Matchmakers' new game: Give clients a redo

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Aleeza Ben Shalom aims to "figure what's working and what's not working." (KATE MCCANN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

REMEMBER THE old song about matchmakers making matches? Finding finds? Catching catches? If, this Valentine's Day, you find yourself single, seeking - and thinking about hiring someone to set you up - forget those lyrics. Forget about old-world matchmakers. Things have changed a lot since that guy fiddled on a roof.

Today's paid-for couple-creators are no longer simple setter-uppers. They're full-service pros with the savvy of Bravo's "Millionaire Matchmaker" Patti Stanger and the cunning of VH1's "Tough Love" host Steve Ward.

What's more, they're not merely looking to find you a date, or even a mate. They aim to change how you date, how you behave - even how you see yourself.

TV matchmakers take an extreme approach to transforming singles. Stanger sends her money-dripping customers to therapists, New Age healers and psychics. When that fails, she typically screeches, bangs on her desk, gets her punk-rock helpers to toss the poor (yet rich) clients out of her office, and waits for her producers to bring them back next season.

On his show, Ward, a Philly native and second-generation matchmaker, sequesters gorgeous yet guyless gals and puts them through sometimes humiliating exercises in self-discovery. He's been known to correct these single ladies' mistakes mid-date by zapping them with electric shocks. (Isn't love grand?)

Such high-impact highjinks might work on-screen. But these practices also have real-life roots, right here in Philly. JoAnn Ward, founder of 20-plus-years-old Center City-based Master Matchmakers - and the business partner, executive producer and mom of Steve - has in the past few years witnessed a restructuring of her M.O. "The old business model we had . . . it was just random," she said. "We were hoping [common] interests, values and hobbies would make a relationship work."

These days, singles have hundreds of ways to meet compatible companions. There's match.com and J-Date, OKCupid and eHarmony, Facebook, Twitter, speed dating. The dating scene has changed dramatically. "Finding people is the easy part. You can meet people everywhere," said Steve Ward. "The singles market has shifted into a free market."

So, matchmakers have shifted their focus. Sure, they'll set you up with the person of your dreams. But first, they'll set you straight.

 

Put me in, coach

Before jumping into the dating pool, say the Wards, Master Matchmakers' clients undergo a four-part coaching program. The initial stage is standard profile/assessment. Next comes the who-are-you-looking-for stage. After that, lessons in flirting and attracting said person. This includes do's and don'ts for the digital age: How many texts are too many? Too few? When should I send them? Last: How to plan a future together.

Throughout the process, the Wards and their staff help singles look at themselves, at what they've done wrong before and what they can fix the next time around. (For the record, Master Matchmakers' paying clientele don't receive electric zaps.)

"Even the best athletes and most talented performers in the world require coaches," explained Steve Ward. "Coaches give them a point of view they'd never be able to see themselves."

 

It's not them, it's you

She might not have her own TV show, or even her own office, but Bala Cynwyd's Marriage Minded Mentor Aleeza Ben Shalom employs a similar system. Her clients, all single, all straight and all Jewish, sign up for four one-hour, once-a-week sessions that aim to "figure what's working and what's not working, what would be better avenues to try." She tells them in order to find love, they need to "stop dating, and start dating themselves."

She said her job is to help the unhitched confront their own confidence-dashing obstacles - her male clients often wish for more career stability; the women frequently want to lose weight - before they can find the love they want.

For this last part, Ben Shalom will either make an introduction or set them free to DIY. She's found with the proper preparation, her singles find their future spouse in 10 matches or less. Match made, she then guides them through their engagement adventure.

Jill Elliot, owner of Levittown's boomer-friendly dating service Sweet Beginnings, has been in the biz for more than 25 years. A former marriage counselor, she caters to mostly previously married professionals whom she describes as "a little leery about jumping into a relationship, a little bit more cautious, guarded."

Although Elliot's had patrons find love at first setup, she's also seen folks founder out of the gate. For slow starters, she now provides one-on-one coaching. Sweet Beginnings' extra help is mainly about schooling rusty romancers in conversation skills, clothing choices, proper manners and expectation modification. "I call it the ABCs of dating," she said, explaining, "A lot of people haven't dated in a long time. They don't know what to do. So, I help with basic pointers."

 

We need to talk

Premier Match's Christie Nightingale takes a slightly more corporate approach to improving her client's luck in love. Four years ago, she incorporated a counseling program into her basic service package.

After their first date, clients come to her with feedback. Daters who get the same critiques three or more times can expect to be called in for an in-person sit-down. Sometimes, said Nightingale, the problem is small, "a faux pas, or behavior issues - they're showing up late, or answering every text that shows up on their phone."

Other times, it's a bigger deal. One example, she said, is "an older man who makes a lot of money and claims to be high energy and expects to meet a younger woman, but when he goes out on dates, he's a big, tired bore." In that case, said the matchmaker, "We might have to change his criteria."

Fees for these services vary widely. Some require a few sessions and charge accordingly. (Marriage Minded Mentor charges $50-$100 an hour, a sliding fee based on the client's salary. Sweet Beginnings' trial plan will start you dating for $200-$300.) Others entail extensive coaching and annual memberships, such as Master Matchmakers, which charges $2,500 to $5,000. Premier Match charges $5,500 to $10,000 for a yearlong Philadelphia membership.

Whatever the strategy - or cost - changing a single person's attitude is the toughest part of the job, matchmakers say. The truth, notes Nightingale, "can be difficult to swallow," but if they "take it in stride, and make minor adjustments," they'll see results.

"All of us have been in situations where we don't get a call back after a date. Now, you're finding out why."