The Customer Is Always Right . . .

But Are They Really? Educate Misinformed Massage Clients with Curiosity and Finesse

By Cal Cates and Kerry Jordan

In 1909, Harry Gordon Selfridge, the owner and visionary behind Selfridge’s department store in London, gave us the phrase, “The customer is always right.” In truth, it’s not clear whether it was Selfridge or one of his American department store counterparts, John Wanamaker or Marshall Field, but the specific attribution is not nearly as important as the marked shift this phrase represented in the ethos of the seller/customer relationship. Until this point, most such relationships were governed by the much more mercenary “caveat emptor” philosophy. The essence of this approach is simply that the buyer should beware. “You bought it. If it doesn’t work, that’s on you. Sucker.”

Selfridge and his contemporaries decided it was time for purveyors of goods and services to take responsibility not only for the quality of what they were selling, but for their own role in the relationship with the people who bought whatever they were selling.

MTs are Salespeople Too

As massage therapists, our product may not be sofas or lamps or fancy lingerie, but we are selling a product. Every time a person comes into our clinic or practice or spa or gym, they are buying a product from us. Simply put, they are buying massage therapy. We’ll talk later about the incredible rabbit hole of expectations and misunderstandings that inform client understanding of that product. But for now, let’s stay here.

If you’re at all familiar with Massage Therapy as Health Care (Cal’s column in Massage & Bodywork), or our other writings, it may seem odd to see us arguing that massage therapists are salespeople, but we are. We are selling a product, just like doctors and nurses and chiropractors and so many others who would likely not relish being referred to in this way. What we sell is not so tangible as a blender or a washing machine, but in order to deconstruct a key limitation in our profession, we have to own our salesperson-hood.

It’s also important to note that “the customer is always right” was not intended, even by Selfridge, to be interpreted literally. Humans did what we do. We took a nuanced and important concept and we simplified and bastardized it. Here we are today, teaching massage therapists that they have to “give the client what they want,” but it’s not that simple.

The concept that these early-1900s retailers were embracing was one of dedication to helping their customers find the right product for them. This is different from giving them what they tell you they want. If we want to truly understand what a client wants, we have to talk with them. We have to see them and connect with what has actually brought them in. What is the problem? How do you want things to be different? And yes, what do you think will help?

Clients May Be Right but Factually Wrong

When we just do what clients tell us to do, we’re not providing good care. We’re providing a falsely kind service that is not at all connected to what’s in the best interest of either person in the exchange.

Before we get much deeper, let’s remember that we don’t actually want every single client. Some are simply not a good match. Also, some people move through the world feeling somehow gratified by a constant and very personal inability to be happy. There are clients who can’t and don’t want to be made happy. This isn’t your fault. Don’t spend your time and resources trying to “change” people or “prove” that you can make them happy.

In the years since Selfridge’s experiment of customer-centered service, developed countries all around the world have coined their own phrases to support their interpretation of “the customer is always right.” The Italians and the Spaniards really nailed it. They both use a phrase that essentially translates to “the customer always has a reason.”

Beautiful! And so true.

This allows for the reality that the customer is so often not right in empirical terms, and that their rightness is not actually important. Clients share factually wrong information with us, or they come with expectations that are formed by misinformation from their relatives or the internet, but that doesn’t mean we discount their experience or their needs. They only know what they know or what they think they know. Isn’t that true for everybody?

Listen to What’s NOT Being Said

So, if we agree that every client has a reason (and let’s also agree that we care about that reason), we will need skills like active listening and curiosity to stand any chance of giving the customer what they want. Cal recently interviewed a hospice chaplain for a course I’m teaching. She said that the most important skill she has developed is the ability to “hear what’s not being said.” This is what’s being asked of us in our interactions with our clients on a regular basis. Humans are terrible about being explicit when it comes to expectations. Our clients are no different. How are we supposed to give them what they want when they’re asking us to guess what that is?

Imagine you’re a clerk in a department store. A customer comes in looking for the “perfect outfit” for a party at a friend’s house later that week. The customer already has some ideas about what “perfect” is. You probably do too. There’s a decent chance that your ideas of perfection are different from the customer’s ideas. Sensing this, you might start to ask some questions. Where in town is the party? What’s the occasion? How well do you know the host? Do you plan to dance or is it a quiet, dinner situation? As you listen fully to the answers to these questions, your ideas of perfection may start to come a bit closer to each other, but you’ve still got to be curious to truly meet their needs and help them to feel like, above all else, they were “right” to come to you for what they needed.

We are living and working in a time when customers are more informed and more demanding than ever. Information (albeit of varying quality) is everywhere! Your elbow hurts? Ask Dr. Google. You’re having a hard time sleeping? WebMD is there. Whatever ails you can be diagnosed in seconds and treated with household            . . . things. In this climate, communication, expectation-setting, and education are an integral part of our job as care providers.

This is where so many of us fall down and simply find it easier to “let” the customer be right. Good care often requires a bit of what many of us experience as conflict. Very few of us feel skilled at navigating conflict. An easy way to avoid conflict is to simply agree, or at least not express something different.

When a client tells us that they “have carpal tunnel,” and they need us to work with their forearm in this way they saw on YouTube, we have to figure out how to hear what they’re telling us and then to help them understand that we can give them what they want while you both completely forget anything you learned from YouTube about connective tissue.

Also Listen with Your Eyes

We have written many times about the low self-esteem that is so common among massage therapists. This dynamic is definitely at work in situations where our clients are, in fact, not right. When what we think we know is challenged, we either decide we’re not smart enough to refute it, or we go overboard explaining why we know better. In both cases, we skip the very important step of validating our client’s experience and treating them like they are right. They are always right about what they feel is happening. If it feels like it’s “coming from the elbow,” then it definitely feels like it’s coming from the elbow. Now, it’s our job to introduce the possibility that pain felt in their elbow could actually be coming from another place.

Listening comes in here again too. We have to listen with our eyes, as well as our ears, as we begin our explanation. Does the client actually care why we think this? Is the client mostly interested in just not having pain in their elbow, regardless of how we get there? Or, is the client hanging on every nerdy word and asking more questions? Is this a client who wants diagrams and follow-up video links? Or, is this a client who wants to sleep while you “fix” their elbow? These questions and their answers matter when you’re working to make a client feel “right.”

And let’s be clear. This isn’t just about massage technique and treatment planning. We know you were hoping we wouldn’t go here, but this goes for wearing masks, making racist and inappropriate comments, running a marathon despite that persistent swelling, etc. We’re not suggesting you should be policing your clients’ every move, word, and thought. However, there are many places where we let the client be “right” when they are wrong that are within our scope of practice and that are, in fact, important to providing complete, responsible, and ethical care.

Explain Clearly

Let’s go back to the department store metaphor. What if a customer told you they were planning to make coleslaw and wanted to purchase a chainsaw to chop the cabbage? What if a child wanted to purchase a set of chef’s knives? What if the customer looking for the perfect outfit expressed a deep love for the color pink? You don’t care for pink, but your store carries pink clothing, and it’s not your outfit. OK. Pink it is. As you head toward the pink section, the client rushes to a multilayered taffeta affair with flowing sleeves and gushes, “This is PERFECT! This is exactly the outfit I saw on Dr. Oz! Dr. Oz said it was the best outfit to wear to a party. This is exactly the outfit I want to wear when I go to learn how to juggle fire at my friend’s birthday party!” Can you direct this customer to an outfit that is less flammable? That is still pink?

We have to take responsibility for explaining clearly. It’s not our fault that our clients are misinformed, but it is our job to clear it up, while leaving them with a clear sense that we heard them, and we care about them.

Know What You Know, But Hold on Loosely

Once again, we feel like our experience working with people at the end of life and with the people who love them has brought us back around to some simple wisdom in answer to the basic, underlying question here: “What does it take to truly facilitate satisfaction for a client?”

We have to know what we know without holding any of it too tightly. We won’t get through to everyone. Some people will not be receptive to our advocacy and to our educated deviation from the plan they have concocted. That’s OK. We can share that, based on what we understand about the “right” product for them, we have a great referral for them.

We have to know that we can never make any human feel anything or have a specific kind of experience. We can, as one of my favorite teachers always said, “Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth and release our attachment to outcome.” Listen and learn from your clients. Receive what they share with you and integrate it into your work with them. Be honest about what you can and can’t do and about how their expectations may be misguided. And then, just do your work with love and skill. That is your product. It may or may not be right for that particular client.

The client is always right, but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong; it means you have to raise your level to meet them in a place that highlights their story and their needs, while integrating your ability to give them the best possible product to meet those needs. Good care will require you to get good at kindly and informedly educating clients who have and share wrong information. It will require you to know what’s safe and what works. It will require you to know what’s ethical. It will require you to be genuinely curious about and invested in what’s going to create the greatest possible chance for them to feel seen and satisfied.


“But I Don't Want to Wear a Mask!”

One place where the customer is absolutely not right and where you will need to have a clear plan is the issue of mask-wearing. If you are working as a massage therapist right now, you need to be wearing a 3-ply surgical mask (see “Getting Used to Working in Masks” at Your clients should wear one too, or at least a cloth face covering. This is not optional. This is not political. It’s science and physics.

First, be sure you have a clearly stated and frequently shared policy about mask-wearing that makes your stance obvious and unequivocal. Word it in a way that works for you, but the message received from your policy should be “No mask, no massage.” You can do a lot to dissuade people who plan to resist mask-wearing by stating clearly that there will be no exceptions to this policy. Use science. Use common sense. Use common courtesy. Use whatever you think will be compelling to your client population. If you are not in charge of the policies where you see clients, this may be a heavier lift, but you have to be clear about where you stand on masks and how you’ll keep yourself and your clients safe. Continuing to work in an environment that you feel puts you in danger will wear on you and on your client relationships over time.

If a client still shows up without a mask, here are some key points to consider:

• Don’t assume you know why.

• It may be helpful to acknowledge that masks suck. “I know. I hate wearing this thing, too, but they’re the best way for us to protect each other.” You can be specific about how they itch, they’re hot, they fog up your glasses. Be honest. Nobody enjoys wearing a mask. Every single one of us would prefer to have a free and open face.

• Be willing to explain that you are not willing to work with a person who presents an Americans with Disabilities Act exemption card. Be clear that the card exempts the carrier from litigation (maybe?) where there is a mask ordinance, but it doesn’t exempt either of you from infection. Don’t make it about the legitimacy of the exemption. Make it about masks and the barrier they create and about how a person who can’t wear a mask presents an avoidable risk you’re not willing to take.

• Resist the temptation to question the person’s intelligence, character, or politics. Keep it specific to you, this client, and this session.

• Even if you don’t entirely understand their reasons, acknowledge them as you stand firm. “I can see how you might think that/I understand what you’re saying/I’m sorry it makes you angry. (Don’t use “but” if you can help it when you’re stringing these phrases together.) I see a lot of people each week and I need to know that we are all doing the same things to keep each other safe. I can’t bend on that.”

Daryl Appleton, EdD, a New York-based psychotherapist and Fortune 500 consultant who specializes in unproductive behaviors, reminds us that “Fear will generally keep the mind closed. When we invest deeply in a feeling, we feel it with our whole body and mind, and to admit that we may be wrong or have to change can be an incredibly scary thing.” That goes for the folks enforcing mask-wearing and for those who resist. Digging in will prevent you from being creative in solving the problem. You may find that with firm, empathic communication, many clients who show up maskless will be willing to consider it even if “just this once.”


Some helpful phrases

“It would really make me feel better if you had your mask on.”


“It’s like a seatbelt. We wear them every time we get in the car, even though we don’t expect to be in a crash. Even if we don’t believe that we or the people we encounter have the virus, the mask keeps us safe.”


“I really want to work with you and I can’t do that unless we’re both wearing masks.”


“I absolutely understand that this feels hard. Are you willing to work with me to find a mask (from my wee collection of mask varieties) that will work for you today?”


“I know they’re hot and uncomfortable, but I need you to wear a mask for my protection, just like I’m wearing this one for yours.”


“You’re right. The messaging has been all over the map, but I have to follow the guidance of my regulatory agency (insert agency name here) that states that we both need to wear a mask.”


If a client is simply unwilling to wear a mask, have a plan for how you will handle that. Maybe your plan is simply to have a well-fitted N95 mask for yourself, but you should think about how that might make you feel about working with this client in terms of trust and your own emotional comfort. Maybe your plan is to be clear and prepared to “disappoint” them by informing them that this session can’t happen without a mask.

Don’t let your plan be to allow yourself to be bullied into doing something that you know is unsafe. We are in this together!

(And remember to thank and compliment every single client who just shows up wearing a mask and who keeps it on. One of our most powerful tools is normalization. It will be normalizing when they see you in your mask and it will feel good to them to be acknowledged for doing it, too.)

Cal Cates and Kerry Jordan are honored to work with Healwell (which is a big team of many people) providing massage therapy and education in hospitals around the Washington, DC metro area and around the world. Together, they have more than 35 years of experience in massage therapy with a focus on serving adults and children living with medically complex conditions, both in and out of the hospital. For more information on Healwell, go to