She is the recipient of several business awards and has spoken confidently at community and health-care events throughout her 24-year career, but when Margaret Wallis-Duffy was about to deliver a keynote presentation to attendees at the Massage Therapy Canada Business Forum last September, her hands were shaking.
By Mari-Len De
“I was nervous speaking in front of a small group of massage therapists,” Wallis-Duffy admits. “I was nervous because it matters, because I believe in this profession.”
In the 24 years since Wallis-Duffy graduated from Sutherland Chan, she has worn many hats – registered massage therapist, multidisciplinary clinic owner, entrepreneur, and media practitioner. She feels it is time to give back to the massage therapy profession and share two decades of accumulated knowledge and experience in the hopes of helping other RMTs make sense of the business side of practice.
Wallis-Duffy has built a successful multidisciplinary practice in Brampton, Ont., which houses eight massage therapists, two naturopathic doctors, an osteopath (who is also a RMT), a registered dietician, a physiotherapist, a family counselor, and a pedorthist. These are just the professionals practicing in the 2,000-square-foot upstairs level of the clinic. Downstairs is a 1,300-square-foot midwifery and breastfeeding clinic, with five midwives and a medical doctor. They are all operating under the Wallis and Associates umbrella, and it is no coincidence that Wallis-Duffy is at the heart of this operation.
Her efforts in the community have been recognized through the years as well. In 1997, just five years into practice, she won the Small Business of the Month award from the Brampton Board of Trade. She is the 2008 recipient of the Zonta Women of Achievement award in the category of sports, wellness and healthy living. Most recently, she received the 2015 Brampton Board of Trade Award of Excellence in Communication.
Begin with the end in mind
Wallis-Duffy could have been taking a page from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits when she opened her own clinic in 1992. She named her practice Wallis and Associates – a seemingly unusual name for a health practice, but it was done with a purpose.
“It was a deliberate name I chose for two reasons: I wanted to (show) our power as a therapist and I wanted to earn the respect of medical professionals. It sounded like a law firm,” she smiles. “It sounded professional.”
“The other reason: I used ‘associates’ because I had a vision. I wanted there to be more than just me. Within six weeks (of opening), I had one other therapist, and within eight weeks I had two. And the rest is history,” Wallis-Duffy explains.
The vision was to establish a diverse health and wellness practice focused on holistic health, from pregnancy to palliative care, says Wallis-Duffy, who is also an internationally certified infant massage instructor. She started as a solo practitioner and gradually built a network of multidisciplinary practitioners providing a whole range of health and wellness services.
Talking to massage therapists at last September’s Business Forum, she conveyed the importance of having a vision, believing in that vision and sticking to it – and the journey toward that vision begins way before the RMT’s certification and registration.
“You need to be thinking while you’re still in school about where you’re going,” Wallis-Duffy notes. “I know you have to focus on your studies, but you really have to think about being ahead of the curve.”
Before vision, however, the belief has to be there, she adds. The belief in massage therapy and its potential to significantly affect people’s health and wellness dawned on her when she went for a massage therapy treatment as a student in the kinesiology program at the University of Waterloo.
After witnessing how the therapist conducted postural assessment and neurological testing, Wallis-Duffy was convinced massage therapy was the career for her.
“I always knew that I was interested in the human body and health care,” she recalls. “What really attracted me (to massage therapy) was that I could be an entrepreneur. I could have my own vision; that I could work in a hospital but didn’t have to. That I could own a business and a clinic, and that I could really see people from pregnancy through to palliative care. I love people and I wanted to have diversity in what I do.”
Beyond the treatment room
Today, Wallis-Duffy is as passionate about the massage therapy profession as she was 24 years ago when she decided to pursue it as a career. Her motto, “Attitudes are contagious. Is yours worth catching?” embodies her belief in massage therapy and in elevating the profession.
Her passion for the power of touch on people’s health was the fuel behind the growth of her practice, but the owner of Wallis and Associates admits it took time, effort and lots of creativity to get to where the practice is today.
For starters, she says, sitting in the clinic and waiting for people to show up at the door is not always the best way to grow a practice.
“I was visiting doctors and bringing banana breads – that our team baked – and referral pads, and earning people’s respect,” Wallis-Duffy says. “I found creative ways that didn’t have to cost money. It just cost time outside of the treatment room walls so that I could build a business.”
It’s not just about bringing food and referral pads that got medical professionals referring patients to Wallis-Duffy’s clinic. The regular visits of the Wallis team to doctors’ offices included spending time to provide complimentary health-care services to the physicians’ clinic staff – it could be a massage therapist providing in-chair massage, the physiotherapist showing some stretches or naturopath offering some advice on health.
“We had to go in and prove and earn the respect of the doctor. What physicians’ office does not like the idea of having a group of therapists coming to take care of the caregivers?” Wallis-Duffy says.
Marketing your clinic to the community need not cost a fortune, according to Wallis-Duffy, who says she never spent money on traditional advertising. Spending time in the community through various outreach or volunteer work can be more valuable for the practice than thousands of dollars spent on a newspaper or radio ad to promote one’s clinic.
Participating in local health fairs, volunteering your services at the community hospital or health-care centre, offering free treatment or fundraising for a good cause, even conducting free health information sessions for the community – these are some of the things a therapist can do to raise the clinic’s profile and, at the same time, educate the community about the benefits of massage therapy.
It takes time, but it builds a stronger foundation for the practice, Wallis-Duffy points out. At Wallis and Associates, for example, every therapist is encouraged to offer a maximum of five complimentary treatments a year. With eight massage therapists at the clinic, that makes up to 40 treatments that the clinic is giving out to the community for free.
“Yes, it’s money out of your time, but it’s not money you spend out of your pocket,” Wallis-Duffy says. “But that opportunity, one-on-one, to prove to your patient that you should be their therapist, it works.”
The principle of word-of-mouth marketing then comes into play, as happy clients and positive outcomes lead to the all-important referrals. Doctor referrals comprise 80 per cent of the people who walk into Wallis and Associates.
Another best practice that goes in tandem with referrals: Communicate.
Wallis-Duffy says it is always good business etiquette to follow-up and thank the referring physician. Update them on the treatment plan for the patient and communicate the results back to the doctor. The therapist is likely to develop a lasting relationship with medical doctors once trust and respect are earned – and the doctor would likely refer patients to a therapist they feel confident about.
Naturally, not every endeavour will result in success, but it’s important to treat everything as a learning experience. When things go south, as it likely will, Wallis-Duffy says one must learn to “fail forward.”
“A lot about this business is trial and error – failing forward, picking myself up, dusting myself off, evaluating what we did right, what we did wrong and how we can do it better, and moving forward each time.”
Belief and confidence in massage therapy also led Wallis-Duffy to venture into unknown territory: television.
She recalls watching an episode of Cityline years ago, which had a segment called, Health and Family Day. She started faxing the TV show (this was before the time of computers and e-mails) offering her expertise as a massage therapist on various health topics. Every day for one year, Wallis-Duffy was pitching story ideas on health topics related to massage therapy to Cityline – from growing pains and babies with colic to the latest research on reducing chronic pain in adults.
Finally, the call from the TV show’s producers came, wanting to do a taped segment at Wallis-Duffy’s clinic. This was followed by several more guest appearances on Cityline, and established the Brampton RMT as one of the program’s “wellness experts.”
“Being on Cityline was a great marketing tool,” she says. “Do I think television brings credibility? Maybe it does. Should it? Not necessarily… but it certainly opens the door for people to pay attention.”
Her television stints led to more opportunities for her practice to gain traction and for Wallis-Duffy to grow, professionally. One of those opportunities was an offer to be a media spokesperson for the Johnson and Johnson brand. The company paid for Wallis-Duffy to undergo a media-training course.
“By the end of that course I knew I was bitten by the media bug,” she recalls. “What I did see from television was my opportunity to educate and that is what I am passionate about – educating people on integrated health. Massage therapy absolutely deserves to play an intricate role in the integrated medical model.”
Years later, Wallis-Duffy adds “executive producer and host” to her professional titles. In addition to running a clinic and treating patients, she also spearheads WOW Media, a multimedia production company that produces web-based, “broadcast-quality” educational programming – videos and podcasts – focused on integrative health and wellness topics.
Wallis-Duffy describes WOW Media as a one-stop health and wellness “destination” for families, educating people on holistic health and integrative medicine.
“I knew that with the Internet, there was a huge opportunity for marketing,” she says. “I wanted to have a broadcast-quality online television and radio show that would bridge the gap. It would be in educational form. It would be a two-way communication tool using social media, because we can engage the community and get their feedback.”
Since it launched in 2010, WOW Media has produced a number of web video series on several health topics featuring various health and wellness experts. Wallis-Duffy wants to use her production company as a platform for educating people about evidence-based integrative health care and more importantly, about the role the massage therapy profession plays in wellness promotion.
Her hope is to be able to highlight more of the profession in these education videos.
“What should be happening is an on-going series on the power of touch and what we do in our profession, from pregnancy through to palliative care,” she says.
Although she has been in practice for 24 years, Wallis-Duffy continues to broaden her knowledge about health and wellness, as well as practice building.
She regularly attends conferences, even speaks at many of them. She makes it a point to go to conferences that are outside the massage therapy circle to expand her learning.
Wallis-Duffy is currently undergoing certification to become an age-friendly business through the Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.
“We have an aging population. I want to be able to make sure that when I am seeing patients that are seniors, that I am not only able to treat them, but provide the best service from a business perspective, as well,” she says.
She has also taken social media courses and has applied many of the new concepts around social media marketing to her own practice. She uses Twitter to drum up conversations on various health topics.
She recalls doing a Twitter storyline – a series of Tweets around a particular topic, in the hope of engaging an audience. The storyline was on osteopathy, and how it can help with lymph drainage.
A few days after posting the Tweets, a mother and daughter showed up at Wallis-Duffy’s clinic waiting to see the osteopath.
“How did they hear about us? Twitter. The mom had lymphedema from cancer and the daughter was on Twitter and saw our storyline on osteopathy. It converted to business four days later.
“It’s a remarkable tool, but what did we do first? We educated.”
Mari-len de guzman is the editor of Massage Therapy Canada magazine. She has been a journalist for more than 15 years. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.