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Education vs Sales: The Ethics of Retailing

Massage therapists are in a unique position to provide adjunct client care through product sales. Retailing helps therapists increase their income and provides their clients with products to extend the treatment benefits to home. It offers convenience for clients, and that alone can reduce their stress.

Yet many therapists are reluctant to sell products. They feel their job goes beyond touch and are concerned that retailing might be seen as unprofessional. They want to be respectful and not cross boundaries.

Product sales is a natural extension of the standard of care and healing already associated with massage therapy. A conflict doesn’t need to exist as long as a few guidelines are followed. If you are already running a professional, ethical practice, then retailing can naturally follow suit. If you keep good boundaries, treat people with respect and fairness, and remain client-centered, then you will manage product sales in the same manner that you manage the rest of your practice.

Most clients appreciate the opportunity to buy products from their massage therapists’as long as the sales process isn’t pushy and is relevant to their needs and wants. Clients will trust your recommendations, especially on those products used in the session itself. Educating your clients about products means there is no real reason to have to have to sell anything to your clients.

Basic Ethical Concerns

Ethical products sales is not about hype or “hard-sell” tactics. The goal is to provide clients with easy access to high-quality products that enrich their well-being. You should only sell products you know are reliable, suitable for use by your clients, within your scope of practice, are a natural extension of your business and congruent with your image.

You must know every one of your products well and convey that information to your clients. For instance, if your client really enjoyed the cervical hot pack you used during the session and wants to purchase one, you would educate the client how to use the pack and under what circumstances not to use it.

If you have a private practice or work in a group setting, you have control over what you sell and how you sell. This is usually not the case if you work in a spa or massage center. Many spas and massage centers require their practitioners to sell products. The common expectation is that massage therapists generate between five to 20 percent of their total sales in home-care products or supplies. As a side note, most estheticians are required to generate upwards of 50 percent. Salaries, bonuses and seniority are often based on the amount of products sold.

This can cause problems. Therapists worry about being perceived as “pushing” unwanted products. They often feel that they don’t have enough time between sessions to sell products. They may have a lack of training in product knowledge and application. And some products might not be within the therapist’s scope of practice.

Ideally, before taking a job at one of these establishments, clarify their product sales requirements, and make sure that you feel comfortable and confident in their product lines. If you currently work in such a setting and don’t like the products, then talk with management. Offer input on the product lines so that the company can carry items that you feel comfortable selling. This makes it a win/win/win situation for you, the clients and the company. Perhaps you can develop a different system so that you don’t feel like you are hawking products or rushed for time. Also, make sure you learn about all of the products that you are expected to sell. If training isn’t provided, then at least read the materials that accompany the products and research the items online.

If product sales are not handled well, they can negatively impact your practice. The major issue here is: are you influenced more by the money that product sales generate, or are you selling products to clients because they need or want them? Exercise caution and check your motives to make certain that you are not “pushing” a little harder because your income is down or because you are required to meet a targeted sales volume.

The Power Differential

The power differential is the key factor in ethical product sales. As a massage practitioner, a power differential exists between you and your clients. You are the authority figure whose actions, by virtue of your role, directly affects your clients’ well-being. In massage the power differential is amplified by the physical aspects of practice. Clients take a position—usually lying or sitting—in which they allow you access to their body. You position yourself within the client’s physical space, often leaning over the client. Furthermore, in massage the client is partially or fully unclothed. Although draping is used for privacy, the psychological effect of the unclothed client and the clothed practitioner increases the imbalance of power. Finally, as your hands make physical contact with the client’s body, the client’s physical safety is literally in your hands.

The increased perception of the power differential in a massage session puts clients in a highly vulnerable position. They may feel uncomfortable about raising concerns or making requests. Clients may find it difficult to say “no” or refrain from communicating anything that could possibly be construed as negative for fear of reprisal or loss. Also, clients often assume that you are the authority and may feel influenced to purchase products out of a need to please you or because they think you know best.

Reduce the possible abuse of the power differential by restricting your conversation about products to before or after sessions. It’s fine to mention the product during a session, such as, “Now I am going to use XYZ product on you. If you are interested in learning more information about it, we can discuss it after the session.” The post-session interview is a good time to reference products. It is natural to recommend products that are appropriate to the client’s goals when you are reviewing the treatment plan and any “homework” you might have for a client. This is also the time to ask for feedback on any of the products you used during the session.

Ethical Product Sales: Do’s

  1. Carefully consider the products you carry. Make sure they are appropriate and wanted. Choose items that are professional grade and reliable. Remember, you have access to products that most consumers can’t easily find!
  2. Review clients’ charts for their overall goals, needs and concerns—and attempt to find products that would best serve them.
  3. Know your products well. Clients depend on you to provide them with accurate information and guidance.
  4. Convey the proper use, benefits and possible side-effects or contraindications to your clients. Your clients will lose faith in you (and then no longer be your clients, not to mention the loss of goodwill) if you fail to adequately inform them about the appropriate use, benefits, limitations and possible side effects or contraindications of the products you sell.
  5. Restrict detailed conversation about products to before or after the sessions.
  6. At the end of subsequent sessions ask clients if they are using the products, if they have any questions about the proper use of the products they previously purchased, and if they are running low on consumables.
  7. Clearly label the cost of products.

Ethical Product Sales: Don’ts

  1. Don’t overuse products.
  2. Don’t make product claims that the manufacturer doesn’t make or would not support.
  3. Don’t manipulate or coerce your clients.

Your Unique Position

Keep in mind your unique position as a massage therapist. You have a broad knowledge base about the body and what products can support clients in achieving their wellness goals. You have access to many superior products that the average client is unable to purchase at a local store or even online. Also, some companies only sell their products to practitioners and not the general public.

Most massage therapists spend at least 1 hour with each client. In that time you really get to know your clients’ needs. Plus, the longer a client has been working with you, the better informed you are to help and recommend appropriate products.

Clients like to get products from you and appreciate the convenience of purchasing from you. They expect you to know more about these products than they do and that you will choose the best ones for them.

Ultimately, selling products is no different than “selling” your services—simply share your enthusiasm about them. If you make your products visible, accessible, attractive and affordable, your clients will buy them when it is appropriate.

Cherie Sohnen-Moe and Lynda Solien-Wolfe collaborate on ways to support therapists to work smarter with product sales. For more information visit Retail Mastery, or on Facbook.