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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Advice From Strangers

When I was about 2 years into being a massage therapist, I had a stranger going through massage school contact me for advice on being in the biz. They found me through a live journal massage group (which reminds me, I think I have to log into live journal before they delete my username). I was flattered and confused at the same time. It seemed weird to be asking someone so new in the business for advice. It was a class assignment for her and she had a list of specific questions that she emailed me and I could answer at my leisure. They didn’t look too hard, so I did it. I remember trying to answer thoughtfully and I really hoped they were helpful. She, of course, thanked me, but I never heard from her again, so I have no idea how it went. 

Several years later, a massage therapist that I had received a massage from emailed me for advice on how to make it through those first struggling years of being self employed. I thought about this email for a long time and how to answer it. She wanted me to tell her what to do, and I just couldn’t do that. I didn’t know her needs well enough, and frankly it wouldn’t have helped her succeed. When you are self employed, you are the one that makes the decisions, and when you let others decide for you… well, you aren’t happy. I answered her the best I could, but I never heard from her again. I learned later that she gave up on being a massage therapist, which made me sad since she had only been at it 5 months. 

This very evening I had a sales call from my Alma Mater asking for a donation. The gentleman asked what I did for a living as part of their questionnaire and when I told him I was a Massage Therapist he immediately started asking me about it. He too, was thinking of going to school for massage therapy after his undergrad. It got me thinking about how often I get asked for advice from strangers and about what information they are actually looking for. 

These days it’s easy to find advice online, even hire a business coach to help you with all the technical details. There are blogs galore on how you should be and what you should do and how you are probably doing it all wrong. When I think about the advice I wanted when I was starting out, and the advice these strangers asked of me, I wondered what was it they really wanted to hear. 

I think I wanted to hear "we all screw up sometimes, but we learn from our mistakes”, and "even though it feels impossible to imagine this as your full time career, it is something you can do, so keep at it." So, here are some things that I’ve learned in the last decade or so that have helped me be a better massage therapist and a better businesswoman. These PRO TIPS come from personal, if sometimes embarrassing, experience and changed the way I practiced. Some of the lessons are more subtle than others, but all of them make me laugh when I think about them (even though they didn’t when they were happening). 

This is something I did not learn in school, or even given the hint of it occurring. If you have a stool that you put under the face cradle… there is a good chance that your comatose client will mindlessly drool and it will land right where you put your hand to move your chair, or right where you sit when you’re ready to do some neck work. Gross doesn’t even begin to cover it. I now keep clean towels near by and plenty of hand sanitizer (which came in handy when I was later surprised by the lovely odor of CHEESE FEET). 

I work in a building with a back entrance for staff. After a habitually late client no-showed one day, I called to see what was up. It turned out I was in the back chatting away with a staff member and she was up front knocking on the locked door. We are all human and fallible, but unlocking the door is a no-brainer. We had a laugh about it and it worked out for me, but it reminded me to be present for even mundane things when I’m at the office and to laugh at myself every now and again. 

I live in the type of community that doesn’t require you to lock your doors during the day. For years, I never locked the front door of my office (see pro-tip #2) even though I was almost always there alone… until one day a city pipe leaked in the street and the city waterworks guy came in jovially calling hello over and over again… and then proceeded to open every office door including my treatment room until he found someone. It wasn’t a crisis, but he just wanted to make sure it was okay to look at our building pipes… my client wasn’t too perturbed (I was able to save her dignity in time) and I received a heartfelt apology from the workers supervisor. However, I now lock the doors and put up a sign saying I’m in session… even if I’m not expecting anybody.

Sometimes your clients are talkers. In trying to keep my boundaries AND be friendly, I would share what I thought was a TINY tidbit about myself thinking ’they don’t really care, they will forget it in couple of hours', but I have found the opposite to be true. I had a client that asked me if I liked sports. No, not really, but I want to be friendly, so I say “I played basketball in high school, but I don’t really follow sports these days”. A year and half later I saw this client again and all he talked about was basketball and his grandkids… which would be fine, except he then tried to set me up with one (he had a flattering, but inaccurate inference of my age). Other clients will bring up topics (about my dog or getting stuck in a snow bank) that I never remember talking to them about. I see so many people during the day, I can’t remember everything I say. Being vague and non-committal might be the better option here… but really I think it’s best to just let them talk and you just zip it. Obviously, you have to have some conversation, just remember they won’t forget what you said as fast as you will.

I once had a client show up on time for an appointment… according to her watch. Unfortunately, the night before she had just flown in from the east coast AND Daylight Savings started, so she was an hour late. She was extremely embarrassed, and I wasn’t able to squeeze her in for a few days. I started calling people who were ten minutes late to their appointments to “check in with them”. Sometimes they were able to make it to the appointment for a shorter session time and that translated to productive time for me and a super grateful client for still squeezing them in when they obviously made the mistake. Sometimes it pointed out my flaws: "I cancelled that appointment and rescheduled… remember?!” and helped me make changes in my front desk procedure to make sure my schedule was accurate — which dramatically cut down on the desire to demonize clients in my mind and rue the day they were born. That’s never good for morale.

Okay, this is more of an philosophical tip, but I swear by it. There are so many ways to use it. My favorite ways are: get a massage for myself; read massage therapy blogs/groups/articles; search the internet for cool things to get for my office one day; do chores that I bitch about never having time for; going to lunch with my sister; or watching that last episode of New Girl. All these things sound like time wasters or unproductive time, but when I’m busy I never get to do those things and I feel exhausted and drained and detached from my life. These activities all address some aspect of my whole person, not just working person. If I’m feeling overwhelmed by my day, having lunch with my sister (it can be a bag lunch at a park) will rejuvenate me when I’m back in the office. Downtime is good time, don’t waste it by fretting about it so much.

Beefy, garlicky, and peppery do not go away fast enough no matter how much mouthwash or essential oils you use.  The smell just becomes weirder when you add peppermint to that combo. Trust me. Even if your client brought you the venison jerky, just save it for later… much later. 

P. S. Here is a bonus for you: 
It's just polite and it keeps you humble. This goes for clients as well as others that inspire or help you in life. I would be remiss if didn't thank Ginger Glomski for her more "colorful" PROTIPS which not only had me laughing, but inspired this post, and Cindy Iwlew for sharing her blog audience with me and giving me an opportunity to write for others. 

As you can imagine, everyone has a list of things they never thought would affect the way they do business and perhaps even set a path towards success. So, go ahead, make mistakes; learn from them. You can do this. What are your PRO TIPS?

Erin Howk, BS, BCTMB

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