Excuse Me, But I Didn’t Order This

Imagine you have a fabulous night of dinner and a show planned. You’ve been looking forward to this performance for months and don’t want to miss a minute of it. You found an Italian restaurant online that has great reviews near the venue and have reservations, so you should have just enough time to eat before heading over to the event.

You arrive at the restaurant and are greeted cheerfully. Your table is ready and your server arrives promptly to take your order. You are a connoisseur of spaghetti and meatballs, ordering it at every new Italian restaurant you visit. Your meal includes a salad with your choice of dressing and bread.

The bread arrives first. It is soft, warm and truly delicious, making you look forward to the rest of the meal. Next comes the salad. It is fresh and crisp, brimming with your favorite ingredients. As you take your first bite, you realize that it has bleu cheese dressing on it. You ordered ranch. Although you aren’t really fond of bleu cheese, you don’t say anything because the rest of the salad is wonderful.

Your entrée arrives perfectly timed but there’s a problem. You are served chicken cacciatore instead of the spaghetti and meatballs you ordered. You are torn between saying something to your server because you don’t have time to wait for another meal to be prepared, but this isn’t what you wanted. When your server comes by to ask how everything is, you tell her you got a different meal than you ordered. She smiles and tells you that chicken is much better for you than meatballs, so she decided to order that for you instead.

You’re a little upset and feel trapped between getting what you ordered and being on time for the show. You feel a bit helpless. Since you simply don’t have time, you decide to go ahead and eat it. The chicken cacciatore is good but you wish you were eating spaghetti and meatballs with every bite.

The check arrives and you’ve been charged for the chicken cacciatore you really didn’t want. You ask to speak to the manager. After explaining what happened, the manager tells you that since you ate the meal, you have to pay for it even if it isn’t what you ordered. You don’t want to be difficult, so you pay the bill and tip your server. The next day, you tell several people about your experience and never return to that restaurant.

When we don’t honor client requests, this is exactly how we are treating them. Clients come to us to get relief from tension, stress and pain. They know how they feel and may even know the massage techniques that are most effective for them. It is our obligation and responsibility to listen carefully to what they need and be willing to provide the treatment they ask for rather than what we’re most comfortable with or think is best for them.

Let’s go through this scenario again as if it was an appointment with a new client. They only have so much time with us and are expecting us to help them in that amount of time. A cheerful greeting and being on time set the tone for a good experience. As we go through the intake process, the client believes that we are devising a treatment plan based on the information they provide. Creating a welcoming atmosphere puts the client at ease so they feel safe and supported. Here are a few simple intake practices to clarify client expectations:

  • Listen actively and ask questions about any problem areas.
  • Ask if their priority is a full body massage or more specific work.
  • State your plan for the session and get their consent.

Giving them permission to ask for changes is pretty standard but it’s our job to reinforce it. Why should we check in when we already told them to let us know if they need something else?  Although we may tell our clients to let us know if there’s anything they’d like us to do differently, they are often reluctant to do so for fear of hurting our feelings or infringing on our expertise. The trouble with that is we may think they are happy with what we’re doing when in reality they wish we were doing something else. Once the massage starts, we should be checking in every so often to verify that we understand their wishes. We may justify not checking in because we don’t want to bother the client. The fact is it’s entirely possible to relax while answering an occasional question. Some questions to ask during the session include:

  • How does this feel?
  • Have we spent enough time here or do you need more?
  • Is there anything you’d like to revisit before you turn over?

 When we serve up what we think is best for our clients even when that’s not what they asked for, we take away their power. The number one reason clients don’t book a second appointment is because the therapist didn’t do what they wanted. The example of the server choosing a different meal for you may seem ridiculous but it’s exactly the same as a client asking for something that we agree to but don’t deliver. Especially with a client we’ve never worked with, there’s no way we can know more about their body than they do. If we truly believe that what they are asking for isn’t the best course of action, we need to explain why. If the server had told you that the spaghetti and meatballs were heavy and greasy but the chicken cacciatore was light and fresh, you could have made an informed decision for yourself rather than having it made for you. Consider these suggestions for navigating common challenges:

  • If they requested a full body massage but the problem area work is eating up time, ask if there are areas that can be skipped or addressed briefly so their pain can be better resolved.
  • If your schedule allows, ask if they’d like a longer session for a small additional fee.
  • If their pain is referred from a trigger point elsewhere, be sure to treat not only the trigger point but where they feel the pain as well.

We can honor client requests and stay true to ourselves. We each have a unique energy, intention and implementation that can be applied to any request. Striving to address each client’s needs takes our practices to a new level, leading to more variety in our work and exceptional results for those we serve.


Cath Cox has been a licensed massage therapist in Colorado since 1999 and is the creator of the Booked and Busy in 90 Days System™. Her mission is to heal the world by helping independent massage therapists build thriving practices of their own so they can work authentically for as long as they desire. She currently provides Ashiatsu barefoot deep tissue massage exclusively in her private practice. You can learn more about Cath and her journey at www.cathcox.com