch up, a phone call, an email, an SMS, a direct message through social media, or a physical letter. Every client will have a difference preference for communicating.

Respect your client and the decisions they make

Their decisions are not yours, and your job is to assist them to be supported, so they can make the right decisions for them – even if they’re not decisions you might make for yourself.

Develop and implement quality systems for your business

Make sure you document everything, but don’t let it compromise service. Whether you own the business or work in it, you should aim to document things in a way that someone new can easily understand. This ensures clients can continue to receive services and the business is compliant.

Don’t be afraid of spending money on systems that save time and work

Even though the initial investment in systems may be daunting, in the long run it may mean you’ll actually free up time and capacity and make more money than before. You might even find a little time in the day for yourself!

Specialise

Figure out what you do best and don’t try to be everything to everyone. By developing a business that serves a specific group of people well, word of mouth will do most of your advertising for you, and you won’t need to worry about getting clients.

When looking at how to build a business that balances client expectations and growth, providing quality service should be the top priority for every business owner.

By ensuring you have a quality service that sells itself, a sustainable client load, and that you focus on continually improving your service, you can know that your business will be sustainable and continue for many years to come.

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My Plan Manager acknowledges the objectives of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

My Plan Manager acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia, and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to them and their cultures, and to Elders both past and present.
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