Cherie Sohnen-Moe is a recognized expert in the area of massage business and marketing. She has worked in the massage field since 1978 and is the author of the textbook “Business Mastery” and co-author of “The Ethics of Touch” and “Retail Mastery,” among other titles.
Cherie offers continuing education, practice-building tools, consulting services, and more through the company she founded, Sohnen-Moe Associates. She is also a founding member and former president of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education.
Cherie is also a MASSAGE Magazine All-Star, one of a group of innovative therapists and teachers who are educating the magazine’s community of massage therapists and our print magazine on our social media channels and on massagemag.com.
Karen Menehan: Welcome, Cherie.
Cherie Sohnen-Moe: Thank you, Karen. I’m really excited about this interview.
KM: Me, too. Let’s begin the interview with you telling us why you became a massage therapist.
CSM: I think I was born a massage therapist. Even as a child, I was always the one who was rubbing my parents’ feet and their necks. I went to UCLA in the early ’70s, and that alone says a lot. That was definitely the launch of the personal growth movement. There was a lot of self-exploration going on. I even took a Touch for Health course while I was in college just for my own personal benefit.
My degree is in psychology, and I had taken a couple of special courses in abnormal psych, and we got to do our own projects, so I started studying birth trauma, and that’s where I got introduced to [Frédérick] Leboyer, who did a lot of work on birth trauma. And also that’s when I saw all the work that was being done in these native tribes across the world where they were always massaging their babies, like, from day one. And so that just really piqued my interest in the whole aspect of massage.
One thing led to another and I was doing massage, and actually I was just doing massage for fun. [Then] three friends of mine called up and said, “Cherie, please work on my body. I’ll pay you.” And I was like, “OK.” Again, the ’70s. There wasn’t a lot happening in terms of massage credentialing back then. After about three years, I said, “You know, it looks like I’m doing [massage] for a career. Maybe I should go to school.” So there was that, and that’s how I started.
KM: You were a massage therapist for many years. And then at some point, you switched your focus to business education for massage and wellness practitioners. What was the catalyst for that change?
CSM: Well, it was a two-phased catalyst. First of all, we moved from California back to Tucson. And so I decided to start focusing more on my consulting practice. We didn’t call it coaching in those days, even though that was more of what I was doing. And so that was what I was going to do. But, you know, within two days of living in Tucson, I had four massage clients. So, well, I’ve always just believed in the power of massage. I think it’s really important, and I’ve just always attracted that to me.
And I started writing for a local magazine, which was very challenging for me because I didn’t think I was a writer, but I had been doing these goal-setting workshops in California too. And the woman who started this newspaper had taken my workshop and asked me to write an article about it. And I did, and I got comments. And I didn’t realize back then that’s rare, as you know.
KM: Yes, I do.
CSM: And I had a lot of comments. And so I started a regular column, so I got more comfortable with writing. But in the meantime, I was teaching at the Desert Institute of the Healing Arts and it was really difficult because I was teaching about business, and there weren’t books then.
I mean, there were great business books, but not books that massage therapists, or budding massage therapists, in particular, resonated with. At the time, the most popular books that were the guerrilla marketing books, and those were, and still are, great books. But massage therapists weren’t interested in hearing about battles and tactics and strategies, and so it was very frustrating because I had books with good information. And then on the other hand, I had Shakti Gawain, my personal growth side of me, and it’s like, “How do I balance this?”
And so I was thinking about this, and I had had a client when I was in California who had kept encouraging me to write a book. Remember, back then I wasn’t a writer, but I had all these notes that I had kept from all my work with him. And literally I went home one day and this was sitting up on the top shelf in a notebook and it fell on my head. So I said, “OK, I got the message.” And that’s what launched the first edition of the “Business Mastery” book.
KM: And now “Business Mastery” is in its fifth edition.
You are considered one of the top experts on business and marketing for massage therapists, so I’d really like to look at some of the challenges that therapists are facing right now, especially in light of COVID-19, the coronavirus. It’s obviously created a lot of problems for small-business owners throughout the U.S. And so I’m wondering if you have a perspective on individual massage therapists and if they are reopening how they can do that well — in a way that protects them and their clients.
CSM: I want to start with the basics, because I think it’s the biggest challenge therapists face — particularly right now, but one of the biggest challenges that they tend to face anyway — and that’s communications. Hands-on work, therapists are great — but talking with clients, the follow-up, those kinds of things, for a lot of practitioners that’s not their go-to way of being. They’re kinesthetic. They’re right there. They’re present in the moment.
[Read “Voices of COVID-19: Massage Therapists Share Stories of Challenge & Hope”]
No matter what, whether you’re opening up your practice or not, I think it’s really important to up your communications. Make sure that you’re sending something out. It doesn’t have to be, a 1,000-word dissertation that you’re sending, but just quick little emails, even if it’s a little tip. You know, here’s a little self-care tip for the week, or just something to let them know you’re thinking about them.
You can do something with MailChimp or Constant Contact so that you can automatically send things. And start creating some information that’s valuable that will keep you connected. It’s not salesy. I mean, it’s OK every once in a while to put in something if you have a special that you’re offering.
KM: What can you say to the massage therapists who aren’t back in practice yet?
CSM: If you’re not going into practice yet [because you are pausing for the coronavirus], you could still maybe do some other things. You could still presell some gift certificates or packages.
You could also do some things on Facebook Live or doing some recorded little videos showing someone how to do some self-massage or showing them how to do some things that will help them ease any kind of distress. You just have to be careful, and make sure you stay in your scope of practice, because in some places therapists aren’t even allowed to discuss exercises with people. But wherever you can, you can start doing that.
You could maybe have some kind of special session, a one-on-one session.
KM: What would that look like for a massage therapist? Like showing someone self-massage techniques?
KM: And almost being a massage coach.
KM: Could we circle back to the topic of gift certificates?
KM: I have heard some concern expressed by massage therapists regarding presales of certificates and packages and the financial liability that will be involved with that — such as if they don’t reopen within a certain time frame [fulfilling] the number of packages or certificates they sell.
CSM: In general, I recommend that they put at least half of that money away. Don’t touch it so that it won’t be so hard for them to refund that money.
KM: That makes sense.
CSM: I always recommend people put half of their gift certificate money away so that, let’s say you’ve sold 100 gift certificates and for three weeks in a row, everybody who comes in brings in a gift certificate. That could be devastating to your budget. I don’t like to think of it as free money. It is money that you’re investing and putting away.
KM: What other types of supplemental income would you suggest?
CSM: Retailing. You could sell products to your clients. People can get a lot of things online, but there are some things that massage therapists have access to, higher quality items, than the average consumer’s going to find out there.
KM: And it seems the massage therapist could curate a selection of products and offer those on their own website as well.
CSM: Yes. They could either mail the orders out or they could set up curbside delivery. Look through your client’s files. What are some of the products that would really help them? And then you could put together some little product bundles and sell them to your clients, and they will be grateful.
KM: For people who are reopened, how important is it that they be transparent with information about their new sanitation procedures and that kind of thing? What would that communication look like?
CSM: Transparent isn’t the word. It’s called “Let’s, like, shout it from the rooftops.” First of all, send out an email to everybody. I mean it’s not just what their sanitation protocols are but it’s what they’re also requiring of clients.
Letting them know ahead of time, are you going to require them to wear a mask? Are you going to require them to take off their shoes when they come in? Are you going to be using your digital thermometer to take their temperature? And I’m saying all these things because I’m kind of hoping that people go, “Oh, yeah, that’s right” or, “Yep, I’m definitely doing that.” Let them know ahead of time what you’re doing. Send out an email blast.
I also suggest maybe putting those things on fairly large print and then laminating them and making signs and putting them up in several places in your office, right in the front door when they come in, maybe right by the if you have a reception desk, in each treatment room, in the bathroom so that they can really see, and let them know. But even more importantly than saying what you’re going to do, I think you need to demonstrate. And I say this because of my personal experience: I went to the dentist this week.
A dentist’s office tend to be one of the cleanest places in general — they’re not doing any of the polish. They’re not doing anything that’s going to be aerosolized. So it was a very different kind of treatment. And they say they wiped down things, but I didn’t see it. And I know I would have felt a lot better if before they handed me that clipboard if I saw them wipe it down then.
KM: That’s interesting. I have seen a few different people in the massage field mention that the importance of showing the client the cleaning procedure. So you think that the clients or the customers or the patients then just simply believe it more fully when they see it?
CSM: I know it would’ve put me much more at ease from my personal point of view. Besides the fact I really needed to get my teeth cleaned, I was kind of doing this as an experiment to see how they do that. You know, people staying out in their cars until their appointment, the things. And the really cool shields now it’s in front of the desk instead of just space. So there’s a lot of things that people can do and massage practitioners can do also.
I think that for massage practitioners who have a solo practice, in many ways, I think their clients will feel a little bit more secure than going into a group practice. So in a group practice, I think you need to be even more diligent in terms of sharing what you’re doing.
KM: So there is kind of continuum of varying degrees of security and insecurity on the part of clients, I think, going back to see any kind of health professional at this point. For people who are practicing massage again, are there any ideas or advice that you can offer regarding client retention in addition to that clear communication?
CSM: Well, I think it’s following up, letting them know what you’re doing, asking them if they have questions, calling them beforehand so that they’re not surprised ahead of time by what you’re going to expect of them. And I think good client retention is making sure they know that they’re being required to do things, because I don’t think that that they’ll be as concerned as a massage therapist with your protocols as they are [about] who else is coming into your office.
KM: How could you put someone’s mind at rest regarding that kind of information?
CSM: Well, I know of some therapists what they’re doing is that they are extending the time between seeing clients so that there isn’t an overlap and that there’s time for not just sanitation but for the room to air out. So that’s one way, if you’re doing that, to let your clients know that and to be very diligent about requiring that people come in with masks because I think that’s one of the biggest things. I still have not gone into a store. [My husband] Jim does all the shopping. But he says there’s times he goes in and there’s people in there without masks.
KM: It is interesting how it varies from one geographic location to another.
CSM: So in terms of client retention, in a way, it’s kind of like stepping back. So we talked about, first of all staying in touch doing your emails, sending their tips, doing all that kind of things reminding them of the benefits of massage.
But I also think that … in many ways most of you haven’t seen your clients for months, so you have to sort of treat them like they’re new clients. And what would you do for a new client?
I encourage you to consider maybe doing a new intake interview because first of all, you have new questions now to ask people, and reviewing your treatment plan. Think about them as if they were a new client and what you would be asking, and creating goals, and creating that enthusiasm again. Especially your clients who are coming in once a week and if they haven’t had bodywork in three months, yeah, there’s going to be different things going on.
KM: There’s a lot of information coming out, too, about the levels of anxiety and depression among the general public. So I think there’s probably going to be a wave of clients presenting with those conditions.
CSM: Absolutely. And I think that if you can I would plan an extra 20 to 30 minutes for the first time one of your clients comes back so that, again, you treat it like a new one. You redo the intake interview. You do your massage. You sit with them afterward and talk about what you’ve discovered, create together a treatment plan for what their new goals are.
Some of them will be the same, but there will probably be some new goals. And then one of the keys of client retention is to send them home with a copy of their treatment plan.
Following up with a call, a text, or an email a couple of days after their first session of being back just like you would probably do with a new client, reminding them, “It’s so good to see you again. Do you have any questions? Is there anything that’s come up since your session that I need to take note of so I can make sure we address that next time?” Just to let them know that you really are thinking about them and you have their well-being at heart.
It’s time to really get out there and share the beauty and magnificence of this work and particularly after a time where people have been so touch-deprived. We’ve been labeled a touch-deprived culture anyway. Now, it’s horrible, but people know they’re missing [touch] now.
It’s important for everybody to get involved and say, “What do I want the future of my profession to be?” So it’s not just your career path. It’s your profession. And so I really encourage you to be looking at that. But along with this, Karen the other aspect of this pandemic is that it’s been devastating for so many people.
There’s no denying that there’s a lot of people that are losing their homes and can’t feed their families. And yet, for a lot of people, what’s happening is there’s an incredibly deep re-evaluation of their lives and deciding what’s really important. How do they want to live their lives? And how do they want to work? Who do they want in their lives? These are questions that I’ve always encouraged people to be looking at anyway. And now, we’re looking at them in such a deeper, deeper way.
So I encourage people to just really dive deeply. And when you surface be prepared to take action and to be successful in whatever career path you take, whatever you decide to do, if you decide to come back to a full practice, to a part-time practice, if you decide, “Well, maybe I want to just teach.” Whatever you decide to do, there are lots of options.
We will always need massage, and we need massage more than ever. The only thing is the challenge is what this going to look like in the next six months to a year. I’ve always had this kind of big-picture philosophy. And it’s like, well, if we can ride this out, we’ll be OK. So if you can, ride this out. And if you can’t ride this out and you need to do something else, maybe you can do something to diversify your practice so that you don’t have to totally stop your practice.
KM: And I guess that’s the thing right now is that we can’t see the future. We don’t know exactly what the next six to 12 months will look like, but massage therapists and all of us can put our energy and focus and attention on moving forward positively in some direction.
CSM: And the interesting thing is that it’s really no different. When you ask what do they need to do differently, nothing really differently — they just need to be doing it, which they might not have been doing to begin with.
KM: Are you talking about marketing and communication?
CSM: Marketing and communication but even the sanitation protocols. Yes, we’re having to up them but, in general, sometimes I think people have been getting sloppy and this is just a wake-up call to not be sloppy.
KM: I mean, honestly, I’ve received massage therapy for many years, and I know the blanket’s been reused. I know there’s been, like, a sheepskin thing on the chair, and just all kinds of things like surfaces that can’t really be cleaned. And I never thought anything of it until learning myself about disease transmission and what’s going on with COVID. So things will look different.
CSM: But the communication, Karen, like we said, that’s really, I mean, that’s always, that’s always what’s important and reminding yourself, “Well, so why did I really get into this field in the first place? What was it that I was hoping to do as a professional — but in the bigger picture, what was I hoping to do to make a difference in people’s lives, and how can I continue to do that?”
KM: That is an important message. We are getting toward the end of this interview, and is there anything else at all you’d like to tell our audience of massage therapists?
CSM: I know it may sound a little trite but just be true to yourself. Have faith in yourself and go back, especially if you’re still on hold, take that time to do all the things you’ve been putting off in your practice. Review your forms. Update things. Get things in place so that when you go back to practice it’ll be really easy to follow up with clients and do that kind of client retention work.
But the biggest picture for me is also to just be true. What do you really want to be doing? And it’s really OK to change if you decide you want to change, or if you decide you want to, like, “I really want to get in there now and I want to have a full-time practice.”
Maybe this whole lack of touch has really sparked a whole new appreciation for just the power of healthy touch and how it can make such a difference in people’s lives. And that’s the biggest thing. That’s why I’ve stayed in this whole field even though I haven’t been in practice for quite a while. I love massage. There’s nothing like it. I mean, there’s all sorts of great things out there and different things help people in different ways, but there’s nothing like getting healthy touch.
KM: I agree.
Thank you so much for your time today. This has been the “MASSAGE Magazine” interview with Cherie Sohnen-Moe. You can learn more about her CE and books and other products at sohnen-moe.com. Thank you, Cherie.
CSM: Thank you, Karen.
Cherie Sohnen-Moe is helping MASSAGE Magazine celebrate 35 years in publication by offering 35% off all products on her website to members of Massage Magazine Insurance Plus.
About the Author:
Karen Menehan is the editor-in-chief of MASSAGE Magazine. Visit massagemag.com/all-stars to learn from MASSAGE Magazine’s All Stars, including Erik Dalton, Whitney Lowe, Tom Myers, Gael Wood, James Waslaski, Irene Diamond, Til Luchau and Anita Shannon.
About Cherie Sohnen-Moe:
Cherie Sohnen-Moe is a recognized expert in the area of massage, business and marketing. She has worked in the massage field since 1978 and is the author of the textbook “Business Mastery” and co-author of “The Ethics of Touch” and “Retail Mastery,” among other titles. Her books and marketing materials are offered through her business, Sohnen-Moe Associates.