Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, October/November 2006. Copyright 2006. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Miscommunication costs you. A poor turn of phrase can lead to awkward moments, misunderstandings, angry clients, and sleepless nights. It always hurts your practice.
True story: years ago a woman called me for an appointment. There was something about her tone that struck me as unfocused. Concerned she would forget her appointment, I called her up the night before and said, "Hey, it's Robert. I'm just calling to confirm our appointment for tomorrow morning for 11 to 12."
"Got it!" she replied.
I thought that was as clear as crystal on concrete. I was wrong. At 11:15 the next morning, I got her answering machine. I fantasized about putting up a sign on my office door reading "I was here. You weren't!" Instead, I went for an early lunch before my next appointment. My next client was getting on the table when the woman and her husband, a pair of angry rhinos, came charging down the hall at me. "Where were you?" she said. "You changed the appointment on me but I was here just like you said, at eleven minutes to 12!"
Forever after when I make a confirmation call, I always say "a.m." or "p.m." after the named time.
We're often at a loss for words when we talk with our clients about their care. This article is a shortcut to finding effective words to build your practice. We need an effective vocabulary to help our clients enhance their experience with massage therapy; having a few key phrases on hand helps immensely in solidifying those therapeutic relationships.
Understand that I'm not advocating using "lines." Lines are used to deceive, typically by unimaginative people in bars at closing time. The aim here is to suggest a "rap." A rap is a reliable, prepared construct that helps you communicate more effectively with your clients. Let's take a look at some examples below and see how you can integrate these words and phrases into your interaction with clients.
- "To help the effect of the massage last longer, I suggest ..."
You'll be busy faster if your clients know you want to help them receive the healthful benefits of massage not just while they are lying on your table, but between appointments, too.
You're a muscle expert. Don't be shy about helping your clients feel good all the time by encouraging simple, slow, gentle stretches they can incorporate into their lifestyles. If you are parachuting into their lives for just an hour and not suggesting how they can optimize their massage experience, they will look upon you as a pump they visit to fill up on relaxation, which will then evaporate shortly after they rush out the door.
Chiropractors have been talking to their clients about the "chiropractic lifestyle" for years, but stretching and living healthily aren't a monopoly owned by any one profession. It's time we got on board, or forever be classified as an add-on frill. Most important, by encouraging our clients to enjoy such exercise--because good stretching should also feel good--we're increasing the value of our work.
- "You may experience some discomfort twenty-four to forty-eight hours after a massage. Everybody reacts differently to massage treatment, but, in the event you do have discomfort, here are some strategies to use ..."
I follow up with suggestions on how they can use heat, ice, and specific remedial stretching to feel better faster.
Two things are crucial on this point:
1. Make sure they hear your warning before you begin to treat them. My clients read it on my intake form and then they hear it again from me before their session. If you try to give them this same information after they call you up the next day hurting, disappointed or even angry, any of your words will be wasted breath.
2. Write down your stretching or hydrotherapy instructions. I use a booklet with a carbon copy--the original goes with them and the carbon copy goes into their file. Alternatively, send them off with a handout. With the information in hand instead of sifting through their heads, your clients won't wonder later when to use heat or ice.
- "Where you feel discomfort during or after the massage is an excellent indication of where your body wants you to stretch to consolidate the gains you receive from massage. Think of it as biofeedback from your body."
If they do feel discomfort after a session, this reframes it in a positive and useful light right away.
I also give clients handouts to help them understand their pain and follow up with a phone call after their session if they are new. This probably won't come up often, but guarding against it will boost your clients' confidence that they've made the right choice in seeing you for help.
If sore clients do complain often, maybe you should check in with them more often about your pressure. Don't be a cookie cutter therapist going only to one depth. Many people benefit from lighter treatment and if depth of pressure has a therapeutic end, it may have to be attained slowly over several sessions, depending on each individual's sensitivity, tonus, and condition.
Let's face it, some people want really heavy pressure. It's a common public misconception that it has to hurt to work. So tell them, "This is not a test of your manhood. Too much pressure too fast will end up making the muscle contract."
Here's one from the trenches of inexperience: A martial artist came to see me because he wanted to increase his body awareness. He complained that his training was so intense, he didn't feel much of anything anymore. He figured heavy pressure was the way for him to get back in touch again. This was an unusual request, but hey, you can't anticipate everything. I was too eager to please and maybe took his statement as a bit of a challenge, too.
Fast forward sixty minutes. He's definitely feeling his body, but not in a good way--more of a bruised way.
Fast forward thirteen years. Today if I were working with that client I would suggest we start with light pressure, maybe craniosacral therapy. I would have him use his body awareness to try to meet me at least halfway, giving him something more subtle to detect instead of hammering him hard like he was back in the dojo. Here's another magic sentence: "I always try to persuade the body, rather than coerce it." Use often and repeat hourly whenever you're at the massage table.
- "Please lift your left shoulder as you turn over onto your back..." or "Please roll over onto your right side so your left shoulder (gently tapping the left shoulder once) points toward the ceiling and you're facing the aquarium."
Punctuate your sessions with clear instructions for when the client changes position (and of course, just like your mama taught you, always say "Please.")
My clients have these lines ingrained in their consciousness through repetition so they know what comes next. Each session's techniques may vary widely, but the instructions I give them while on the table don't change. Knowing what comes next is reassuring and adds to their sense of security and comfort with the process of massage.
- "Thank you!"
My massage therapist writes "received with thanks" on her receipts as an extra small thing to let me know how much she appreciates my patronage. Some people will be especially good allies in growing and maintaining your practice, either by their referrals, suggestions, or constructive feedback.
We're in an e-mail age, so taking the time to actually write a thank-you note, lick a stamp, and send it via snail mail makes a much bigger and better impression than ever. Thanking someone for their encouragement is good manners which also keeps those frequent referrers enthusiastic about continuing to be your ally. Don't take people for granted just because you're helping them by treating them. They've already paid all they owe you through their fees for your services. They don't owe you their friends and families.
- "I'm sorry."
If you've failed someone or been hurtful with a careless remark on a bad day, explain yourself, but don't try to explain your offense away. Don't give them a written apology. Look them in the eye and mean it. Then let it go. If you figure out how to do the last part, call me and let me know how you do that. I hold grudges and regrets. I'm writing a magazine piece here, not professing perfection. All any of us can do is aim for excellence and acknowledge humbly that some days we will fall short.
Miscommunications happen and it pays to be calm and gracious whenever possible. Massage therapists are often people-pleasers and sacrificers by nature, so it is doubly shocking for us when things go awry. If you work with enough people, it's inevitable. You won't click with everyone. That every day will be sunny is an unrealistic expectation shared among many therapists. About half of all marriages end in divorce. If half the population can break that kind of commitment, we shouldn't be at all surprised that not every therapeutic relationship lasts as long as our careers.
- "Did you want to book your next appointment today or did you want to give me a call?"
Some therapists don't ask about booking the next appointment at all. A few ask with a desperate urgency, "When will you be back?" The first is a wimpy dereliction of duty while the latter reeks of greed for a cabin cruiser.
I give them a choice of booking today, or calling later. This is another punctuation mark in the winding down process (if they haven't already booked weeks to months in advance.) There is no hint in the question that there's any doubt they will return, but they have an out if they don't want to come back. It's direct, but casual. Ask them this question after the session when they are dressed again and before paying you. Don't ask during the session while you're holding their neck.
When you choose to say it, don't say it grudgingly. Sometimes we break our own rules and take someone at the last minute because the rent is looming. Maybe someone calls you up and wants to come in on an expired gift certificate bought under your old fee structure. If you are going to take them, say yes with exuberance. What your customer does not want to hear is a heavy sigh and the tone of a martyr who's tired of being put out. When you say yes, it should be to people who enhance your life and your practice. If they don't, refer to the section on saying "no."
Here's an atrophying muscle massage therapists don't exercise much. We want everyone to like us. We want to be seen as flexible and caring. It's a formula for having way too busy a life filled with people who don't respect your time. Saying no more often will help clear the way for your highest priorities.
Sometimes people don't use the most powerful two-letter word because they're hoping things will magically work out on their own if they remain open to other viewpoints and possibilities.
Suppose you are searching for a new therapist with whom to share space. The space is great and the rent is cheap, but the person you're going to share it with seems overly-demanding or just plain rude. You don't click, but you don't say no because you hope he or she will change. Here's an ugly trip on the reality train: It won't work out. These arrangements often don't work for long when people aren't compatible. Bottom line--respect your own opinion. In the search for employees and officemates, you will have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince or princess. Keep saying "no" to the frogs to get to the people you need around you. Lots of possibilities are just "okay." Love yourself enough to hold out for "fantastic."
When it comes to saying "no" by specifically turning clients down for appointments, here are some tips.
I encourage my clients to reserve their time well in advance of their appointments (preferably booking several sessions in advance.) Sometimes I get a call from a client who wants to get in quick for no particular reason. That's not me anymore. My schedule won't allow it. I don't make my day longer for non-emergencies. If you want to make a clear-cut evaluation on what constitutes a massage emergency, their pain and our prior therapist-client relationship moves me to do what I can to help. Otherwise, this is massage, not dialysis, okay?
When I can't get them in, I say: "I'm sorry I can't accommodate you. I'm booked." (This may mean I'm busy, on vacation, or just don't feel like working today. What's the point of working for yourself if you can't take off when you feel like it, anyway? Never complain and explain.) "I can book you for three weeks from Tuesday, put you on my cancellation list, or suggest a therapist down the road who might be available. What would you prefer?"
Your client has the message. You care and you're doing what you can to make sure they get a session, but you aren't the towel boy available at anyone's whim.
Turning people down makes a lot of therapists nervous. I speak with a lot of massage practitioners and they have two main complaints. The first is that they aren't busy enough. The second is that they are trapped by their success, so tied to their practices they're afraid to take any time off!
Have some confidence in the bridges you have built. Your clients can get a massage from lots of people, but there's only one you. This is why clicking is so important.
Go ahead and refer out. You can't do it all, and you aren't meant to work on everybody. If they don't come back, your schedule is now freed up for people who are really enthusiastic about you. Some Final Thoughts
Write down your own scripts. These are the sentences that you find yourself repeating which make your client nod in recognition of your message and your caring intent.
Communicate as clearly as you can. Accept that communication breakdowns will still happen from time to time because you can't always anticipate how the people you deal with will misread you.
Remember the angry lady rhino who thought it likely I would change her appointment time to eleven minutes to the hour? I'm guessing she probably misinterprets a lot of conversations. I never found out because she never came back ... and yes, in that case, I'm grateful.
I can't give you a script for every situation, nor do you need one. A policy you didn't anticipate needing is no less your policy because you just made it up three seconds ago and haven't written it down yet. There will always be situations where you will have to think on your feet and these can cost you regret if you don't handle them carefully.
Suppose a client asks you for the donation of a gift certificate for a charity which, for political or economic reasons, you choose not to support. If you're feeling pressured, it's better to step back and tell the client you need time to think about it before you formulate your answer. With some breathing room, you may change your mind and give them what they ask or come up with a well-worded, diplomatic refusal. Also know that you can say no without feeling the need to explain yourself.
When refusing a request, it's also not necessary to make the other guy wrong. No one likes to be told they're wrong. Even when the request is unreasonable, it costs nothing to be nice. I've been asked many times over the years to fudge a receipt. I will not commit insurance fraud, so my answer is always, "I can't do that. Sorry." End of discussion, but no hard feelings.
Finally, let your honest, caring intent come through in more than mere conversation. Beyond words, it is your hands-on work that will communicate your professional, caring touch. No more words needed. Robert Chute is a writer and massage therapist in London, Ontario.