All your friends and family know that you are a massage therapist. You’re reading MASSAGE Magazine right now. So, it’s easy to think that your clients are paying you for massage therapy.
People see massage therapists because what they want is change. They want to be or feel different from how they are right now. No one has ever walked into my massage room and said, “In an hour I’d like everything to be exactly like it is right now.”
• A quieter mind
• Recovery from their athletic weekends
• An improved connection with their body
• Relief from sciatica
• Less swelling in their legs
• Full range of movement in their shoulder
• To be headache-free
• A jaw that doesn’t hurt and click
• To bring their shoulders down from their ears
• And so many other things
They come to us because they think we can help them create some kind of change with this tool we use called “massage therapy.” That’s at the heart of our relationship with our clients.
Change is not the same as guaranteed results. I can never guarantee results. I don’t have that much control over the client’s body. Getting obsessed with delivering perfect results is a fast path to frustration and burnout. But it’s rare that something doesn’t change over the course of a session. (When nothing changes, it’s time to have a talk with the client about what other options are available to them.)
But, how does this affect our work and our lives as massage therapists?
It changes the focus from us to the client. When we’re talking about massage we’re talking about us, about what we want to do. We’re standing in our comfortable place. When we start talking about changes and outcomes, we’re talking about what the client wants and needs. We’re standing in their shoes.
Let’s be honest, though, our clients may be talking about massage too because that’s what they think we offer. They may not be completely clear on what change they want. We have to listen carefully to what our clients are saying about why they’re sitting in our massage rooms today so we can get to what they really want to change
If you’ve never done this, try it at your next intake: Ask the client, “What would you like to be different at the end of this session?” See what kind of answers you get.
It changes our relationship to our clients and their bodies. You’ve heard it before but it’s good to say it again: Clients aren’t broken and we aren’t here to fix them. In reality, the human body is changing itself every second of its life. We’re wading into that flow of perpetual change and trying to be part of the change in a way that makes the client feel better, even if only for a little while.
That flow continues to move on after we’ve stepped out, change continues to happen. Hopefully our time in that flow made a difference.
We have to understand our clients. It’s easy to talk about massage. We know a lot about massage. We know less about our clients. That puts a responsibility on us to figure out as much as we can about the kind of clients we most want to work with. It’s work, sometimes frustrating work, to do the kind of research that helps us understand the wants of people we’ve possibly not even met yet. But that kind of research is the key to building a successful effective practice.
If you don’t know where to start, begin with the clients you have. Be totally frank with yourself and list the clients you most enjoy working with and the ones you don’t get excited about working with. What is it puts them on each list? What do these clients have in common?
Is it the type of work they need? How they relate to their body or their pain? Their expectations of massage? Are there clients with whom you have more or less success facilitating change? Dig in a little, be honest with yourself, and see what comes up.
That’s not the end of the research possibilities but it’s a simple place to start. What can you learn from what you already know?
It changes the way we talk about our work. This is especially important in our marketing. What language do you use about your work? Are you talking about yourself and massage or are you talking to the client and what they want and need? Are you getting to the heart of what brings them to us?
There’s a difference between saying “massage is good for fibromyalgia” and “if you’re living with fibromyalgia, massage may help alleviate some of your tenderness and pain and quiet your nervous system for a little while.” Rather than “Visit our spa for a world-class massage” how about “Become relaxed, soothed and comforted at our world-class spa.” Lead with the client’s goals.
We have to decide what kind of changes we want to work with. None of us are the right massage therapist for everyone. For example, if you want me to help soften your rock-hard muscles with deep hard pressure, I’m not your gal. Who are you the right massage therapist for?
This is the part where you do get to focus on yourself. What kind of changes do you like to facilitate using your tools, training and skillset? This is another way of approaching the ideal client or niche question. Of all the things you could do as a massage therapist, what do you enjoy? What are you best at?
There’s one more piece to the what-are-you-selling question. The other thing you’re selling is the experience of working with you. Two massage therapists can graduate from the same massage school, work side by side in a practice, focus on the same kind of clients and changes, and still find that clients prefer one of them over the other. Why? Because the experience of working with each of them is unique as they are unique people.
Many things go into the experience of you: your sense of humor, your worldview, the way you think about the body, and the kind of energy you bring to the massage room are just a few examples. When everything else is equal, it’s an important part of how a client chooses one therapist over another.
The experience of you shows up in your marketing (the words, colors and images you choose), your space (décor and music ) and your client conversations (what you laugh at, how you explain things). The experience of you doesn’t replace your skills, it rounds out the client experience.
In the drive to be highly professional and to have super solid boundaries, some massage therapists may try to filter out all the personal parts of themselves. You can’t. Something as simple as the kind of comments that make you laugh will provide some insight into you—so embrace that your personality is part of your practice. What would you say is the experience of you?
The challenge is, of course, finding the balance between the professional and the personal. There isn’t a single right way to do it. We all get to navigate it for ourselves. Like most things about our lives as massage therapists and business owners, it gets easier with time and practice. But, yes, the experience of you is also an integral part of the client-therapist relationship.
I’ve often referred to this combination of change plus experience as a jelly donut: The change we can facilitate (the jelly) wrapped in the experience of working with us (the dough). The two elements can exist apart from each other, but together they create something more than the individual parts.
That, in the end, is what we are selling. We aren’t selling massage therapy and we aren’t selling ourselves. We are offering up the unique combination of massage therapy as done by us to a world hungry for change and healthy touch.
Kelly Bowers, LMBT (NC 16669), has been writing, teaching, and speaking about the business of massage since 2003. Owner of the Healing Arts Business Academy, where she strives to alleviate the confusion, self-doubt, and frustration of running a massage business through educational tools that are fun, compassionate, practical, and down to earth. She is the author of “The Accidental Business Owner” and “Can I Deduct That” She can be found on most social media platforms and at the Healing Arts Biz Academy. She lives and practices in Durham, North Carolina.
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