My Achy Breaky Back

(Listen to this post, here.)

I probably should have seen the back injury coming.

I had just driven four hours straight in heavy traffic on my return from New York.

Back home in Massachusetts, I went directly to the apartment of my recently passed mother-in-law, where my wife, Linda, and her sister had been working all week to get things squared away.

It was our last day in the apartment, and there were many boxes that needed moving. None of them particularly heavy, but I confess that I pretty much parked, went upstairs, dropped my coat, and started loading up the cars.

All went well. Or so I thought.

Because the next day, while sitting at my computer minding my own business, I felt a sudden twinge in my back.

You know the rest. Lots of discomfort, lots of stiffness, several days walking around like Fred Sanford. (If you don’t know who Fred Sanford was, you may be too young to be reading this newsletter.)

And so, at Linda’s urging, I booked a massage appointment at a local place.


I don’t do these often (I prefer that strangers keep their distance); only when I have a particular pain.

In the past, I’ve gone to a woman named Claire, who had a studio near where we used to live.

But we’ve since moved a few miles in the other direction and so, instead, I booked an appointment with somebody else nearby.

On the surface, of course, a massage is a massage.

Warm room; watery music playing softly in the background; a big mirror on the wall where you stand in your underwear looking at yourself while flexing for a few minutes before hopping up on the table (or is that just me?).

Unfortunately, and as I soon realized, “on the surface” is not where a massage happens. And, it’s the reason why a massage with Claire is so much more effective.

In her case, and before she even gets down to work, she grills you intently regarding the problem:

What were you doing when the pain began? Do any particular movements or activities make it better or worse? Does it hurt when I do this? How about this?

And then, typically, she throws in at least one Sherlock Holmes-esque question that to me, as a medical novice, appears to be totally irrelevant. Something like, “By any chance, on the day of the injury, had you been eating chick peas before dawn?”

Only after she is satisfied that she’s gathered enough information does she set out to fix your body.

The woman at the new place? Not the same approach. Sure, she asked where the pain was and how it happened. But that was the extent of it.

The massage itself felt less like she was on the hunt to fix a specific problem, and more like she was simply providing an off-the-shelf, 45-minute back massage. Needless to say, it didn’t do much to fix things.

What’s this got to do with you as a solo professional? Plenty, my mirror-flexing friend.

Because regardless of your specialty – financial planning, leadership coaching, business consulting, whatever – you, too, have a set way of doing things.

That’s fine; we all need to develop processes.

But if that’s all you do – if all you offer is your version of an “off-the-shelf massage” – you’re giving your clients less than they need and leaving yourself open to being easily replaced by a competitor who has more or less the same training and experience.

Two reasons why:

First, because tweaking your standard approach is where much of the value (and competitive differentiation) lies.

Even similar situations have differences. And while there may be 90% overlap from client to client, the more you can adjust your standard approach to a given situation, the bigger a difference it will make to your clients – both in terms of the results themselves and in how you are viewed.

Second, because it’s what your clients want.

We’ve all been to the doctor who suggests the remedy before we’re even done explaining the problem. He may be right (and yes, sorry, it’s always a he), but whether he is or isn’t, part of what people want is to be heard.

If your goal is to develop a reputation as a likeable expert (and if it’s not, you’ve stumbled into the wrong newsletter), spend less time proving how smart you are and – especially in the beginning – more time letting your clients talk about what’s not working and where the pain is.

Here’s the bottom line. It’s efficient to streamline processes and develop a standard way of doing things. The trouble is, that factory mindset leads to treating everybody – and every problem – the same.

Take a page from Claire: Ask a LOT of questions before you get down to work. Then see if you can uncover what’s different about each situation, instead of what’s the same.

Discussion Questions:

  1. For 500 points each, name Fred Sanford’s two best friends on Sanford and Son? (No cheating.)
  1. How long should one flex before hopping up on the massage table? Discuss.
  1. How do you balance being efficient with offering customized services?

Share your comments below!

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7 thoughts on “My Achy Breaky Back

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Cliff! Yes, Grady is correct. And I will throw in 250 extra points for Lamont.

      Are you saying that flab doesn’t flex?

  1. Michelle Morris

    My condolences to you and Linda on the loss of her mother.

    Your chickpea question made me laugh. In my prior career (medicine) I remember learning about asking if the patient had recently gone barefoot in the Nile River. Apparently that is the only way one can contract a certain parasite! Note to self…..

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks, Linda’s mom was a gem.

      I love the Nile question. That’s exactly the kind of stuff she always asks!


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