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10 Business Mistakes I’ve Made As A Massage Therapist

10 Business Mistakes I’ve Made As A Massage Therapist

“Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

— Winston Churchill

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

— Colin Powell

I couldn’t wait to get out of school.

25 hours a week was all I was going to have to work to make a great living.

It would be so easy, this is why I spent two years in school.

Then I got my first job and went to work. I think I had three patients my first week. Why wasn’t everyone just lining up to get a massage?

I worked in a room adjacent to a gym. All these healthy people that were into fitness and taking care of themselves, why weren’t they booking in?

The following week wasn’t much better.

Why wasn’t it just happening instantly like I thought it would?

Because assuming it would just magically happen was my first mistake. Unfortunately I made other business mistakes along the way. Some big, some small but they were all mistakes that I was clearly not ready for.

Here’s 10 business mistakes I’ve made along the way.

I’m sure there’s a lot more, but these are the ones I can remember.

1. Taking The First Job Offer, Without Actually Looking

I couldn’t believe my luck. I bumped into my sport massage instructor one afternoon and asked about getting involved in sports.

As the conversation progressed, she asked if I had a job lined up after school was done.

I hadn’t yet.

She told me about a great opportunity at a local rec-center. I would have full access to the gym, steam room, equipment, pool, everything. I’d also be working with a kinesiologist who had been at the rec centre for 15 years and had a great client base.

He would also be more than happy to refer people to me.

This was awesome, I don’t even have to look for my first job.

I was set and couldn’t wait to get started.

Once I got out there and got all set up, I had to start networking with the employees. None of them knew who I was, what I was doing, or really knew anything about Massage Therapy. They were willing to put an ad about me in their newsletter that went out every quarter, so there I had a bit of advertising. A friend of mine who owns a decal company made me up a sign for the treatment room, to show people in the gym what was being offered.

Then I’d show up and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Some days people would come in and ask questions, sometimes they’d book in for a massage. I ended up getting one or two regulars that would come in once a week. Some days I would get super excited that I’d have three people booked in.

Other days, there wouldn’t be anyone.

I worked there for about nine months before I had to move on. And it was MY fault. The kinesiologist was a great guy, who did his best to help, my former teacher did everything she could to help, it just wasn’t a good fit for someone fresh out of school with no business experience.

Or maybe it was for someone else, I just couldn’t make it work.

I was so excited to get that first job out of school, I just assumed it would come easily. I didn’t even bother to look for another job at another clinic. I didn’t look to see if maybe there were other places that would be a good fit, where I could be busy right off the bat. I just assumed it would be easy.

It isn’t.

2. Not Starting In A Busy Clinic To Actually Learn The Business Of Massage Therapy

Since starting in the clinic I work at now, it has been a constant learning experience.

Compared to that first job, I have gotten to learn more about the “business” of Massage Therapy as opposed to being a Massage Therapist.

Actually signing a contract with the clinic and realizing the importance of that for both parties involved.

Understanding the mix of personalities in a clinic and how that affects not only the running of the clinic, but also how different people book in.

Getting into billing insurance companies directly and realizing the convenience it brings to patients. And this one is huge. I have seen a significant increase in patients ever since we started doing this. When the patient realizes that they don’t have to pay anything out of pocket and you handle the billing, they will choose your clinic over one that doesn’t.

Taking the time to understand how rent, tax and other deductions are all calculated has been a steep learning curve since starting there.

All things I should have learned earlier in my career.

3. Being Timid About Re-booking Patients

I really struggled with this early in my career.

Then one day I had a conversation with a local Chiropractor who runs a very successful clinic and has Massage Therapists working there.

He told me that one of the biggest mistakes he sees Massage Therapists make is when they concern themselves with what a patient can afford. Our job as therapists is to lay out the best treatment plan possible for the patient. If you say they need to see you twice a week for the next three weeks and then tell you they can’t afford it, alter the plan.

He backed that up with a story about a patient that had gone to a specialty clinic for some specific work. When they layed out the treatment plan it was very sporadic. Once they found out the patient had insurance coverage, the treatment plan changed dramatically and the patient was given better care.

The patient was understandably confused and didn’t go back to that clinic again.

Our concern (especially in patient centred care) is what’s best for their health, so give them the best possible plan for their recovery.

All too often I would be concerned about the patient’s finances when considering re-booking them. I’d say things like “well if you can afford it, I’d like to have you come back next week”.

Little did I realize that by communicating like this, I was losing the patients confidence in me.

Remember, you are the therapist and the patient is coming to you for your skills and knowledge.

Only worry about their pocket book if they bring it up.

4. Listening To The “Myths” I Heard From Other Therapists

The myths in Massage Therapy aren’t just around the therapy end of things.

They are also around who to work with.

All too often I’ve heard about therapists who had bad experiences in dealing with insurance, lawyers and workers compensation companies.

While the stories are true and some therapists have been stung by not getting paid, it doesn’t mean this happens every time. I know some clinics around town who are very successful in dealing with some of these insurance companies and make a good living off of referrals coming in from them.

Early in my career I would avoid these type of things like the plague because of the stories I’d heard.

Last year for the first time I entered into a “Direction To Pay” agreement with a local lawyer. The agreement is between the lawyer and myself, not between me and the patient. When he has people come in who have been in a car accident, he refers them out to healthcare professionals that he uses exclusively.

When the patient comes in to see me, they sign a contract which is then signed by the lawyer. When their claim is settled, the lawyer (not the patient) pays me out of the settlement.

Most of the stories I heard where this goes bad is when the patient calls the therapist and wants to negotiate a reduction in pay after the settlement. In these cases it is usually the patient who has made the agreement with the therapist, not the lawyer.

While it does take time to get paid from these agreements, it has filled my practice and made me busier than ever before.

I truly wish I had started doing this right out of school. It would have brought me more patients and I would have a steady stream of recurring income from a consistent source.

5. Not Getting Proper Accounting Advice

I’m not good with money.

I find managing money, balance sheets and accounting software confusing and frustrating.

I’m five years into my career and am just now starting to look at how to properly budget to make sure my finances are completely taken care of. Back when I first started I would just take my books to an accountant once a year to get my taxes done.

I am ALWAYS shocked at how much I end up owing.

At the start it wasn’t quite as important because I wasn’t busy. It was simpler to just take things in at the end of the year and have someone deal with it.

It was a terrible approach. It never made me understand where money was going, or where money was coming in from and I was never prepared to pay that tax bill.

Using a proper accountant and book keeper has helped to change all that. Now I can delegate a lot of that work and the accountant keeps me up to date on when things are due. I get regular communication about when quarterly taxes coming, how much is due and what things are good to spend money on business wise.

I’m also fortunate as I can just email back and forth with the book keeper regarding business questions, email receipts and she doesn’t tear me a new one when I walk into her office with a pile of unorganized junk that she has to figure out.

Now that we are working on a proper budget it should keep me in better financial shape for the future.

Had I started doing this from day one, I would be in much better financial and business shape today.

6. Not Having Another Job To Make Ends Meet

This is especially important if you’re just starting out.

Things are going to be slow while you build your practice. Even if you start in a busy clinic, you’re not going to be booked solid right from the start. Plus you have the added stress of student loans and the fact that you probably haven’t made a dime while you were in school.

There is no shame in having another job to support you while you build your practice.

When I first started in that rec-centre half the time I had do idea where I was going to get the money to pay the bills for that month and even had to borrow money from my parents at the start (and I hated that).

Then an opportunity came and I got my job working in dispatch with the fire department.

You have no idea the relief that brought. I was working construction on the weekend, just to get enough money to pay bills for that month when I found out I got the job. It was like I had just hit the jackpot.

I could schedule my clinic hours to work both jobs and this way had some money coming in while my practice was building. Even after starting at the busier clinic I kept working the dispatch job. Fortunately my clinic owner was understanding and would help me work around those shifts.

On average I would work 36 hours a week in dispatch and about 30 in the clinic.

Every Friday for about two years I would work in the clinic from 11am – 5pm, then head straight to the dispatch job and work 6pm-6am. Then another two shifts in dispatch between the weekend or during the week.

It was a lot of work, but eventually I was able to back off the hours at the other job as my practice grew.

Now I just work the dispatch job one or two shifts a month, and more because it interests me, not because I have to.

Don’t be afraid to pick up extra work while your practice builds, it will make you appreciate things when you’re busy that much more.

7. Thinking “Giving Away Free Massages” Was Good Marketing

This may be one of the worst things I did when I started out.

I would put up posters around the rec-centre promoting coming in for half price massages and did a bunch of them for free. My thinking was that I just needed to get people through the door, no matter how much the treatment cost.

It was terrible.

While I thought it was a good marketing ploy, all it did was open the door to people who didn’t want to actually pay for anything. One man during the treatment asked how long my schooling was. When I told him it was two years, he said “my son went to school for four years to be a welder and only gets $30 an hour, how the hell do you think you’re worth $90 with only two years of school?”

Most of the people I treated at a discount, expected their next massage to be the same price or cheaper and refused to pay full price.

While I still donate some time to sports teams and am willing to give out gift certificates for fundraisers when requested, I won’t market myself by doing discount massage ever again.

I also believe I was just cheapening the profession by doing that.

8. Not Networking Properly

A friend of mine invited me to a networking breakfast that he went to every week to see if it could help drum up some business.

I went to my first BNI meeting. There was a cost for breakfast (and for membership if you sign up), but there was a large group of people there who met regularly to refer and create business for one another. I thought it was  a good enough idea, so I signed up for a year with a chapter closer to where I worked.

While I made some great friendships, it didn’t end up creating a lot of business for me (however I know several people who swear by it for their business).

I should have been trying to network with local healthcare professionals instead.

Reaching out to local Chiropractors, Physiotherapists and Doctors would have brought greater returns than what I was doing. Once I started dealing with other healthcare professionals and communicating with them effectively, I started having more patients referred to me.

Now when I say networking properly, this doesn’t just mean the initial introduction. It’s an on-going process. Following up on the referrals and reporting back what you found and what you did with each patient grows a stronger relationship with those other practitioners.

If one of them sends you a patient, send back a thanks along with a report of what you did.

When you start comparing notes back and forth, they will be more likely to keep referring to you.  

But make sure you return the favour.

If you get someone in who could use the help of a Chiro or Physio, make sure you refer back to them as well.

Photo by: Maryland GovPics

Photo by: Maryland GovPics

9. Not Asking For Referrals

This is something I still struggle with, but continue to work on.

The biggest marketing advice I was given in school was: “just give the best damn massage you can to every patient, you never know who they’re going to tell”.

While we live in a digital age now, word of mouth is still one of the best marketing tools out there.

Don’t be afraid to ask your current patients for referrals. If they start talking about a friend who’s injured, explain what you can do to help, tell them a story about how you helped someone else with the same issue.

If they’re a regular patient, they obviously have faith in you and what you can do. So let them tell their friends about you.

Usually people are only too happy to make the referral, sometimes they just need a little nudge to remember to do it.

10. Not Being Active On Social Media

I’ve been studying and reading a ton about this over the past couple of years.

Social media is probably the most cost-effective tool you can use to promote yourself and your business. The only real cost is time and when you’re just starting out, you have lots of it.

Social media platforms are a free place to do business.

Facebook is the place to start connecting with your patients, it allows them to communicate directly with you as a therapist. Every time they interact on your business page with shares and likes, it opens you up to be able to market to their friends when they see this interaction taking place.

You can also set up ads and messages to reach a target audience, which you can structure to appeal to certain demographics. So you can actually aim your marketing at specific groups that you would like to have as patients.

Twitter is a great way to start interacting with local businesses and potential customers. Be a curator of content and provide useful information about Massage Therapy to start building a following in your community.

Use Linkedin to start connecting with local professionals in your area. Use it to grow business to business associations. You can also use it to blog about your practice and grow awareness about it in the business community.

There is so much more to being a Massage Therapist than just giving a great massage. You have to be a business person, marketer, accountant, networker and social media personality. It is just as important to learn how to run a business and be a sole proprietor as it is to learn a new technique at your next continuing ed course. In fact, there should be some solid continuing ed courses just on being in business. I’ve made lots of mistakes in my career, but at least with every mistake there is also a learning opportunity. Take the time to track what you’re doing for marketing and make sure you’re getting a solid return, whether it’s attending networking functions, volunteering your time or working directly with insurance companies. And even if you have a busy practice, you should still continue to market yourself. Even McDonalds still has to advertise.

As the creator of the site, I hope you like what you’re reading. I’m a Registered Massage Therapist in Victoria BC, former Massage college clinical supervisor, First Responder instructor, hockey fan and volunteer firefighter. Come hang out on the facebook page, where we can share some ideas about how to improve the perception of the Massage Therapy industry.

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Jamie Johnston

Founder at The MTDC
As the creator of the site, I hope you like what you’re reading. I’m a Registered Massage Therapist in Victoria BC, former Massage college clinical supervisor, First Responder instructor, hockey fan and volunteer firefighter. Come hang out on the facebook page, where we can share some ideas about how to improve the perception of the Massage Therapy industry.
Jamie Johnston
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  1. Allissa Haines March 9, 2016

    I LOVE this list. Except for #7, Thinking “Giving Away Free Massages” Was Good Marketing.

    Sometimes, a carefully calculate free massage is a GREAT idea. But it needs to be done strategically. Giving gift certificates to other local business owners, chosen based on their potential to be great referral partners, can be a brilliant marketing decision.

    • Jamie Johnston March 9, 2016

      I agree with you there Allissa, I still give gift certificates as donations to events/silent auctions etc when requested. But when I first started out, I was giving free massages thinking I could just get more people in the door. Those people that took advantage were NOT my customer as they weren’t willing to pay for another appointment.

    • Jeffrey Rich July 28, 2017

      I’d have to agree that #7 is not always bad: I did this when I first started 18+ years ago. I still have 2 clients who see me regularly. One of them has come to me weekly for 18+ years now. BEST business investment I ever made. Yes, I gave away a lot of massage that year, AND I’ve made it up handsomely with the loyalty of these two dedicated clients.

  2. BEAUTY OLOFUDE January 7, 2019

    I am happy I read this because I am on the same pedestal right now. This information has given me some knowledge on how to manage things right from the begining as a start up. I was wondering how you coped with working in the clinic and going to work till the next morning. How did you cope with that? I am struggling with meeting up with marital responsibilities and the working hours but with your experience I will figure out what to do to meet up with the bills and be available at home. Thanks and God bless for this info.

    • Jamie Johnston January 12, 2019

      It was tough to keep that schedule up, but knew I had to do it in order to be successful. In the long run it worked out well for me to have something else for income while I built my practice. Fortunately it was only a couple of times a week where I had to put those hours in, so only had to cope with it a little while.


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