Build Your Practice With Referrals

By Laura Allen
[Business Side]

Massage is big business and it just keeps getting bigger. According to the Occupational Outlook for 2010–2011, compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the field is set to increase as much as 19 percent by 2018 before leveling off. Competition can be stiff. 

When you’re just starting out, you’re probably in the position of needing enough clients to get established, but lacking a big advertising budget to get you those clients. The best—and cheapest—way to grow your practice is with referrals.

Client Referrals

Existing clients are the most obvious source of referrals—but, of course, you have to get some first. When I was still in massage school doing practice massages in the student clinic, I met and massaged some people who are still my clients today—a dozen years later. They’ve sent many referrals my way. The key to getting those word-of-mouth recommendations is not just dependent on technique; it’s dependent on giving great service, starting appointments on time, giving clients what they’re paying for, and presenting a professional persona. You’re providing  an overall experience clients think so highly of they’ll tell other people. Cultivate that from day one.

Some therapists choose to cultivate referrals by offering a client referral incentive program. A former employer of mine offered clients $5 off their massage for each referral. A Facebook friend recently mentioned giving an extra half hour added onto the client’s massage for each referral. You might choose to give your clients a free massage for every five new clients they send to your table.

Mutual Business Referrals

Business Networking International (BNI) is a worldwide organization with chapters in almost every developed country. The BNI business model is basically “you refer me, I’ll refer you.” Each chapter only allows one member of any occupation to join, so there’s one accountant, one insurance agent, one realtor, one plumber, one massage therapist. Prospects who try to join a chapter that already has a massage therapist in the group would be referred to another group. Crucial to BNI membership is attending the networking meetings that are held, sometimes every week. Members exchange business cards and referral slips, and actively promote each other’s businesses. Missing meetings and failing to give referrals are valid reasons to get kicked out of the group.

Think of all the clients you have, and potential clients, who are business people. I keep a table in my lobby where I allow other people to place their business cards. I also keep a business card file where I have people filed by occupation; that way, I don’t have to try to keep up with hundreds of names. If someone asks me if I know a carpenter, an insurance salesman, a cosmetologist, or anyone else, I can look in my card file and refer them to someone.

I’ve been asked the question, “How do I know they’re any good?” If it’s someone whose services I haven’t personally used, I’ll recommend that they ask for a couple of references on the first contact. You can also check on the Better Business Bureau website ( to see if any complaints have been filed against the business. If they’ve been in business any length of time, they’re probably reputable or they wouldn’t have lasted.

Realtors are one of the best sources of referrals, because they meet new people who are moving into town. I’ve actually had business cards printed with my contact information on one side and on the back the verbiage, “You must be a VIP if you’re with RE/MAX. Here’s $10 off your first massage.” I redeem dozens of these offers every year.

Any services related to weddings are also good sources of referrals: bridal shops, caterers, florists, photographers, and rental companies. I have their cards and they have mine.

Physician Referrals

Many of us covet referrals from medical doctors. They’re easier to get than you might think. When I first started my business, I spent a few days creating a database of all the physicians and dentists in town (my staff members are trained in temporomandibular joint massage.) My database allows me to do a mail merge with the click of the mouse. Each year, when the new telephone directory arrives, I go through it and delete the contacts who are no longer listed and add the new ones.

Hospitals usually have an education department that offers free talks from doctors about various conditions. You’ll see it in the paper all the time: “Dr. Rodriguez is offering a free lecture on fibromyalgia at 4:00 p.m. Friday.” You can also call and ask to be put on their mailing list. Make it a point to attend those whenever it’s a condition for which massage is beneficial. Go to PubMed ( or the Massage Therapy Foundation website (, print out research on the related benefits of massage, and take it along. After the presentation, introduce yourself to the physician, share the benefits of massage, the research, and your business card.

Remember, even if the physician specializes in something that the medical benefits of massage may not be immediately obvious for, stress is a culprit that either causes or accompanies many illnesses, and almost anyone can benefit from a stress-relieving massage.

In addition to physicians, there are a lot of health-care providers, both holistic and allopathic, to network with. These include:

•  Acupuncturists.

•  Chiropractors.

•  Midwives and doulas.

•  Naturopaths and homeopaths.

•  Nurse practitioners.

•  Occupational therapists.

•  Osteopaths.

•  Physical therapists.

•  Psychologists.

Other Massage Therapists

Too many massage therapists tend to view other therapists only in the light of competition, and that’s sad. We’re all a family of hands, and we all want the best for our clients. Sure, I have competitors, but I prefer collaborative competition.

Chances are there are therapists in your town who specialize in something you don’t, and vice-versa. If it’s obvious your client would benefit from lymphatic drainage or orthopedic massage, or you have a client who is interested in shiatsu, for example, and you don’t do that, don’t be afraid to refer them to someone who does. If you have a niche practice, and you only do pregnancy massage or sports massage, refer the other people who call you to someone else. That will come back to you in the form of mutual referrals.

Due to the fact my office is located on Main Street, we frequently get people who walk in the door hoping they can get a massage on the spot, and we usually can’t accommodate that. If they’re in pain, I will call another therapist or two in town and see if someone has an opening. Clients are usually surprised that I would suggest another practice, but they’re also impressed I took the time to do that for them. They often end up coming back to my business anyway, because they remember and appreciate that gesture.

Chances are also good that there are therapists in town who keep different days and/or hours than you. If you’re making the choice to work Monday–Friday from 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., that cuts you out of the loop for office workers who keep those same hours. Refer them to someone who works evenings and weekends. If you don’t do outcalls, keep handy the number of a therapist who does.

If you’re in the position of having all the clients you want, you can tell people you’ll be glad to add them to your waiting list. However, if your waiting list is long, you should have someone to refer callers to. Why not help a new therapist who’s just starting out and doesn’t have a clientele built up?

Finally, the day may come when you’re ill or injured, or have a family member who requires your care. Maybe you’re pregnant and need a few months off, or you’re taking an extended vacation, making a career switch, or retiring. You’ll need someone to direct clients to, so don’t wait until you break a leg to find a reputable therapist to recommend.

A Word of Caution

It’s a necessity to be familiar with the professionals to which you’re referring. If it’s another massage therapist, trade sessions first. Ask about their education and credentials, and whether or not they have liability insurance. If it’s a doctor or other health-care professional, they probably have a website or a bio page on the hospital’s website. Ask around for references, if you haven’t been to them personally. Call them, or pay them a visit and tell them you’re looking for someone to refer to, and ask a few pertinent questions.

Early in my career, I made the mistake of referring someone to a psychologist I hadn’t actually met, just because his office was around the corner from mine. The client had fibromyalgia, and the psychologist proceeded to tell her that fibromyalgia doesn’t exist and the problem was in her head. That was a painful learning experience for me. 

Whether just starting out, or already a veteran massage therapist, there are ways to make the referral work for you to build your practice.


Laura Allen is the author of A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Business (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011), Plain & Simple Guide to Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork Examinations (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2009), and One Year to a Successful Massage Therapy Practice (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008). Allen is the owner of THERA-SSAGE, a continuing education facility and alternative wellness clinic of more than a dozen practitioners of different disciplines in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Visit her website at