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A Practice That’s Built to Last

Approximately 55,000 individuals enter the massage profession every year—and it is estimated that 45,000 therapists leave the profession each year, 15,000 of them permanently. [1] According to industry leaders, it appears that the average number of years a massage therapist stays in practice is two to three. Yet some people stay in the massage field for more than 20 years. What sets those people apart from therapists who have a hard time making it?

Components of longevity

According to career counselor Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., “Recent studies indicate that the average worker changes careers—not just jobs—several times over the course of a lifetime.” But what if massage is your second or third career and you want it to be your last? Or what if you’re just beginning your first career in massage and want to be in control of when—or if—you leave it someday?

Here, 10 massage therapists whose careers have ranged from three-and-a-half to 35 years offer advice on career longevity. Two practitioners work solely as employees while the rest are in private practice; two therapists also work part time in chiropractic offices. The average number of hours of hands-on work done each week is 20. The one exception is a therapist who has been in practice for 13 years and who works 28 hours a week for a chiropractor and 25 hours a week from her home office.

The principal components of career longevity are: personality characteristics; client interactions; technical capabilities; business savvy; and self-care. Most of the suggestions for longevity are the same for those who are self-employed as they are for those who work as employees. The additional skills critical for employees to master are interpersonal communications with staff and management, and knowing how to adapt to various management styles.

Personality characteristics

Successful practitioners are confident in their abilities, possess a positive mental attitude, maintain healthy boundaries and are willing to take risks such as speaking in public. They are willing to press through challenges and be uncomfortable for a while. They are determined and focused. They do what is necessary to ensure quality and success.

Along with this determination is flexibility. Flexibility is crucial in the hands-on aspect of the work as well as in business operations. For instance, there may be times when practitioners find themselves needing to change the type of work or treatment plan right in the middle of a session: perhaps a client isn’t responding well to a particular technique, doesn’t like what’s being done, or it becomes apparent that the treatment needs to go in a different direction.

Flexibility is also needed to sail through the changes that occur in one’s career. This includes adding modalities to one’s repertoire and branching into other areas, such as teaching. Employees in particular need to be flexible as they rarely have much control over their work. Massage practitioners are unhappy in an employment setting, such as a spa, if they don’t enjoy working with a diverse clientele or can’t go with the flow—work out of different treatment rooms, use modalities that aren’t their favorite, or accommodate last-minute scheduling change—when necessary.

Client interactions

Massage therapists who have been in practice for a long time have a reverence for the inherent magnificence of the human body and spirit. They respect their clients regardless of their physical conditions or the particular reasons that brought them to massage. They are clear about the role massage can play in their client’s wellness and are genuinely concerned for their client’s welfare. It’s rare that a highly judgmental person lasts long in private practice, as clients pick up on subtle messages.

Successful massage therapists say that a client-centered approach is important, that it’s crucial to stay present with clients and to listen to what they are really saying. They customize each session to address the client’s long-term goals and immediate concerns.

“I feel my client base has grown and my clients have remained with me because I work hard to make sure I understand their needs, and either am able to help them or refer them to someone else,” says Vicki Muench, a 14-year massage veteran in Cheney, Kansas.

You can improve client relations by taking courses to enhance communication skills, learning to do effective intake interviews, and creating treatment plans that encourage clients to take an active role in their own wellness.

Technical capabilities

Practitioners with staying power possess a high level of expertise and excel in what they do. They consider their initial schooling to be just the starting point, and invest in regular continuing education. While some long-term therapists do well as generalists, most specialize in a particular technique or condition.

“Find a massage technique that will set you apart from other massage therapists,” says Sue Welfley, a Tampa, Florida massage therapist in practice for 15 years. “You need to offer more than the massage therapist down the street has to offer.”

Most of the therapists who have been in practice longer than 10 years shifted from doing relaxation massage to more of a health-care approach, such as working with people in pain. Others developed very specific target markets.

Larry Warnock, who lives in Woburn, Massachusetts, and has practiced for 35 years, says, “Find a niche. Learn everything about the needs of that niche. Go out and tell people in that niche what you know. They will come.”

Welfley specializes in lymphatic drainage which she says has helped her promote her practice. “This specialty has helped tremendously in getting the word out about me,” she says. “I work with a lot of clients with cancer and post-surgical conditions. Several physicians are now referring patients to me because of the lymphatic drainage specialty.”


In my opinion lack of business acumen is the main reason people do not succeed as massage therapists. The majority of people enter this field with limited business knowledge, and many bear a negative attitude about business. Yet there are certainly plenty of books, classes, marketing products and online resources to assist therapists in expanding their business knowledge. The savvy therapist takes advantage of these tools.

“The single most important factor in your success is business skills, not massage skills, yet most massage schools teach very little business, and even then it’s mostly limited to how to write a résumé,” says Donald Schiff, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, massage therapist in practice for 23 years. “Unless you have a business background already, what you learned in massage school is not enough to create and sustain a thriving massage practice.”

Learning to work smarter, not harder, is a chief tenet of success. Be organized and keep excellent records. Look to the long term and consult with experts.

“Spend some time working for others to gain both business and work experience,” suggests Dawn Graf, a Tucson, Arizona, massage therapist in practice for 13 years (the past seven in the spa industry). “Then if you want to go into private practice, keep that job or have a second part-time job that pays well and has benefits.”

Work Smarter

Burnout—on either the physical or emotional level—is yet another cause of failure.

The number one cause of physical burnout is poor body mechanics, so take the time to find out what works best for your body. Exercise regularly, stretch before and after working with clients, and eat properly. Invest in a high quality table. For those who do outcalls, be sure to purchase and use the accessories specifically designed to help tote tables. There are several books and numerous articles written for therapists on self-care. Read them and follow the suggestions. And, of course, get weekly massage.

A leading cause of emotional burnout is weak boundaries on the part of the therapist. I have heard so many stories of therapists who let their clients take advantage of them: showing up late; not giving appropriate cancellation notice; engaging in excessive self-disclosure; expecting special treatment such as offering extended hours or an extended session. The inability to effectively maintain and manage boundaries with clients, co-workers and management is the leading cause of burnout for massage practitioners. Learn to set strong boundaries for yourself.

You can take steps to avoid emotional burnout: Meet with colleagues on a regular basis; take part in some type of group or peer supervision; attend conferences; maintain a strong support system; take classes in new techniques, business and communications; vary the way you work; target a new market; and diversify your practice.

William Burton, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania massage therapist in practice for five years, is taking positive steps to ensure he stays enthusiastic. “Becoming [a bodywork] instructor has rejuvenated me,” he says. “It has made me break the old books open again. Learning new modalities has … given me new juice.”

Grow a strong client base

Keep in mind that the number one key to career longevity is to have clients. After all, without them you don’t have a business. Most therapists claim that referrals from satisfied clients is the best form of marketing, yet very few can afford the luxury of building their practices solely in this manner. You first need to get some clients. Effective marketing in this field includes a mixture of promotion, advertising, community relations and publicity—with the emphasis on promotion.

At most day spas, therapists still need to do a lot of work to build and maintain a strong client base. In a destination spa setting, developing a client base becomes more a matter of retaining a guest and that guest’s friends.

“Guests talk to each other,” explains Graf. “If I’m amazing, they will tell their friends who are at the resort and they will request me. It’s about keeping a healing intent to be the best I can be with a guest.”

Marketing techniques

Promotion involves the activities and materials you produce to gain visibility. The money invested is indirect; for example, it costs money to print business cards but it doesn’t cost anything to distribute them. Promotional activities that are often free of cost or low-cost: public speaking; teaching community classes; hosting massage demonstrations; writing newspaper articles; holding open houses; networking; sending special-occasion cards; maintaining a Web site; and building alliances with other health-care providers.

Publicity is notoriety given you or your business, usually for an event you have done or are about to do.

Advertising differs from publicity and promotions in that you must pay directly for your exposure. This includes display ads in the newspaper or telephone book, billboards and radio spots.

Community Relations are goodwill activities you do to create a positive public image for your business, such as hosting a charity function, adopting a highway or donating services to a charity.

Sometimes activities intersect. For example, giving free sessions can be seen as community relations as well as promotion. The title of a popular book is Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow. Unfortunately, most people forget about the verb in the sentence: do. Instead, they assume that deciding what they want to do is enough. Doing what you love doesn’t mean sitting in your office waiting for the phone to ring; it is about taking action to attract new clients and actually doing your work. In other words, if you don’t have a full client load, either invest that free time in educating people about your work or donate your services (do what you love)—then the money will come.

“Give lots of free massages so people know who you are and what you do,” says Welfley.

In massage marketing centers on making personal connections and educating the public. Keep this in mind when developing your strategies. Don’t take it for granted that people know what you do because you have a certain title. Define what you do. Explain the benefits of what you offer. Every practitioner is unique, and brings his or her experience and personality into play along with whatever techniques are employed. The power of your marketing increases with the level at which you are integrated into those marketing strategies.

The biggest mistake I see people make is overextending themselves; they try to be the practitioner for everyone. Yet, one person cannot fulfill all the needs of every client. Effective marketing involves targeting the appropriate people and informing them of the benefits they’ll receive from your services.

Client retention

Working with clients on an ongoing basis is great for your own time-management, as well the personal and professional fulfillment you experience witnessing positive changes in clients. In most instances, a thriving practice consists of maintaining a strong client base of people who receive your services regularly, while generating a steady stream of new clients. Exceptions do exist, such as working in a destination spa or resort, where there’s a continuous flow of new guests, or the specific nature of a particular modality (or philosophy) that advocates working on a client only once or twice.

Yet when it comes to building their practices, most new massage therapists spend the majority of their marketing resources in finding new clients instead of concentrating on keeping the ones they already have. The simple steps to keep clients returning are often overlooked or ignored.

The core of client retention is a solid customer service plan. They are founded upon making clients feel safe and welcome so they can more easily make appropriate health-care decisions. They are not based in intimidating someone into your ordained plan. A fine line exists between supporting a client in well-being and manipulating a client into booking sessions.

“I ask clients if they want to schedule another appointment when they pay me for the one I just did,” Schiff says. “It took me a long time to understand how helpful this is both for me and for the client.”

Nothing Better

If you take care of yourself and follow the basic guidelines suggested by these successful massage therapists, you could have a long and successful career. The therapists who have been in the field for a while think that’s a great thing.

“I love the work I do, most of the time I feel like the most fortunate man alive,” Schiff says. “I mean, I get to relieve suffering in the world, and I get paid for it, too. What could be better?”

1 Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals 2006 Touch Resource Guide