Last week I published a post about accepting competitor gift certificates. I've done this in my massage business for years and figured it would be a cool idea to share with you.
As always, you all brought up a variety of questions, concerns, and ideas I had never even considered. You raised ethical and professional considerations, the feelings of the gift giver, and much, much more. It's important to me that we all learn from each other. Moreover, it's important to me that we recognize the endless variety of our businesses, our marketing styles, and the techniques we choose to employ. There's an awful lot of gray area between right and wrong.
I admit, I started to read some of the challenging opinions and my defense mechanisms kicked in. For a split second I considered all those questioning my business morals to be ignorant, self-righteous clods. Then I was embarrassed for being so naive as to not see the potential for ickyness in this technique. So I spent considerable time this week reading your comments here on the blog and in various discussion groups and threads on Facebook. I spoke with many colleagues and I had dinner with my friend and mentor, Greg. We discussed the issue extensively over his Black & Tan and my Monty Python's Holy (Gr) Ale. Really. It was delicious.
We broke this topic down into both philosophical ideas and practical application. Hang on, here we go.
I chose a crappy title
I shouldn't have used the word competitor. I rarely use that word when I talk about other businesses. I don't actually consider any other practitioners or establishments providing massage to be my competitors. They are just other businesses. They do things that attract the right clients for them, and that's different from what I do, and certainly not a threat to my livelihood. So moving forward, I'm going to refer to them as 'outside' gift certificates.
It never occurred to me that accepting an outside gift certificate would be considered stealing a client. I've never practiced this technique with any nefarious intent. In my mind, I was making it easier for a potential client- with whom I had just made a genuine connection- to come in to my office. That's it. But I see now how this technique could be perceive as icky, and we'll be discussing some boundaries and scripts for keeping it real later in this post. We talk a lot about intent with our hands on work, I believe this applies, to a degree, with marketing as well.
But you're giving massage for free!
One dude in a group even said, of a colleague who stated he was going to begin doing this, "He wont be making ANY MONEY. Just getting a massage. He wont be in practice very long.....He isnt very smart!" and "[He] is using bad business sense!" [sic] Then I got kinda Julia Sugarbaker on him and he went quiet. Hey, I have my moments, too. Baby steps.
Dissenters aside, you are not giving a massage for free. You are accepting an alternate form of payment. (FYI-I have a meeting with my tax guy scheduled in February. My first accountant years ago told me that accepting the gift certificate is a form of barter and should be recorded on your tax filing as such. I'm going to get my new guy's opinion and get back to you.)
We don't own clients (or potential clients)
If you get twitchy at the idea of your client seeing another therapist intermittently, or switching to someone else altogether, you've got the problem. Get your ego in check and get over yourself. You can't be the perfect therapist for every client all the time. You just can't. If you're thinking more about what's best for you instead of what's best for that client, maybe you should consider a job change. We all have our moments of fear in running a business. But if you make decisions base on fear or jealousy, or let it cloud your therapeutic judgement, your problems are bigger than gift certificates.
Frankly, if one of my local colleagues gets pissy about me doing this, they are probably an asshat who I don't want to play with anyhow. Sure, they could say nasty things about me, but more often that reflects badly on them, not me.
Once they are sold (or donated), we don't own the gift certificate anymore
The recipient can do whatever the heck they want with it. Use it, regift it, use it as a coaster or birdcage lining. Selling gift certificates is a risk. If you're threatened by the very notion of another therapist accepting your gift certificate and then coming to see you, pull yourself together. They simply met this person first, they are not the enemy. And if you pay your cards right, that therapist could be an ally and a referral partner. If that colleague is a jerk, they probably won't ever come in anyhow. You got paid for the gift certificate already. Or you donated it and you're not out any money anyhow. Move on, there's nothing to see here.
So that's what I've been thinking about the week. But you all asked some very smart, tangible questions about the protocol, and the ethics of the technique in very specific situations. Let's tackle that.
What if the gift certificate was a donation?
My friend Jill commented, "What happens when the gift certificate you are honoring is one that someone donated to a silent auction of some charitable organization with the notion they want to be charitable, and also have the opportunity to get their hands on some new clients to demonstrate their skill and hopefully retain the client as a paying customer. I’ve done that many times before as a marketing strategy and I think I might feel kind of badly toward a practitioner for derailing my marketing intention."
Jill makes a great point. If I was to accept the gift certificate and throw it away, that therapist would never reap the rewards of their thoughtful donation. They may get a little goodwill from the event organizers who saw the donation, and the therapist certainly isn't out any money, but they don't get the new, potentially loyal client they were hoping for.
But this argument undervalues my potential relationship with the business or independent therapist I go to see. It’s no less valuable than that of a non-therapist new client. Frankly, it may be more valuable. I refer out like a maniac to good therapists I know. And I would get to know MORE of them if I could afford more massage.
I'm a massage therapist, but I'm also a client. My patronage is no less worthy than anyone else's.
What about the feelings of the gift-giver?
Regifting happens. I have a hard time feeling bad for someone who gives stuff with strings attached. But I understand the idea here. Let's say Jane loves her massage therapist, Bob. She tells all her friends about Bob, and for Christmas, she gives her very best friend Penelope a gift certificate for 90 minutes with Bob.
No doubt, Jane would be hurt if Penelope turned around and used that gift certificate with me because she met me at a chair massage gig before she made an effort to schedule with Bob. But in reality, that's not gonna happen. WHen I meet Penelope at the Relay for Life and she's sitting in my massage chair, she'll say, "Oh, I have a gift certificate for Bob, but I keep forgetting to schedule!" I'm going to say, "Oh, I know Bob, he's fantastic! Get scheduled already!" Unless she gives me some valid reason she doesn't want to go to Bob, I'm never going to offer to accept the gift certificate anyhow. (We've got more about promotion and scripts below. Stay with me.)
You can use your discretion.
Promoting this offer
Back when I started, I think I had this offer buried in a page on my website but primarily, I promoted it when I was talking to people at community gigs and in the welcome email when someone subscribed to my emails via my website.
I promoted this to people who had already made a connection with me. I do think that matters a great deal. After thinking this all through, I probably wouldn't suggest putting this on your website. There are too many technicalities to consider, too many rules you would have to state. In my email, and in person, I always just said, "I'll accept an outside gift certificate, once per person, per year." I did have a woman whose husband gave her a gift card to a local spa three times a year, even though she kept asking him to just get one for me. I think I took hers more often, but I really liked that spa, and I really liked that client. Eventually, I just said, "Do you want me to email your husband a link to my online gift certificate page?" And I did, but then they moved away, so I have no idea if that would've worked.
How do you determine the value of the gift certificate, and if it's valid?
My friend Irene owns a larger practice with several practitioners and a receptionist, so she gets the info over the phone when the client books and has the staff call to confirm that its legit, and its value. She does a dollar-for-dollar value. So if the gift certificate is for $50, but Irene's session costs $80, they pay the difference.
I operate on a more mellow scale. I have neither the time nor the inclination to do the legwork here. I've never been scammed and when I'm accepting this get certificate, it's from someone I probably met at a public gig. There's a connection established. My town is hardly small, but it's small enough and I grew up around here. I'm two degrees of separation from everyone I meet. That's usually been established, and it's just not likely that this person, who is my 5th grade teacher's brother, will try to scam me. I figure this is about the same risk as accepting a check for payment, and I don't worry about it. Also, I'm lazy.
If the gift certificate is for a service "30 minute massage" I usually just do the even swap. I don't worry too much about exact pricing. If it's for a specific dollar amount, I do that.
These are choices you get to make, according to what's right for your business. I don't recommend being as lazy as I am if you're going to get upset about being scammed.
Let's get you some scripts
It's hard to know what to say when these situations arise. You don't want to come off as gross and client-hungry. But when it's appropriate, you do want to encourage a potential client -with whom you've made a real connection- to get into your office So here are some situations and some scripts for you to build on.
In the Penelope situation
"Oh, I have a gift certificate for Bob, but I keep forgetting to schedule!" I'm going to say, "Oh, I know Bob, he's fantastic! Get scheduled already!" If she says she's weirded out by seeing a male therapist, I'll probably educate her about our training and draping. If she says she just doesn't have time, I'll probably say something about the importance of self care. In that moment, I'm Bob's biggest advocate. I'm massages biggest advocate. But if she tells me, "Jane doesn't realize, my religion prevents me from seeing a male therapist," then I would most definitely make the offer to accept the gift certificate.
When it's about discomfort
"Oh, my husband gave me a gift certificate for XYZ Spa for Valentine's Day, but I've never had a massage before and isn't it kind of awkward to just let someone you don't know rub you?" Again, there's an opportunity to educate a person about massage. So I would do that, and probably follow up with, "I think you should really give it a shot. But if you're really uncomfortable with that and would like to come to my office, I would be happy to accept that gift certificate." When she gets all, "Really?!" as people usually do, I tell her straight out, "I'll go get a massage or a pedicure myself. No big deal."
When it's for someone you really can't stand and would never refer to
We've all got some colleagues we would never refer to. Maybe her office is dirty. maybe you noticed she works really, really late and only sees male clients and what the hell was up with her being at her office with a client at 2am on a Tuesday that night you drove by when you woke up and thought you left the space heater on at your office and got out of bed and drove there to go check and as it tuned out you didn't leave the space heater on but really 2am on a Tuesday?! But I digress.
When someone says, "I've got a gift certificate for HER I still haven't used," I say, "That's nice, I know a few people who've been to her office." And then I use the same judgement as the other cases above. I may or may not offer to accept the gift certificate (knowing full well I'll never use it) depending on the remainder of the conversation.
So there's that
We could come up with a zillion more facets to discuss here, but I doubt that's necessary. The beauty of owning a massage business is that you get to call the shots. If this, or any marketing technique, feels icky to you, don't do it. If you think it through, consider the ethics and boundaries, and decide you are comfortable with the practice, do it. There's no rule saying you can't change your mind later.
Once again, thanks for keeping me on my toes. I love you for that.
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