Dealing with problem massage clients

At some point during your massage career, you will run across clients who present problems.

Even the best massage therapist has days containing miscommunication, unrealistic expectations, inappropriate requests—and clients who just aren’t happy no matter how far the therapist bends over backward.

Clear expectations

When clients are late, overly demanding or question rates, just to name a few potential problems, it can trigger us to react or overreact, which doesn’t help anyone.

It’s human nature to get defensive when we are confronted, but in business the customer is (almost) always right.

To head off problems before they arise, we need to be clear about what we expect from clients, what our policies are, what our rates are and what our clients can expect from us. If we are unclear about our exact policies, how can we expect a client to follow them?

Having written forms and policies makes it easier and more comfortable for you to create strong boundaries and enforce those boundaries with clients. You can rely on the language in your cancellation policy and your consent-and-waiver form to make difficult conversations easier and avoid discomfort.

If your cancellation policy is clearly spelled out on your website, displayed near your front desk and part of your intake paperwork, there’s much less room for misunderstanding.

Lisa Fraley, who is an attorney, legal coach and author of Easy Legal Steps… That Are Also Good For Your Soul, says, “If you’re working with a new client, you always want to start your relationship off on the right foot.

You want your client to know basic information about your massage therapy services so that you both are on the same page from the start.”

“You want to find out why they are coming in for the massage—for pure relaxation, for relief of specific muscle tension, for a particular medical reason—and you want them to feel as comfortable as possible during your session so they can experience the best results,” Fraley adds. “One of the best ways to avoid miscommunication and headaches with clients is to use a consent-and-waiver form specifically designed for massage therapists.”

In addition, having a clear cancellation policy posted in your massage room, recorded as part of your voicemail message and included as part of your consent- and-waiver form raises awareness about any fees you charge for missed appointments.

The unrealistic

Despite clear communication and written policies, problems can still come up. Handling them professionally and graciously is best for everyone.

The good thing is you will know what to say because you’ve thought through potentially problematic situations.

You’ll also have your boundaries and policies in place. Don’t overlook what might seem like insignificant details, because all details pertaining to client communication are significant.

For example, if you run regular discounts but then feel uncomfortable with clients asking for a reduced rate, you might need to look at your offers and make sure you are communicating clearly. Things like clear offer dates, use-by dates and how many times an offer can be used can help.

I had $5-off coupons in my area once, and a client brought in five at one time. The therapist working that day took $25 off her bill. I should have clearly stated one per customer and one per service.

The best way to handle most of the common issues that come up is to smile, clarify the situation, offer what you can within your abilities and then let it go. Be kind and clear. It isn’t anything personal against you if a client asks for a discount or won’t pay your rates.

For example, a client might ask for a special rate that doesn’t apply to her session. I might say, “Susan, just to make sure I’m understanding correctly, you would like to come back in two weeks, but you are asking for my super savers price, is that correct?”

If she says yes, I would respond with, “I am so glad you enjoyed your service and would like to return. The super savers rate was a one- time offer that has expired, and currently I have a $75 one-hour rate or a prepaid package that offers a discount when you commit to regular sessions. Which one will work for you?”

Keep in mind that just because you create a policy it doesn’t mean you always must enforce it; however, the policy creates a situation where you get to decide which decision to make.

If a regular client forgets one appointment, you can choose to make an exception and not charge him for the missed session.

The demanding

Handling a demanding massage client

What about those clients who just don’t seem happy no matter what we do? There’s a good chance they are just having a bad day, and they might even end up being your biggest fan if you handle the situation correctly.

An unhappy client most likely doesn’t feel heard, and he might also feel very emotional.

I know I have had days when I was stressed and anxious and took it out on the wrong person, like the receptionist at the doctor’s office who was just trying to do his job.

Most people who are in a state like this just really want to be heard, so start with listening. Open your mind and listen without being defensive.

Then let the client know that you heard him and apologize that the massage session didn’t meet his expectations. Next, offer a solution that you feel goes above and beyond to remedy the situation.

You might just end up with a loyal customer for life.

For example, at my spa, we had a client who was upset because she wasn’t receiving her full 90-minute massage sessions. She was a client who loved to talk and visit, and it turned out that her therapist was waiting for her while she visited with the receptionist and anyone else who was around, instead of letting the client know that the room was ready.

Thankfully this client let us know there was a problem. We addressed it by telling the therapist to communicate directly with the client as soon as the session room was ready.

Sometimes we don’t know there is an issue until we see a negative review online.

This is another opportunity to learn and create a positive experience for a customer or potential customers who see the review. You can acknowledge the client’s concern, highlight your business and offer a solution.

For instance, if you were responding to a person who wrote a negative review because she arrived late for an appointment and so only received 35 minutes of a 50-minute massage you could say, “Thank you so much for your feedback, Helen.

I am sorry that our service didn’t meet your expectations. We always end appointments on time out of respect for our clients’ schedules.

We would like to offer you your next appointment at half price and, we look forward to helping you achieve perfect health.”

This response will show that you are professional and caring, and that you care about your customer’s happiness. (Tip: wait 24 hours to reply to an online review if it is upsetting to you. This will help ensure clear, professional communication.)

It’s hard to not take complaints personally; after all, we put our hearts, minds and hands into our massage.

But chances are if a client is honest enough to share a concern with us, other clients have probably had similar concerns and just haven’t said anything.

If we can set our egos aside, a complaint can really be a gift as it can allow us to see an area that needs improvement.

The inappropriate

What about sticky situations like a client coming in intoxicated or asking for a happy ending?

First, let’s talk about screening your calls. I’m in several Facebook forums and see posts from therapists faced with these kinds of problems regularly. A lack of a good screening process is usually evident.

I recommend confirming the appointment by phone and asking a few basic questions, such as: What is your main reason for booking? Do you have a problem or condition you would like me to work on? Have you had massage before? What style of massage do you expect? How often have you received massage?

Look for red-flag comments, such as “I really want my entire body touched” or “I’ll take whatever you want to give me” or anything else that makes you uncomfortable. If you are not comfortable, you can decline the booking.

It’s up to you. Just say, “It doesn’t look like I will be able to accommodate you” or “I don’t think this is a good fit. Have a nice day.” Yes, you could be wrong—but in my 22 years of experience, every time I don’t follow my intuition, I end up in an uncomfortable situation. It’s not worth the money.

Even with all those precautions, we can still end up with a client asking for sexual services, and this is one of the most stressful and uncomfortable situations for a massage therapist.

First, it usually catches us off guard, and secondly, it’s offensive to be asked to do “that” kind of massage.

Being prepared can go a long way in helping you handle these situations and stay safe. You can have a zero- tolerance policy (since the client has signed paperwork covering this in your intake) and end the session immediately, or you can give the client one chance and clearly state that you only offer nonsexual therapeutic massage and see if he or she will cease the inappropriate behavior.

Decide how you will proceed and practice what you will say. You might say, “I do not offer those services, as you know from my intake policies.

This session is over and you will need to leave.” Or, “I provide a nonsexual, therapeutic massage, and I won’t work with anyone who is behaving inappropriately. Is that clear?” Continue if you feel comfortable.

If you feel uncomfortable, end the session and leave the room.

In charge

During your career as a massage therapist, you will encounter clients who require extra attention, deep listening or unyielding boundaries. Remember, you are in charge of your business, your practice and your life.

By creating clear, written policies; practicing compassion and composure; and making quick decisions when discomfort is present, you will succeed as a small-businessperson and health care provider—and you will enjoy the satisfaction that comes from serving clients from a place of polite, empowered professionalism.

Gael Wood has more than 22 years of experience in the massage and spa industry. She now concentrates on training massage and spa therapists in business, spa services and greater success. Visit her website for a complimentary Massage & Spa Success Toolkit.