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Making It Big Means Keeping It Small

For the small-business owner, perhaps no passage from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is more relevant than that of competitive knowledge.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, the ancient general writes, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. But, he continues, if you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

The sides clashing in today’s business world—in the massage therapy industry and otherwise—are quite often the mom-and-pops against the multinational chains, big business versus small business, the downtown independent opposing the bigbox franchise.

Julie Wallace, owner of BodyWorks Therapeutic Massage in Denver, is one of those in the small-business camp. For her, competitive knowledge and familiarity with her business’s strengths in the face of big-box competition make perfect sense.

In fact, it prompted her to schedule a session with one of the more prominent franchises in the Mile High City. What better way to assess the competition, she reasoned, than to meet them on their own terms?

Wallace was not surprised by what she found. The franchise’s marketing focus was on price and hours of business. A one-hour massage was $39, and the business was open seven days a week and fairly late on weeknights. The staff was efficient with scheduling, she says, and “pleasant and professional both over the phone and when greeting me upon my arrival.”

Wallace completed a general intake form but was surprised by some glaring omissions. “There were some questions missing that I expected to see on the form regarding injuries or surgeries, or allergies and sensitivities to products that might be used in a session, and about my occupation.”

There was a brief—about one minute—intake with the therapist regarding what she would like him to work on. “He seemed surprised that I didn’t want a full-body massage,” says Wallace.

“Following the session,” Wallace recalls, “my therapist waited in the hallway while I dressed. He guided me back to the door to the reception area, where he thanked me and turned down a hallway to prepare for his next session, while I turned the other direction to make my payment.”

Wallace was encouraged to purchase a membership, which she declined, and was then on her way. There was no inquiry for feedback regarding the session. In summary, her experience with franchise massage was acceptable but not impressive.

“I believe there is plenty of room for both franchises and independent practices, as long as the independent business owner keeps his or her perspective,” says Wallace. “In my case, I believe my business has a different goal than the franchise businesses.”

Customizing Customer Service

A large part of the “different goal” that Wallace refers to is a personalized customer experience. And that’s certainly not a dynamic that’s lacking in chains only in the massage industry. In fact, the decaying level of quality customer service—and consumers’ dissatisfaction with what is being provided in its place—have been growing toward opposite extremes for years.

According to a recent customer service study by real estate giant Coldwell Banker, there is an intense correlation between the quality of a company’s customer service and its long-term success. The study’s findings revealed that a typical consumer switched businesses they dealt with twice in the past three years due to “bad service.” When asked to define the differences between great and bad service, respondents reported that the leading characteristics of companies with “great service” were resolving questions and problems, knowledge of the product or service, and accessibility.

The Customer Care Alliance reports that a growing number of American consumers are “extremely upset” by how their complaints have been handled by customer service. In fact, a recent CCA survey reveals that a paltry 16 percent of respondents were completely satisfied or felt that they had received more than they asked for from customer service, and more than 50 percent felt they received nothing from the companies responsible for their problems.2

This news doesn’t surprise Chip Bell, a Dallas-based consultant who helps companies develop customer loyalty solutions. Bell, the author of 16 books on customer service, including Magnetic Service: Secrets for Creating Passionately Devoted Customers and Service Magic: The Art of Amazing Your Customers, says that customers love it when businesses personalize their experiences in ways that surprise them.

“Word-of-mouth increased sales do not generally come from a ‘great product’ or ‘super low price,’” says Bell. “Consumers prefer service providers who make them smarter without resorting to fancy flyers; when there is follow-up immediately after every important milestone, and when the relationship is fun, supportive and respectful.”

Great ones, Bell continues, create service magic—experiences that don’t just wow, they awe their customers. What the spa and massage chains find difficult to provide, says Bell, is personalized attention, and that’s where small businesses can shine.

“Customers today have more choices than they’ve ever had,” says Bell. “They don’t differentiate based on price or product; they do it with unique, joyful experiences.

Providing a Personal Touch

Lorrie Garcia, of Evergreen Yoga in Memphis, Tennessee, ensures her spa and yoga studio a sound repeat business by providing the kind of personalized attention that Bell advocates.

“One simple thing I do that keeps clients coming in,” says Garcia, “is to keep in touch with handwritten postcards. I send new clients a welcome note after their visit, and send reminders to ‘regulars’ to schedule their next appointment if they hadn’t already rebooked. If my ‘semi-regulars’ haven’t been in for a month or two, I send them a note to let them know I’m thinking of them.”

Clients tell Garcia how much they appreciate the postcards, and that the personal contact keeps them coming back.

Another touch that has worked for Garcia is offering a six-massage package, whereby the customer ends up saving 15 percent on each massage, and has six months before the package expires. “I always mention that spouses can share the package, so I often end up gaining an additional client that way,” says Garcia. “I find that clients who buy the packages tend to come in more frequently.”

“Remember,” says Bell, “customers don’t compare you to other businesses like yours. They compare you to everybody creating customer experiences.”

If you sold your business to a major corporation, Bell asks hypothetically, how would things change? Would your refund policy change? “Walk into [an athletic or outdoors outlet store] and look at your business through their eyes,” he says. “What can you do with sight, sound, smell, touch and taste?”

For example, employees at the spa at Cap Juluca, a famed resort on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, not only put a special fragrant plant—bougainvillea petals, for example—in the bath before a massage, they blend the same scent into the massage oil used and put a sprig in the bottom of guests’ lockers. This way, the special fragrance is “worn” by guests after they leave the spa.

The goal, says Bell, is looking for unique actions that would be valued by your customers and set you apart.

Knowing Your Customer

For Lisa Sayegh, RN, MT, owner of Massage Matters in Bethesda, Maryland, the client’s personal experience is her self-evaluation. She believes that it’s crucial to provide a safe, healing environment for every current and prospective customer who walks into her spa.

“My intention,” says Sayegh, “is to make the healing begin from the initial contact with all clients. And I make it a point to follow up with clients to see how they responded to my work. The feedback they provide helps me to evaluate my approach. I find tremendous satisfaction knowing I made a difference in someone’s life, which really makes all the difference to me.”

Wallace echoes Sayegh on the importance of being in touch with the customer’s healing needs. She says that her mission is to provide client-focused services with outstanding customer service.

“We take a moderately detailed intake with our clients before their first session to understand their health history, current treatments with other providers, occupations and activities and their goals for treatment,” says Wallace. “Our intake before follow-up sessions checks in on progress and the effects of the prior session.”

Wallace and her staff keep detailed treatment notes on each session, and are often in touch with a client’s other health care providers to ensure treatment plans are aligned for the benefit of the client.

Wallace maintains that the strengths of independent practices are excellent and predictable customer experience, the personal touch that is possible thanks to the strong provider-client relationship, low employee turnover, and the knowledge that the owner can resolve issues on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t have the cushion to lose customers. Each and every one is important to our livelihood,” she says.

The Business of Collaboration

Sara Aymami, LMT, founder and owner of Deep Massage & Bodywork in San Francisco, says that she has a fantastic working partnership with a chiropractic group. From the beginning, she says, it was set up to be a win-win relationship.

“We continually refer to each other and are available to one another to collaborate on specific clients, when needed,” says Aymami. “If you are aligned in your mission statements, clientele and integrity, having others involved in your practice can only be beneficial.”

Wallace formed an alliance with two other independent therapists about a year ago. She wasn’t ready to hire full-time therapists, but her schedule had been consistently overbooked for months, and she really needed some assistance so she could devote some much-needed time to marketing, networking and planning.

“We had been forming solid relationships with each other for quite some time,” says Wallace of her eventual associates. “We all graduated from the same advanced training programs at a local school, but also had fairly diverse backgrounds. I knew their work, felt very comfortable with their professionalism and ethics, and knew I would have no hesitation in scheduling my clients with either of them.”

Wallace’s long-term vision is the creation of a whole-health and wellness center, which would bring together independent practitioners in various fields.

“It will provide the benefit of being co-located, sharing resources for marketing, administration, and so forth,” says Wallace, “while allowing each member to be entrepreneurial and independent.” She’s currently in the beginning stages of this venture, and feels strongly that her concept is a boon for practitioners and clients alike.

The result, she says, is that alliances can be very effective for small businesses as long as all parties have similar visions and goals.

Keeping your small business thriving relies on a combination of fundamental steps. Provide a unique service experience, track your clients’ needs and become a partner in their well-being, collaborate with like-minded practitioners in your community—and in your clients’ minds, no other business will compare.


Business 2 Business. “Silence is Not Golden: Customer Rage.” Feb 2005. B2B. 27 Sep 2007.

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