Steve Capellini's Seven Tips for Handling Spa Therapists

Massage therapists can sometimes be "prima donnas"--thinking of ourselves as artists rather than employees, which make us an unruly bunch to organize. In fact, last year at the ISPA conference I delivered a speech on this topic in which I compared massage therapists employed in spas to the "geeks" employed by computer companies. They're a vital part of what makes your business work, but sometimes they're difficult to work with.

Following are the seven points I recommended in that talk to help managers and owners deal effectively with therapists/geeks in their own spa. At the end of each point is a sentence in quotes. If you finish the sentence with a constructive idea and then follow through with it in your spa, you may find yourself with a better relationship to your massage staff. I hope it helps.

1. Get to know your Geek community

Geek/massage therapists are anti-social in a certain sense because they speak their own lingo and have their very own strange way of looking at the world. Perhaps it comes from poking other people's bodies all day... but you can hear them talk about "loosening people" or "freeing their joints" and not think anything's weird. They are, however, very-social within their communities. If you can become part of that community by taking some classes, for example, learning to speak "massagese," and becoming interested in what they do, it will help a lot. Share in their likes/learn their lingo and practice their skills a little bit.
Idea: Get them to teach you — It will help if the other managers are also conversant — why not have the therapists give a class to the upper management?
Therapists have big egos — more like astronauts or pro sports stars than other employees. Become a "coach" instead of a boss, empower your team to victory, and share in their success.

"One way I could get to know you massage therapists better is ..."

2. Learn what your Geeks are looking for

MONEY IS NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. Your therapists want to make an impact and to HELP. Getting credit for their accomplishments is paramount.
Get them involved in the success of the spa by thinking about revenue sharing/incentive systems -- goals/bonuses for business brought in or well done. Also consider compensation plans to help build treatment revenue.

"One way I could learn what you massage therapists are really looking for is..."

3. Create new ways to promote your geeks

You have to find a way to promote therapists without turning them into managers. They need a forward career path, however, including recognition and more money.
Showcase your Geeks. Promote them as experts, help them give talks at spa, and do outreach elsewhere.
I know it's controversial, but I believe allowing your therapists to give your clients private out-call massages is OK -- the best way to keep clients is to give them away to your therapists because in that way you keep the best therapists. Think about it.

"One way I could help promote you is..."

4. Either Geeks are part of the solution, or they're the problem

Therapists are trained to take care of people's problems, and if you can make them feel like they're helping, then they will inspired. They want to feel challenged by the work that they're doing (at least the good ones do).
Especially when it comes to selling, you have to make it a challenge for them to do it in their own way or they won't do it. It must be seen as a personal crusade with meaning.
You can tell them what to do, but you can't tell them how to do it (like an artist, you can give him all the details of what you want created but not how to create it).

"One way I could inspire you to help solve our common problems is..."

5. The best judges of Geeks are other Geeks

If you give them a forum within which to develop their own skills and hierarchy, you'll find that they automatically weed out the poorer performers because they are very proud of their skills and their profession. They're very good at judging their own.
Have them make presentations to each other/teach each other. Engender group projects that create a team from within.

"One thing I can do to help you form a self-regulating team is..."

6. Look for the natural leaders among your Geeks

The most natural leaders are often not managers. But they're the ones who motivate the team. These naturals emerge quickly. Make these people happy by giving them access to senior management. Forget seniority; think of new ways to "rank" therapists.

One typical problem is the Know-it-all therapist who's always complaining. The solution? Make her boss, pay an extra $1 an hour, put her in charge and see what it's like to be on your side, say for a trial period. Most therapists have no idea how hard it is to be a good manager.

"One way I could bring out the best natural leaders among you Geeks is..."

7. Be prepared for when the Geeks hit the fan

When problems with the massage staff arise, try not to intervene from the top down. Instead, bring in outside "experts" to review staff, so it's not coming from management. Consider all points of view and then if you must make negative change, do it with the help of a "natural leader" therapist who has team's respect.

"One way I could help you through difficult times is..."