Category Archives: The Business Side of Massage

Massage to Measures

Massage therapists like to think we help people deal with stress, injuries and fatigue. But how do we know we help?

Massage is, after all one-on-one. We are stars or idiots one hour at a time, and we often don’t take much credit for our clients’ successes or failures. Is a massage therapist a facilitator or a game-changer? Do we really know?

I’m reminded of the times I thought I had no clue what I was doing, only to have the client hop off the table and give me a compliment and a big tip.

But I also remember that once on vacation – after one particularly hideous massage from someone who thought they were fantastic – that I said thank you and left a tip anyway. I made a mental note of the therapist’s name in case I ever happened to go to this resort again so I could get someone else.measure

How we measure ourselves and our effectiveness in massage therapy is something of an emerging issue. In a practice that is more art than science, can we really measure ourselves?

People have often received treatments for medical conditions that have no proof or promise – but the treatments are tried in the belief that they may relieve suffering or repair the underlying condition. That is the art of medicine.

Can we also preserve the art of massage while some therapists attempt to move into the medical – and the reimbursed – field?

A recent post by long-time and very respected massage instructor Noel Norwick of Los Angeles asked the question on Facebook.

His question on group referred to a study. It found that soothing talk – reassurance – worked just as well as physical therapy treatment after whiplash. Here’s the link:

It appears to say that treatment versus soothing talk have the same results. My comment was that it might say much about the quality or delivery of treatment instead of its effectiveness in the right hands.

Would that be the case if reassuring talk were compared to massage? I think not. Hope not. But let us ask this question another way – if we could offer nothing hands-on, would we offer reassuring speech? Isn’t that sometimes the de facto treatment for stress disorders – even though many of us would propose that massage would be much better?

Plans, Practice and Control

It is a new world for the massage therapist, just as it is for many other personal services industries.

App companies are going whole hog into personal service. Rides, house-cleaning, errands, baby-sitters, pet-sitters, and yes, massage therapists. Where is it heading? For a big thumping collision as we struggle to define ourselves, our employers and our clients….

Oh yes, big questions. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Hang on.

Are app companies employers? Are service providers employees or clients? Are clients users or beneficiaries? Who cares? Massage therapists care because the answers to those questions will determine how much money we make, how much we pay in taxes and how free we are to make decisions in our professional lives.control

Here’s how it shakes out: Google is an advertising service that provides therapists with a way for people seeking their services to find a provider – and leaves the rest of the transaction up to the therapists and clients.

The app services are vetting providers, setting prices, presentation, times and even setting tips. The amount of control they have means they appear to be employers, not middlemen. If a therapist wants to provide more or charge more, they are not able to.

A therapist is not an independent provider of service when someone else sets the price and pay. If a therapist is not independent, then basic labor laws about employees apply.

The bottom line for therapists is that it is all about control. Control of prices, providers and policies such as tipping makes apps employers. That means the app gets to pay a lot more money in taxes for Social Security, payroll, disability, etc. that would otherwise be paid by the therapists.

There’s been some talk that the new services may yield a new classification of worker – the dependent contractor. That’s where the therapist would be a service provider who would pay less in taxes in exchange for less control. But will the apps pay the taxes? And pay for the benefits? Stay tuned.

In the interim, the people who may be the biggest targets are small businesses who have called their employees independent contractors to avoid higher costs. If the apps can’t have independent contractors, then spas and clinics can’t either. That will make major changes in the way multiple-therapist businesses operate.

Meanwhile, a massage therapist’s best bet remains Google or the other online search providers. People looking for a massage can find you in an efficient way. If they do not want your services, or don’t want to pay your price, they will find someone else who better matches their needs.



Flames Climb Higher Than Hands

Those who do therapeutic massage are well aware of the statistics in the field. Burnout is a huge problem amongst therapists.

What I have often heard from people is that massage is too hard to do enough of it to be secure financially and take care of one’s personal needs as well. I’ve also heard from folks who don’t have much commitment to the field that they are surprised when it turns out massage is work, and they stay in the hobby-job cloud.

I have also heard the burnout complaint from therapists, who don’t charge enough, spend too much on frills or never take a vacation. I’ve never heard it from my core group of friends who have been practicing for nearly 20 years.

So I’m a bit surprised to say that this week I felt burnt out. Yes, dark and twisted like a used paper match. Done inside and out. Phhhht! burnout

There, I said it. I feel fried!

But I do take vacations – and the occasional mental health day – and I also vary the types of massages I do, and now I even limit the number of massages I do a week. I also coach other therapists and test them on techniques… what on earth is going on?

I think this tiredness is more than just needing a vacation. Next Steps: the self-audit, then the friend audit.

Here’s my list: Eating right? Exercising? Sleeping well? Time for me? Time for non-massage activities? Getting massage once a week? Going for acupuncture or chiro? Am I crabby?

OK, I flunked a bunch of those questions. I had a flood in my house early this year and my days off have been spent dealing with contractors, tossing, organizing and cleaning…my whole holistic schedule went phhhht. I realized the last time I did tai chi was at New Year’s break. So I have been rolling along thinking I was handling all this stuff, and it has caught up with me. One cannot be a balanced therapist without a balanced life.

My friend’s audit was a bit worse. I have been positively snappy when dealing with all the extra chores. Apparently I get up in the morning before work and like one possessed I crank right into my to-do list. Before work.

Well, the list is going bye-bye for now. I’ve booked a massage, a session with my counselor and my tai chi sensei. I’ve been acting like I lived on the kind of schedule my clients come in to undo. Lesson learned!

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Have you tried giving a massage using silk instead of oil?

We massage therapists love our helpers, be they oils, warm stones or essential oils. Lately I’ve come to totally enjoy something I at first thought would be a bust.

Massage on silk is a method of gliding the hands across skin or clothes without the use of oil. Silks provide glide, like oil, but without the drag or irritation.

My first acquaintance was with an educational video on chair massage by Boris Prilutsky a Massage Hall of Fame member and long-time instructor and therapist.


Prilutsky notes that silks have been used in ancient Chinese massage not only for glide but also for positive energetic properties. Interested now?

My own experience was highlighted when I began looking at how to make workplace chair massage easier on the therapist and recipient. A silk square tossed over the back gave me not only additional leverage but also the ability to effluerage as if using oil.

Since then I have introduced a few therapists to silks as a means of chair massage, much to their delight. Instead of using only rolling compressions or static pressure, the silks provide the glide that clients crave and that we love to provide.

Here’s a quick primer on using silk: Buy a yard at the fabric store. It can be cut and hemmed into at least two back-sized squares. I went to the alterations shop to have my silks done.

There is also a commercial product on several of the massage supply websites that is already for use.

But I like finding my own nice massage color: healing green, warm blue, healthy pink, patterns, whatever strikes my energy and disposition. If you have a favorite silk shirt that has snagged or is somehow on its way out, you can cut out the back and use it as a massage silk.

Silks don’t have to be washed much especially when used over clothes. Cleanse in warm, not hot, water and hang dry. I like to keep a couple of silks handy, especially when I know I may be faced with an area that needs its facile touch. Enjoy!

A Massage Therapist’s Top Ten

Debates roar among massage therapists about which are the best oils, the best draping, and the most effective techniques. Yet never have so many argued so passionately about this question: whether to start clients in the supine or prone position. O the polarity!

So many have crusaded with passionate arguments about breath patterns, face-cradle wrinkles, sinuses, etc. But we all know the real reasons to start up or down is exigency.

Let’s hope the clients never find out.

Sue’s Top Ten Reasons to Start Massage Clients Facedown:

(Guaranteed to be from actual experiences in the Wild Wacky World of Hurry Up and Relax!)

10. My neighbor upstairs likes to stomp on the way to and from her cradlesnatcherhourly cigarette break.

9. Whatever you had for lunch, I’m investing in a dab of peppermint under the face cradle.

8. Your assistant called ahead and asked me to put you in a coma.

7. I am hoping you won’t notice the sudden appearance of wet stains on the ceiling.

6. Your spouse made this appointment and asked me to keep you here for at least two hours so she can get in a nap.

5. We can’t get the flashing-light fire alarm to stay off. Perhaps it has to do with someone’s bright idea to dry body brushes in the microwave.

4. The rips in the sheets might not be as noticeable.

3. I don’t want to listen to the rest of your multi-level-marketing pitch.

2. I went to lunch at the taco joint – beans!

1. Is that a hernia?

Of course, there is always the competing Number One Reason to Start Massaging Clients Face-Up: I can’t find the face cradle.

Finding Your Best Massage Venue

A massage therapist starting to practice has quite a few challenges, not the least of which is finding the right place to practice.

Options are multiple: gyms, tennis clubs, spas, medical offices, chiropractic, acupuncture or p.t. clinics, clients’ homes, business conference rooms, hotels, chains, etc. Each has its advantages and drawbacks.

Sometimes the best option for newbie massage persons is to try as many locations as possible to determine where they would like to practice.Choices 1

The important factor in these experiences is to truly work in each venue – give it your all to see if the dynamics of a happy practice are there.

When I speak with others about their sense of success or commitment to massage as a career, opinions often track back to their personal investment in making a venue work.

The conflicts often come in when the venue requires a therapist to work out of their personal comfort zone. When I hear statements like “I didn’t get into massage to become a salesperson.” Or “I don’t think telling someone to come in once a week is ethical.”

These statements are comforting to some because they allow therapists reasons to not expand their skills. Choices like this should point therapists to seek a different venue.

I encourage therapists to put their objections aside just in case they are missing an opportunity – maybe the venue would work for them if they were more adaptable or had other skills in the mix.

Ultimately the choices we make, much in life and in work, are based on what we are willing to try and how hard we are willing to work.



Starting Choices, Massage Therapists

As they graduate from education programs, massage therapists have many choices for employment. Yet finding that perfect job can be elusive.

The venues have expanded in the past few years but the economics remain the same: work a lot for less pay, work a lot less for more pay.

For recent graduates looking to pay their bills – and their student loans – the pressure is quite high. How do newbies balance reliable income with recognition of their skills? start

As an experienced massage therapist, I don’t have all the answers. But let me suggest some strategies that can help graduates maneuver through the first years of their massage careers.

Use your Advantages – Most massage therapists are women, and often female therapists who are attractive can build a book of clients more quickly. So put that picture on your resume, business card, website, whatever, and prepare to get busy.

Better yet, Use Your Disadvantages – Male, muscular and big? Men who do massage face discrimination from clients both male and female. The reasons, trust me, are very unfair. But why not make it an advantage? A male can be a strong, resilient chair massage therapist. Chair massages are done fully dressed, often in public places such as conventions. That eliminates a lot of objections clients have to male therapists. Those practices bloom.

Gender politics can be an advantage in other situations. I also know a female therapist who looks and acts non-feminine. Is that a problem? Heck, no, she told me. “No trophy wife ever has to worry about me making a play for her husband.”

Have more than one source of income – My friend’s career strategy was simple – her income was secondary to the family breadwinner. Her husband handled the bills and worked the long hours of a tax accountant. That left her time to groom and select her clientele without a lot of money pressure. She also had time to volunteer and market herself. She worked at high-end spas and targeted her favored client type – professional athletes. It took years to build a clientele, but she got there. She has a great elevator speech, and the more she practiced it, the more it became her practice.

Do more than massage alone – Another of my friends runs her own day spa and has a cosmetology license. along with a massage license. She can wax; do facials and other cosmetic treatments to fill her book. A slow massage day can be a busy wax day, etc. She didn’t like cutting and coloring hair, but she loves doing facials, massage and waxing.

Some therapists can increase incomes by doing administrative and billing work at their chiropractor’s offices. Another friend also works as a personal assistant, running errands for people who are too busy or too old to do errands.

Work in Multiple Massage Venues – A doctor, a chiropractor, a spa, a chain, a physical therapy clinic, a hotel, a mall chair-massage store. You may surprise yourself to discover your best fit. And if one venue becomes slow, another may be busy.

Be Productive No Matter Where You Work – I call this the “Joseph” strategy. Like Joseph in the Bible, maybe your brothers don’t like you and you get sold into slavery but you work hard and do so well you end up running your master’s house and businesses.

Where you start does not have to be where you end up. Use your venue as a learning laboratory. Does your chain want you to sign up members? Practice so you can figure out how to do that. Sell products? You can learn how to do that, too. What about upgrades? Some of the more corporate places have quotas for therapists. Instead of stressing about meeting those quotas, can you figure out how to fill them? boybaseball

I met sales quotas at a spa by asking someone who could sell how to do it. I sucked at it, but kept practicing and asking questions until I go it. You can also read up on sales techniques, and you can observe those who are successful at it. The key is practice. Being a productive massage employee is all about trying multiple times. Kind of like baseball, hitting three out of 10 times makes you a superstar.

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Massaging with Partners

Most successful massage therapists come to a time in their careers when they think about going out on their own. They have worked in spas, medical offices or chain clinics and they have an itch to move out and become independent.

Then the question comes up. Why risk all in business? Why not seek out another therapist to partner with?partners

It’s a natural question and the list of advantages sounds enticing. Half the workload, shared space, some extra hands to help.

I posed the question to my business advisers – a successful small businesswoman, an accountant, a private practice acupuncturist and an attorney: Would a partnership be a good idea?

Here’s what they said:

Businesswoman: It sounds good at first, but partners often don’t do half of the work. They don’t want to clean, or they don’t want to do books or pay for bookkeeping, or they want to take lots of time away from the business. Then when it comes to splitting profits, if there are any, they want half for less work. You will spend more time fighting about issues than just making decisions and implementing them.

Accountant: Partners are great if they have the same work ethic you have. I have never met someone with the same work ethic as me. I have seen people who blow things off if it is inconvenient, or worse, blow off the customers. I work alone.

Acupuncturist: I took on a partner in a real estate investment because I could not afford it on my own. The partner has been extremely difficult to work with. He was supposed to be a silent partner, with me managing the investment. He’ll decide he needs to check on things and comes in and meddles. As soon as he causes problems with the employees, he disappears and leaves me to fix the problems he creates.

I have tried two times to buy him out. Even though it is a good deal for him, as he would get his investment back plus some appreciation, he has backed out at the last minute because he thinks he might be missing out on some money. I just want him out for my peace of mind.

Attorney: If more than half the people with all the best intentions in the world – who know each other intimately – cannot make marriages work, why would you think partnering with someone else would work?

I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for a trip to the dark side of partnerships when I asked my experts. First, I was very glad I asked the question. Second, I took the partnership idea and sent it sailing into the circular file of doom.

Partners? It’s a great idea. Has any massage therapist out there managed to make it work?


The Price of Comfort

Recently I walked into a raging discussion among massage therapists over discount pricing. To discount or not to discount is a huge bugaboo for massage therapists.

Prices are subjective, of course, and one can only wonder why people ask for a discount from a single massage therapist when they wouldn’t dream of asking at a big spa. I came up with a list of concerns about prices:

Overhead: Discounting is tough for all therapists, really, because our discount stated prices and what we get paid are quite different. My asking price includes things that support my practice, such as office rent, website, phones, supplies, education and licensing. A friend who does house calls only has the expenses of phone, linens and oil. Another therapist has few expenses as an independent contractor, other than insurance and licensing, but taxes take a much bigger bite out of her paycheck and she rarely makes tips at her chiropractor’s office. At the end of the year, we all make radically different bottom lines, and our prices are quite different.

Perception: Most of the huffy comments from my friends on this topic come from the feeling that clients who ask for discounts are insulting them or their skills. People don’t haggle over many items, but they do haggle over personal services. My feeling is: do you want to be paid like the maid or the accountant?

Need: We all have clients who come in with limited means and in need of massage. How do you handle these? I have given people discounts for multiple sessions when they clearly have a need and lack resources. However, there are always a few people who ask for discounts and don’t have a need. In my experience, they are either thrifty or culturally used to haggling. I don’t take offense. If they really want a discount for the sake of a discount, I refer them to one of the $39 chains.

Desire: Another therapist friend had a home-based practice, (sub-rosa, no licensing or insurance) and needed clients, so she offered massages for $25 an hour, cash only. It worked. She did not have to leave her house She is also now very burned out and has no savings.

My friend who is a hair stylist put it this way: when she started her practice, her prices were low. As she built clientele, her prices rose. The clients who stayed valued her services. The others, well, one or two come in every year so she can fix their $8 haircut.

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Stress Experts Love Massage

At this time in my massage therapy career, I think I have got the whole stress thing down.

Then something pops up that tells me: HA! Yes, HA! A very karmic and cosmic and pulse-wave HA!

My family and i have been living in a hotel for nearly a month following flooding at my home. A simple toilet clog and my house was drenched with watery pooh. Men in white mooon suits put big hair dryers in every room, and me, the dog and my 90-year-old mother-in-law were off to the land of free hot breakfasts. Oh, did I mention that hunnybuns went to the emergency room? In all the rush for towels, my dear one fell and snapped a thumb ligament.

All together, we are very lucky. Lucky insurance is covering almost everything, lucky the damage was mostly to floors and drywall, lucky hunnybun’s injury was not worse. We are sleeping in nice beds. I don’t have to wash my massage sheets by banging them on a wet rock. During this I have found the stress meter running into the red zone. Yes, that stress meter, the scale I thought I had zenned my way through emerging on the other side a massage therapist for all seasons. I have managed to get to the office and clear my head before sessions, but with a new respect for abrupt chaotic change.

One of my regular clients is also a stress expert. A tax-time CPA and stock market man. He knows what it is like to let the car inch along a half-mile line for the late-open post office on April 15. Those fun moments in the life of a tax guy have diminished now that one can file electronically, but the neck knots are souvenirs. I had to call him to change his appointment time. (Did you know that all the flooring stores close Nt 5? And cabinet stores are all closed on Mondays? I found out.)

We gotta get you out of the hotel, he said. Thanks for understanding and letting me change your appointment, I said. No problem, he said. Trust me I know how bad stress can get. I used to have a small office at the house. I didn’t use it much but occassionaly especially at tax time. I was working 18-hour days one year because I took on too much. I was at the house and getting ready to go to the office when I could not find my wallet. I looked everywhere. It took hours and I went through everything, the car, the house, the office, and no wallet. Finally I had to cancel all my cards and make an appointment for a new ID. I was so upset.

Next day I go into the home office right after my wife was in there getting something and I see the wallet sitting there right in the middle of the desk. I’m like, you just put the wallet there, right? She says no, and I can’t believe it. I’m like you are playing a joke, right? And she starts to get mad at me and says she didn’t go near the desk. The wallet must have been sitting there in plain sight the whole time I was looking for it and I couldn’t see it.

Well, I got stressed out too, I said. This week I convinced a cabinet guy to open the door of his closed shop so I could pick out a vanity. I took hunnybuns for outpatient surgery and played nurse. Do you know you cannot tie shoes with one hand? Or open jars, shower, or fold laundry, or get the leash on the dog?

The kicker is I went over to the house to get the mail after work one evening. I spent 30 minutes trying to squeeze through stacked furniture to get to the mailbox key hung in the kitchen until I gave up and went back to the hotel. Frustration!

Next day we’re having coffee and hunnybuns looks at my car keys and holds them up. What are these?

When we left from the flood I must have put the mailbox keys on my car key chain and forgot. I am so use to having everything in its place i didn’t even check my car keys. Hiding in plain sight!

Stress really can do bad things to your brain….HA!