Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, September/October 2010. Copyright 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Successful employers, especially those in the corporate world, almost always have a policies and procedures manual that serves as guidance for daily operations. A practitioner who works alone may think that a policies and procedure manual isn't a necessity, but it's actually one of the most useful things you can have.
Any person who has been self-employed for any length of time can vouch for the fact that the unexpected sometimes happens. Having written policies and the procedures in place to fall back on can keep you from acting rashly during an emotional moment and saying or doing something you might regret later.
In the event you have other people in your business, or plan to have them in the future, writing a manual should be at the top of your priority list. From a liability standpoint, being able to prove that a staff member acted contrary to your company policies could be in your favor in the event you're sued. From a common-sense standpoint, it will serve to ensure that all staff members are on the same page and that they're representative of the manner in which you want your business conducted. Having policies and procedures in place is also a measure of protection for your income as a small business owner. Writing Your Manual
A loose-leaf notebook is best; if you decide to change a policy, you can just remove the old page and insert the new. Your policy manual is not going to be the same as mine; every practitioner is going to have their own opinions and desires about how to deal with things. If you're an employer, the question is, "How would I want my staff member to handle this if I wasn't here?"
Also, the shorter and more concise it is, the better. You can go a step further and compose a script for your staff member to use, for instance if she was dealing with a no-show, an accident on the premises, or an unsatisfied client. Take each item on the list, and write a short description of how you would want that situation handled, then compose your script. Ask a few impartial parties to look it over. You want to write policies and procedures that are easy to understand and nondiscriminatory; especially a concern if you employ others. Example: No-ShowsPolicy. Each client will be allowed one no-show without being billed. After one no-show, the client will be billed, allowing for emergency exceptions such as death in the family.
Procedure. Contact clients 30 minutes after the time of the missed appointment. Politely state that they have missed an appointment, ask them to reschedule, and remind them that after one missed appointment they will be billed for no-shows.
Script. Mrs. Brown, this is Paul at Main Street Massage. I had you scheduled for a 2:00 p.m. appointment today, and you missed it. Is everything OK (ask in order to ascertain whether or not there has been a personal emergency)? I can reschedule you for 2:00 p.m. next Tuesday. We won't charge you for today, but I just need to remind you that in the future I'll have to bill you for a missed appointment if I don't get 24 hours notice that you need to cancel. Thank you for understanding, and I'll see you next week.
I chose the no-show policy as an example, because that is the bane of every massage therapist's existence. Every no-show, or last-minute cancellation, equals lost income. While we all want to help people by sharing the gift of massage, most of us need to have a certain amount of money in order to meet our obligations. Just like a child behaving badly who doesn't learn any better if there aren't any consequences, the client has to be educated that you had that hour set aside, and if she doesn't show up, you've just lost your income for that hour. Someone else could have taken the appointment if she had just called to let you know she wasn't coming.
Of course, there's an exception to every rule. You wouldn't bill for a missed appointment if someone was involved in a car accident on the way to the office or so sick that they're hospitalized. Use compassion and common sense when making exceptions.
Your policy may be to charge them for the first missed appointment, or to require a credit card to guarantee the next one; this is just an example of one way to handle it. Whatever you feel comfortable with, create a policy and enforce it. Put your cancellation policy on your intake form. Put it on a sign on the desk, in your newsletter and brochures, and in a place of prominence on your website. Print it on the back of your business cards.
Along the same vein are clients who show up late for appointments. In my clinic, appointments are scheduled to allow the therapist at least 30 minutes between appointments, or more if they choose; my staff members put their own appointment times in the book. If clients show up late, that cuts into their scheduled time--not the next client's. We're not going to make the next client wait because the person scheduled first couldn't be on time. Example: Clients Arriving Late Policy. All therapists should start and end sessions at the appointed time. Clients who arrive less than 15 minutes late will receive the remainder of their session, which will end at the scheduled time, and will pay full price for the appointment. It is at the therapist's discretion whether or not to accept a client who arrives more than 15 minutes late.
Procedure. If clients are more than five minutes late, give them a call to see if they are coming. If you are unable to reach them, wait until 15 minutes past the appointment time before leaving the premises.
Script. Mr. Smith, we'll still have to end your appointment at noon. We can't cut into the next client's time. Or: Mr. Smith, your appointment was supposed to start at 11:00 a.m. Your therapist tried to contact you without success, and our policy is that after waiting 15 minutes, she is free to go home. (If this happens, then use the script above with regard to paying for the missed appointment.)Therapists Who Share Space
If you share space with another therapist who is not your business partner, your employee, or an independent contractor, that person is of course not expected to abide by your policies and procedures. However, it could be a good thing for you to share your manual and to suggest that you might want to voluntarily get on the same wavelength. I know of a number of practitioners who operate in this manner, and more often than not, resentment festers and/or trouble arises when everybody in the same space is doing their own thing. For example, three therapists who are all sole proprietors each rent a room upstairs in a large, former home and have a shared reception area; the downstairs is inhabited by the chiropractor who owns the property.
Although they have assisted each other at times in doing couple's massage, even that has caused dissent, because one of those therapists charges $60 an hour and another charges $30 an hour. The one in the middle charges $50. The chiropractor isn't referring to any of them specifically--he just tells people that there are massage therapists upstairs--and a lot of them gravitate toward the $30 an hour therapist, which of course the other two feel is undercutting their prices in a deliberate attempt to get all the business for herself. It's a recipe for disharmony. And in reality, even though they are not in business together, since they all inhabit the same space, in the eyes of the public they are appearing to be in business together. Asking for a meeting and coming to an agreement on some policies and procedures could potentially improve the experience for all of them.Business Partners
Policies and procedures that have been agreed upon by all partners are an absolute necessity for this type of business setup. One partner might be the laid-back casual type, while the other is a stickler for detail. Compromise and get to common ground. If you can't agree on policy and procedure, you really shouldn't be in business together.
For example, it could create ill will from the public if one of you enforces a no-show policy and the other one doesn't. Or what if one partner is very free-wheeling with giving away gift certificates every time someone solicits a donation for charity, while the other partner feels that there should be a monthly limit on how much you can afford to give away? What if one partner wants to charge a service fee to a client who wrote a check to the business that was returned for insufficient funds, and the other partner doesn't enforce that policy? If you're partners, it's also affecting the income not just for one but for all who have ownership in the business. It's vital that you agree on those types of things and stick to the policies. Employers
Employers need more policies and procedures. You'll want to cover everything from the staff dress code to procedures in case a client does something inappropriate. What if a client claims that a therapist in your establishment was the one to make a sexual comment? Being accused of acting unethically is one of the worst things that can happen to a business, particularly in a small town or rural area where news travels fast. If such an incident does occur, it must be dealt with immediately, before it hurts your entire business. A damaged business reputation, particularly if it concerns unethical behavior, can be an instant blow to your income.
When it comes to staff members, the prime directive is for everyone to be treated equally. Let's say you have the following policy for staff members being late three times in one month: First offense, verbal warning. Second offense, written warning. Third offense, termination of employment. If you enforce that on one staff member, you must enforce it on all, otherwise you are opening yourself to a lawsuit for unjust firing, if the staff member who was let go can prove that you've allowed other employees to get by with it. A Policy For Every Occasion
It may seem silly to have a lot of policies, but you can be confronted with all kinds of situations. For example, one time a client brought a dog into the office, and I had no idea it was in one of the massage rooms. It was not a service animal, either, just the family pet. The massage therapist got an emergency phone call, and when I knocked on the door of the therapy room, the dog went totally ballistic and barked loud enough to scare everyone else in the building. The point: what's your policy for people bringing in pets? I confess I didn't have a policy--until the occasion warranted it.
There are always going to be what ifs. It's better to be prepared to handle those when you've made that judgment call in a calm moment, and educated your staff, instead of when the emergency or uncomfortable situation arises. Policies and procedures can save you a lot of money--not to mention a lot of headaches--so get started on yours right away. Laura Allen is the author of
Plain Simple Guide to Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork Examinations (Lippincott Williams Wilkins, 2009) and
One Year to a Successful Massage Therapy Practice (Lippincott Williams Wilkins, 2008). A third book,
A Massage Therapist's Guide to Business, will be published by Lippincott Williams Wilkins. Allen is the owner of THERA-SSAGE, a continuing education facility and alternative wellness clinic of more than a dozen practitioners of different disciplines in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Visit her website at www.thera-ssage.com.