I’ve been self-employed for most of my 15 years in massage therapy. One of the joys — and great frustrations — of building your own business is figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.
When I first graduated and started my own practice, I was unknown and living in a massage-saturated area full of qualified therapists. Wanting to find a way to differentiate myself as a practitioner, I chose to adopt a no-tipping policy. Additionally, I wanted to be taken seriously as the health care professional that I was. I simply couldn’t think of a single health care professional who had a tipping policy in their office — except for my fellow massage therapists. Eventually it struck me that as a profession, we were out of step with the rest of the health care field. And if I couldn’t convince the whole industry to change, I knew I could at least convince my clients that this was important.
Time to Start Taking Tips?
Eventually, my client base grew to a point where I needed to expand, and I took a lot of the lessons I learned and policies I adopted as a solo practitioner into my new role as a small-business owner. Including that rare-but-popular no-tipping policy.
Of course, that meant I had to pay my therapists well enough that their careers could be financially sustainable too. Not unlike other professions, massage therapists are often undervalued and underpaid. As a result, we rely on a uniquely American model of tipping to make up that gap and compensate people for their hard work. This model, though, puts the responsibility of the employee’s paycheck on the consumer, rather than on the corporations which are already profiting from their employees.
To address this, I pay my therapists a fair, living wage. The cost of living in the Dallas area, where my practice is located, is relatively low, and at Soma Massage Therapy, recent graduates earn a minimum of $35 for every 60-minute session. Our more senior therapists earn much more. This is more than double what most spas and massage studios in our area pay their therapists, and relieves them of the financial stress of needing to ask for tips, giving them more brain cells and energy to just focus on their clients. When payday comes around, our independent contractor therapists know exactly how much their paychecks are going to be. No more stress when good tippers cancel, or when bad tippers show up on your table. Payday is reliable, consistent, and exactly what a health care professional should be able to expect.
Clients Stress About How Much to Tip for Massage
Having a no-tipping policy reduces the stress for our clients, too — and isn’t that the goal of every massage session anyway? Massage can be expensive for many people, and adding the extra expense of a tip can add more stress, too. When our clients are in the middle of a session, we should create a space that allows them to be focusing on releasing their trigger points instead of balancing their checkbooks, trying to figure out how much they can or can’t afford to tip their favorite massage therapist. “If I can’t tip her as much today as I did last time, is she going to think she did a bad job? But if I tip her more, then I can’t afford that follow-up appointment quite as soon. I guess I’ll just have to come back in two months instead of one….”
Additionally, I’ve found that by adopting a no-tipping policy at both of my massage studios, I’ve cultivated a mindset among our clients that massage is medicine, and something that needs to happen on a regular basis. Just like going to the doctor, the chiropractor, the dentist or your physical therapist, these appointments need to be kept regularly in order to encourage optimal health. Massage deserves to be seen in the same light. Adding a tip puts us squarely in the service industry and encourages people to think of a massage as a special treat instead of as a wellness practice in the health care field, where it truly belongs.
As a result, we have a very low turnover rate when it comes to both our staff and our clients. Therapists join our team and usually stick around for years because the pay is good, reliable, and reflects both their professional training and their cost of living. Clients regularly rebook with us and tell their friends about us because they understand that this is a legitimate and reasonably priced health care need.
When It Was Time to Raise Rates….
Figuring out how to balance my overhead costs for my business with my financial responsibilities to my family is what helped me determine our rates of service. Eventually, though, those rates needed to change. After many years of running a small business, the price of just about everything had increased — from the cost of rent and supplies to our scheduling, billing, and card processing software — plus the raises that I kept giving my well-deserving team made my profit margin that much smaller. We raised our rates slightly to reflect these increased costs, but made sure to explain to our clients that we were still going to maintain our no-tipping policy.
To no one’s surprise, the vast majority of our clients agreed, and appreciated our honesty. I’ve always told them that we’ll never ask for a tip, but when we need to raise our rates to keep the lights on, we’ll let them know. Being that most of our clients are hard workers too, they understood the need and respected this decision.
As Maggie*, a retiree and long-time client of Soma Massage Therapy told me, “Honey, it’s better that you raise your rates and keep your no-tipping policy than expect us to start tipping your therapists. It just cheapens your brand and makes it more expensive for us when we have to tip, anyway. This is good what you did here.”
Sustainable and Beneficial
I won’t lie: It’s nice in the short term to be able to leave work at the end of the day with a pocket full of cash. But in the long term I’ve been able to build a more sustainable business with long-term, committed therapists and a low turnover rate among staff, and loyal clients who understand the health benefits of coming back regularly and treating massage in the same way that they would treat any other wellness practice — which is more beneficial for everyone anyway.
As I explain to everyone who walks in the door, “If you wouldn’t tip your physical therapist or chiropractor, why would you tip us?” Massage therapists belong in the health care field, not in the service industry, and that’s why my team doesn’t —and never will — accept tips.
About the Author
Amber Briggle (she/hers) is a massage therapist and the owner of Soma Massage Therapy in Denton, Texas. She is also the mother of two, including a transgender child. Briggle volunteers with the Human Rights Campaign and with the League of Women Voters of Texas. She wrote “LGBTQ People Need Massage Too: 4 Ways to Welcome a Diverse Clientele.”