Defining (and Dealing With) Your Competition

By Laura Allen
[Business Side]

When you hear the word competition, what comes to mind? The massage therapist or day spa down the street? True enough, they may be our competitors, but we also need to think outside the box. In reality, there are a lot of other places that people can spend their money—and their time—that may not have anything to do with massage at all. 

Luxury or Necessity?

I personally consider receiving massage a medical necessity and a priority. To some people, massage is an occasional luxury. During troubled economic times, pampering (and yes, even health care) sometimes falls by the wayside in favor of car and mortgage payments. My own locale has taken a hard hit from the recession, and has an unemployment rate of almost 15 percent (one of the highest rates in our state). In spite of that, my business hasn’t suffered—but some of my clients have. Other small business owners, who have traditionally had weekly or biweekly appointments with me, cut back on their frequency of visits and let me know it was strictly a financial decision. 

Realistically, even for clients who consider massage a part of their medical treatment or wellness plan, there are plenty of other things that can take precedence. For one thing, the majority of health insurance doesn’t cover massage, although therapists who work in a medical or chiropractic office may be able to bill major medical insurance. Copayments and medical costs in general are going up and benefits are going down, and many people are electing for deductibles as high as $10,000 or more in an effort to keep their premiums affordable. The average teacher in my state pays more than $500 per month for health coverage; people who don’t belong to a group and have to pay individual rates often pay even more. It’s estimated that 25–30 percent of Americans have no health insurance at all. A major sickness or injury can be a financial catastrophe. Those who can’t afford health insurance are in all likelihood among the group that doesn’t consider massage a necessity. 

For those who view massage as a luxury, there are lots of other things that might fall into that same category—a trip to the salon, a dinner out, a concert, or a vacation. Even a family trip to the movies these days is expensive, and can easily top $100 with food and drink. What’s a massage therapist to do? How can we keep our market share of discretionary money when people are struggling financially, and how can we change the mindset of those who think massage is just a luxury?

Comparing Apples to Oranges

We do not, of course, claim that massage is the be-all and end-all substitute for regular medical care. However, we’ve all had clients tell us they’ve been able to cut down on visits to the doctor or the amount of pain medication they’re taking with the help of massage therapy. Comparatively speaking, massage is usually more affordable than a handful of prescriptions and multiple visits to the doctor. There are a lot of people who prefer a more natural approach to pain and stress relief. One of the best ways to get this message out is to cultivate referrals from physicians and other health-care professionals. It’s up to us to educate the mainstream providers about massage therapy. Every now and then the media still tends to portray massage in a bad light, and we have to combat the myths and let doctors know what it is we really do. In recognition of the trend of people seeking more natural ways of healing, many doctors are open to at least hearing the information—but don’t sit around waiting for doctors to call on you. It’s up to you to approach them

There are a number of different avenues to getting doctor referrals. Visit your local hospital and speak to the human resources person and the community education director. Many hospitals recognize an annual doctor appreciation or nurse appreciation day or week, so arrange to attend and do chair massage on those days—even if you do it for free. You are going to reap future rewards by making the contacts. Hospitals also frequently announce educational events, such as, “A presentation from Dr. Smith on ‘Managing Your Stress’ this Friday at 4:00 p.m.” Attend a few of those and approach the doctor with business cards in hand at the end of the talk. You could also run your own promotion offering a discount for other health-care professionals. Create a cover letter introducing yourself and explaining the benefits of massage, enclose a couple of timely research articles from PubMed about massage, and mail or hand deliver the packets to local doctors’ offices, along with a supply of your business cards and a cardholder. Make it as convenient as possible for the doctor to refer to you.

The Frugal Consumer

The way to a frugal person’s heart—and wallet—is to demonstrate value. It’s not that frugal people don’t spend money; they just want to be sure they are getting something good at a bargain price. It’s time for a healthy dose of client education. Just as with the physicians, we have to educate the public—at least that segment of it that isn’t already massage-savvy—that they’re helping themselves by getting massage. We know the benefits of massage; what we need is for everyone to know them. 

How many times do you put your hands on someone who has no problems at all—no taut muscles, no stress knots, no trigger points? I assume, hardly ever. Even those people who claim they’re just coming in to treat themselves on their birthday have something going on in their body. Don’t preach a sermon during the massage. Wait until after the session is over to tell clients what you felt in their shoulders, or comment on how tight their lower back was. It’s OK to give them gentle reminders about the cumulative benefits of frequent massage. Remember, people want to ensure they’re spending their dollars wisely. 

I keep printed postcards that offer $10 off the next massage. If a new client, or someone who is very sporadic with appointments, leaves without rebooking, I’ll wait a few days and send a card with an expiration date one month from the previous appointment. Often, the reminder and discount are enough to get clients back in. 

Package deals are another way to appeal to budget-conscious clients. My own package deal is “Buy Five, Get One Free.” It cuts the price of each massage down—but I also have the satisfaction of knowing clients will be here for six visits, which is usually enough to convince them to schedule another appointment sooner rather than later.

Don’t think it is all about discounting, though—it is about educating the client. We’ve all had those first-time clients who say they’ve been in pain for days, weeks, months, or even years. They may have the idea that one massage is going to “fix” them. Avoid claiming that you can fix anyone in any amount of sessions, but do spend a few minutes talking pre- and post-session. Let clients know up front that they will likely experience some relief after just one visit, but that in order to see real progress and get back to optimal condition, massage should be a part of their regular wellness plan. Other than “thank you,” the most important phrase to offer at the conclusion of the visit is, “When would you like to schedule another appointment?”

Collaborative Competition

I’m fond of this phrase from my friend and fellow North Carolinian, Felicia Brown: collaborative competition. I would encourage you to think about ways you can partner with other local businesses to mutually benefit each other. For example, women like their hair to look good, and may consider a trip to the salon a higher priority than a trip to the massage therapist. What about collaborating with a neighboring salon to offer a package deal? It could look like this: “Main Street Massage and Serenity Salon are offering a special for ladies throughout the week preceding Mother’s Day. Get your hair and nails done, plus receive a massage, for just $150.” You could share in the cost of any advertising. Chances are good that some of your clients will visit the salon for the first time, and vice versa.

Consider other things competing for the client’s discretionary funds—anything from clothing to the bowling alley to a trip to the beach. Realistically, we can’t compete with every single thing, but we can maximize our opportunities. Networking with other business owners is key. Collect business cards from the people you do business with, and give them a few of yours. Attend the open houses and grand openings of other nearby businesses. Recommend them; they’ll return the favor. 

If your practice happens to be located in or near a vacation destination, bear in mind that while the ritzier hotels and resorts likely have a spa on property, others probably do not. Approach the hotels, bed and breakfasts, and rental agents in town and ask if you can leave brochures, business cards, or flyers there. The agents who rent condominiums to tourists at the beach and in ski areas, for example, usually have a guest notebook that stays in the rental and gives guests tips about where to go and what to do and see locally. Cultivating a relationship with the front-desk staff and owners of local hotels and motels, as well as rental agents—maybe by offering them an occasional freebie or discount—could bring in a great deal of business. Even if you’re not in a vacation destination, realtors are great people to cultivate mutual-referral relationships with because they constantly meet new people moving to town. I’ve had business cards made for realtors to hand out to their prospects. I use our regular business cards, with this printed message on the back: “Welcome to the neighborhood! You’re a VIP if you’re with Century 21, so here’s $10 off your first massage.”

The competition for consumer dollars is out there, but we don’t have to let it get the best of us. By being proactive, you’re sure to get your share! 


Laura Allen is the author of A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Business (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011), Plain & Simple Guide to Therapeutic Massage & 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 with more than a dozen practitioners. Contact her at