Selling products to your massage clients is one way that you can boost your income as a massage therapist. The trouble is that there is so much more to selling products than meets the eye. It seems many massage therapists don’t really understand the therapeutic relationship and the power differential that occurs during a massage session. It brings up many possibilities of conflict of interest and many other challenges.
The therapeutic relationship is the relationship that occurs between client and therapist. Clients receive massage in a very vulnerable state- half or completely undressed (yes of course draped). They bring to the massage table their many fears and deep feelings. Massage in itself creates the nurturing environment that they should have received early in their life but of course in many lives it was severely lacking. The main component of the therapeutic relationship is to ensure that the massage session is totally about the client and not about the therapist. That is not always as easily done as it really sounds. It should be simple – do the massage.
What happens though is very complex. From the very moment that a client decides that they want to get a massage, the transference process begins. Clients are looking for a trusted professional that knows what they are doing so that they can help them with whatever issue- pain, stress or just to relax. They immediately assume that the therapist may have the ‘power’ to fix what ails them. They turn their power over to the therapist. You will hear clients say things like – You know best! or when asked about the pain level of the pressure, clients will say “I can take it”.
When clients assume massage therapists can fix them. Clients may often feel powerless to help themselves. This creates a power differential that can affect the client in many ways. The therapeutic relationship develops over time. You maintain a safe place for clients and yourself by creating boundaries. The boundaries are the framework for your business and for preserving the therapeutic relationship. When boundaries become blurred and the framework shaky, it can interfere with the therapeutic process (the massage!). It can leave clients feeling uncomfortable and less trustful. It can also be draining to the therapist which can lead to further problems like burn out.
When you sell products, you have to ask ” Who is this for”? Is it more to increase my income or is it truly for the client’s well being. Many massage therapists will answer this question by saying that yes the product does indeed and we assume that it correct based on what we know. Often this assumption is not correct. When you decide what your clients need, it is often more about you than the client. Yes you can have ideas based on your training and skills, but only the client can really know what they need. The goal of the massage therapist is to be able to work together to achieve the clients needs.
So what happens then when you go to selling products to your client? There are many issues that come up. First with the power differential, clients may often feel compelled to buy the recommended products because they want to ‘please’ you. Some of the things that can go wrong after the sale are things like the client might then want to have extra time on the table because they feel like they did you a favor by buying the product. Also, what happens when the products don’t work or actually harm clients. One case I saw was a massage therapist selling a Multi-Level Marketing Product to a client (a special tea) and the clients hair fell out. You lose a client and face a possible law suit. What if the vitamins or aromatherapy oil don’ work for the client. All of these things then jeopardize the therapeutic relationship.
When you start selling products, you also create a dual relationship with the client. You are now not only their massage therapist, but you are their product sales person. Dual relationships increase the risk of doing business. You may be seeking continued sales of your products. Is that really about the client or in the client’s best interest? Not always.
The challenge of the sole proprietor.
Selling products can be more challenging for the sole proprietor. The issue is that you are selling directly to people who you massage. The therapeutic relationship is with you directly as compared to a massage therapist working at a spa where they sell products. The thing to consider is whether or not it is really worth it to sell products and also deal with the inventory and bookkeeping. If you are just one person doing all the massage, how much can you really make? If you see 20-25 clients a week and sell them a tube of Biofreeze – how much extra is that? ($4 approximately)
A better way to go might be to sell products through an affiliate program on your website. That way you are not only selling to clients, but to anyone who visits your website. You don’t have to carry inventory and you don’t really sell directly. You do need to have a statement on your website that says how you do make money through your website but that can easily be done. You can learn more on how to do that in my ebook Websites That Work for Massage Therapists
Multi-level marketing companies love massage therapists because they usually need to make extra money and many products are health related products. Selling MLM products seems to make people do crazy things. As a massage therapist, I have had so many tapes, brouchures, sample products sent to me without me asking about them or even knowing about them. ( I once had someone send me a ball through the mail! link to my Facebook page with the evidence!) If you want to participate, there are ways of doing it, without being obnoxious.
- Sell only things that you use and trust
- Sell only things that are in your scope of practice. (Vitamins/Herbs are mostly out of scope of practice!)
- Don’t do crazy things! Just have the products on the shelf and if clients ask, tell them about it or use the products in the session and if they like it they will ask about it.
Product Sales at Multi- therapist offices/spas.
The sales process at multi-therapist businesses and places like spas where many massage therapists and others work, is usually less risky. The massage therapist is usually not the person selling the product (or there may be a small financial incentive to sell products). Massage therapists use the product during the session and then they buy them at the front desk on their way out. No heavy sales pressure or tactics.
Selling Products Ethically.
Selling products is really up to you but you need to be aware of the many issues that may arise and understand how doing so may jeopardize the therapeutic relationship that you have with your clients. You can do some things to reduce the risk and sell things more ethically.
- Ask yourself Why do I want to sell this product? Is it really for the benefit of the client?
- Is there a clear power differential between the client and myself right now? and Am I setting the client up to take advice because of their present need, rather than the service I am providing?
- Will there be a conflict of interest?
A conflict of interest is a situation in which someone, in a position of trust, has a competing professional or personal interest. These competing interests make it difficult for him or her to objectively execute their primary duty or responsibility, which is to first and foremost serve the best interests of their clients.
Conflict of Interest Written by Cidalia Paiva, PhD
- Is it worth it to have money tied up in inventory, collect and pay sales tax and track sales?
- Figure out if you can sell products legally as a massage therapist.
- Find your scope of practice. Most scope of practice laws just include doing massage and defining what massage is. Check with your state board.
- If you are a member of an association, check their code of ethics to make sure you are in compliance.
- Make sure the product is effective and scientifically sound. You don’t want to sound like a snake oil sales person. See Snake Oil Medicine Show by Laura Allen
- If you are going to sell essential oils, make sure you know what you are doing. Just taking a weekend class in it, does not make you and expert. Essential oils are not as simple as they appear and they can be harmful if used incorrectly. See this article: Essential Oils Simply Complex What We Must Know By Karrie Osborn, Massage And Bodywork Magazine.
- Sell products like ice packs or other things you actually use in a session. Biofreeze is a good example.
- Make sure your liability insurance will cover other product sales.
If you really need the extra money, you might just want to consider a part time job or creating a whole separate website on some topic that you really know and love that can make you extra income. That is what I do with my many websites and I learned how to do that through using Site Build it! (SBI!) Everyone also seems to want to use the explanation that doctors do it and so do many other health care providers. That doesn’t necessarily make it ethical or legal. The AMA does not support physicians selling products as outlined in Opinion 8.063 – Sale of Health-Related Products from Physicians’ Offices
You can also add extra massage related services to increase your income. Learn Hot Stone Massage or learn more clinical massage techniques that really will set you aside from everyone else so you can charge more. You can also add other spa services like a Sauna or Float Tank to your list of services. Anything you can add that does not make you do more massage is also good. You can start teaching couples massage classes too!
Great article. Good information about boundaries and our position as health care professionals. I do have a limited amount of products, but those were requested by clients for their convenience. Products such as BioFreeze, limited essential oils, ice packs, bath salts, and the foot creme I use in the sessions. BioFreeze is popular with people who are not clients, too. Since I am a sole proprietor, and most people in the area know this, they call ahead to stop in to make a purchase. They don’t have to for gift certificates since I have those on line. I don’t try to sell anything but myself when I am out in the community or the office. I already have a something of value: massage, though prior to MT, have training several other holistic modalities. There is no conflict because I don’t let it become one. Almost thirty years ago, I began working in the therapeutic environment of a psych and chemical dependency hospital. I take boundaries, transference, counter-transference seriously. I do not sell multi level or direct sales products. People are biting at my heels constantly about their products. Even my own doctor is involved in a multi level company. If it was not for the overall care I have received, I would have left him because I feel so strongly about not participating in those companies. As my influence over clients, I give them a lot of space when it comes to what I have for sell. They also know that if they aren’t happy with it they can bring it back, no questions asked. No, products don’t bring in a lot of money, I have Quick Books, and a twice a month bookkeeper, so it works.