In principle, most massage therapists support the idea of referring their clients to other healthcare practitioners when necessary to promote their overall well-being. We refer to doctors when it seems a client may have a serious medical condition requiring treatment. We refer to chiropractors for subluxations, to physical therapists for strengthening and stretching, to psychotherapists for emotional duress, and to nutritionists for weight management and dietary recommendations. However, we may be hesitant to recommend our clients to see other massage therapists, despite the fact that we obviously believe in the benefits of massage therapy. Though there are many reasons that we may hesitate to refer to other massage therapists, today we will focus on just one: the fear that we are giving away our clients to our competitors.
No matter what setting in which we work as massage therapists, we are acutely aware that the number of clients we have returning to us on a regular basis directly represents our level of income. Naturally, we want to keep these clients coming back to us to keep our own practice healthy and thriving. Like most fears, the key to working with this fear lies in recognizing to what extent it is based in reality and how much of it is our own imagination.
It is true that if you send a client to another therapist that there is a chance that the client will decide they prefer that other therapist and not return to you. However, this risk can be minimized or all but eliminated by the way in which you refer. If you are referring out, it should be because some other therapist can provide a service that you cannot. If you specialize in neuromuscular work and are experienced in neck work, you might refer out to someone who specializes in aromatherapy or hot stone work. When we refer out for complementary, but different services, our clients are more likely to return to us for the unique benefits our approach provides.
You should also refer to therapists you know, whose work you trust. When you begin to work with other therapists you can discover where your work overlaps and where there are legitimate differences that combine to represent a greater range of treatments to your clients. Discuss with other therapists your own attitude toward referral until you can find therapists whose philosophy of care coordinates with your own. Both you and the other therapist can benefit if you approach referral as an opportunity to share client visits between you. The client benefits because they can receive the type of work that they need without having to feel like they are betraying their therapist and without having to shop for a new one.
This benefit to the client applies to all the clients you keep, but will also apply to those who do decide to work with a different therapist. If you approach referral with an open, honest and confident demeanor, the clients who choose to leave you will do so with a sense of satisfaction. As therapists we know that no one of us is going to be the perfect fit for every potential client that graces our table. Trying to keep a client for whom you are not a good fit, or who is not a good fit for you, may lead to a little extra income for you for two or three sessions. However, these clients inevitably stop receiving massage or move on to other therapists of their own accord. When that happens they have little they can say to other potential clients except that you were not the right fit for them. On the other hand, if you can recognize when a referral to another therapist would benefit the client, their experience of you changes. Now they view you with gratitude as the person who helped them to find the right fit. They will respect that you believe in massage therapy enough that you would rather they work with the right therapist for them, than that they abandon massage altogether. When they talk to others about you they are more likely to stress your professionalism and helpfulness.
Moreover, you’ll be surprised by the number of clients to whom you suggest referral out, who decide to stay with you. By being willing to send them to someone else you demonstrate that you are more committed to their long-term well-being than to your own short-term profit. If we are possessive of clients or seem insecure about sending them out, we send the message to them that we are not sure of our own ability to provide them with massage therapy. They may begin to wonder if there isn’t someone else out there who would be a better fit. In short, the more you trust your own ability, the less concern you’ll have about “losing” clients to referral and the more benefit you, your colleagues and your clients will benefit from appropriate referral.