Professionalism can take many forms and be expressed in many ways, from how you talk and dress to how you drape a client.

At its core, though, professionalism is a basic attitude of centering your practice on your clients and their needs, desires, attitudes and goals. There are many ways to demonstrate professionalism, but the most important one is setting appropriate boundaries.

The heart of setting boundaries is simple. You and your client are two different people, and what is desirable, important or appropriate to you may not be the same for the client. Of all the reasons clients leave their former massage therapists, many come down to a breach of boundaries.

Whether a therapist pushed a personal philosophy or religion; gives too much unrequested advice on nutrition, colon cleansing, or meditation; talks about subjects that are too personal for the client’s comfort; or just plain talks too much, clients will leave a therapist with good hands-on skills if he or she has poor boundary skills.

The Client is Vulnerable

The inherent nature of massage makes boundary skills even more important than for other professions. Since most practitioners will be in the position of standing over a client who is lying down, naked under a sheet, and being touched, the normal barriers of clothing, personal space, eye contact, and being on the same physical plane are all removed.

Without these common social barriers, the client is vulnerable in countless ways, and what may be tolerable in a normal setting can become frightening or uncomfortable while on the table or floor.

I recall one story in particular told to me by a client who had been seeing a massage therapist for quite a while. While she liked the therapist’s work, at some point, the therapist converted to a particular religion and proceeded to bring it up repeatedly during their sessions. Not sharing her particular faith, this client reluctantly stopped seeing the therapist because she felt uncomfortable and pressured, even though the therapist was “simply telling her own experiences” of her conversion.

Two points are important here. One, the therapist should not have taken the client’s massage time to discuss her personal issues, and two, the boundaries of religion and deeply held beliefs are not wise to cross.

In a normal setting, these two people could have carried on a dialogue and agreed to disagree, but with the client lying down unclothed, she felt defenseless. Sadly, she did not have the heart to tell her therapist why she never rebooked.

She just quietly left and never came back.

I feel sorry for this obviously skilled and good-hearted therapist who had no concept of the increased significance of boundaries in the massage setting.

Identify Your Professional Boundaries

Professionalism contains a few basic rules on boundaries, but they really come down to your ability to recognize where you and your clients are different, and then to respect their position.

The first step in recognizing where you and your client differ is probably the most difficult, because most people think others think and feel as they do. Neutrality can be very helpful on touchy subjects, especially with new clients who do not know you very well.

Human beings have a very strong sense of “tribe.” If you are too different from their tribe and overstep your boundaries on crucial topics such as politics or religion, you can lose them as clients. Remember, marketing is anything that affects your ability to get and keep clients. Stepping over clients’ boundaries and threatening their “tribe” can cost you clients and even your massage career.

Some special boundary areas to watch for include:

• Religion

• Politics

• Beliefs about body, nutrition, stress, family and relationships

• Application of bodywork, such as using too much or too little pressure, draping improperly, working areas where client has said not to work, using uncomfortable techniques, and spending too little or too much time working one area

• Conversation, including telling personal or intimate stories, asking personal questions, or telling stories about other clients

• Improper dress, such as wearing clothing that is revealing, provocative, disrespectful, or greatly different from what the client wears or would expect from his or her stereotypes of massage professionals

• Comfort with nudity

• Comfort with temperature, lighting and music preferences

• Language such as massage jargon, unfamiliar terms, foul language or slang

Product Sales

Boundary issues are currently being questioned in the massage industry when product sales are included in a practice. While some people consider product sales unethical because there is a perceived power difference between a therapist and a client, others view product sales as important to customer service.

For example, if a therapist working with athletes knows that a cryotherapy product like Biofreeze can really help relieve pain between sessions, it is smart business and good service to use it during the session so clients get a sense of its effectiveness, and to then make it available to them for purchase if they like it. If a therapist offers spa services with products like mud wraps or exfoliations, offering take-home scrubs and lotions can be a natural extension of the service.

If a therapist does “pamper parties” and brings spa treatments to a person’s home for everything from bridal showers to group fundraisers, selling products based on the services offered can be a great revenue generator.

Smart marketers then put their contact information on the products sold so people going home from the party or event have a way to contact them later. Stress-management therapists can sell lavender eye pillows, aromatherapy candles, or meditation tapes to help their clients better relax.

Depending on your clients’ needs, you can really help them take better care of themselves in between sessions so that they can progress further on their path to wellness. Some therapists use the products they sell during their services and educate their clients about what they are using and how it will help them. Other therapists just display products and say nothing, only talking about them if the client asks.

That said, even something as seemingly harmless as selling products has the potential to push boundaries and damage a relationship. If you sell products within your practice, don’t be pushy. No means no, and if your clients aren’t interested, don’t keep asking.

The biggest problem has come from multilevel-marketing companies that have targeted massage therapists as being ideal doorways into various markets. While it may seem like a great idea to enlist clients into becoming your distributors for a product you like, I have heard many horror stories of people who have fled from their therapists, never to return again, because they felt pressured into buying multilevel products or becoming distributors for them.

Clients, like most human beings, want to be accepted and loved, and some people may feel pressure to buy something from you for fear that you might otherwise “abandon” them. Combine the fear of losing acceptance with a position of vulnerability, and you may make a sale, but you can also lose a client.

Since this is a marketing book about getting and keeping clients, my emphasis is on keeping the client. Your profit from your massages over the long term is much greater than the percentage of profit you can make from the sale of a few items.

Make serving your customer the priority, make product sales a natural extension of your services if selling is comfortable or fun for you, watch your boundaries so that you are appropriate, and you can make product sales something that can help both you and your clients.

Professional Boundaries from Our Perspective

On the other side of this boundary equation are massage therapists, many of whom think it is perfectly acceptable to touch naked strangers for a living. It wasn’t until a noticeable number of people asked me how I could stand the thought of “touching all those people,” and how “icky” doing massage must be, that I came to realize I have a very different set of boundaries than much of the population.

Personally, I have no problem with doing massage, and I enjoy my work very much. However, just because massage is fine with us doesn’t mean that everyone likes giving or even getting touch.

Somewhere between the more open boundaries of the typical massage therapist and the more vulnerable boundaries of clients is a flexible line that must be negotiated differently with every client and, sometimes, even from session to session. Pay attention to boundaries and be respectful of them, and your opportunity for long-term success will skyrocket.

Your Professional Self-Definition

Professionalism, especially within the realm of boundaries, calls for an understanding of, recognition of, and respect for the differences between you and your client. Part of your job is to watch, observe, and listen to your clients so you will know what they expect of you as a professional.

However, a key factor in meeting their expectations of you is your own understanding or perspective of yourself as a massage professional. One of the difficulties our field faces is that because we have such different identities as individual practitioners, it is hard to know what universal “professional behavior” should be.

One story in particular drove home the point of our differences when I heard about a group of elderly men who had been working for years at a hot-springs resort in a southern state. Even in the year 2000, they insisted on calling themselves “masseurs,” and they were getting paid about $5 an hour.

Their self-perception was that their massage work was of the same value as the work of the kitchen help and hotel maids. They were deferential, cordial and “at your service” because that was how a professional at their level behaved.

On the other side of professional self-perception are those who believe their work is equal to that of a doctor. Somewhere in the middle are therapists who have professional standards similar to hairstylists, estheticians, and other service people of that caliber.

Others view themselves as artists and live by their own codes and standards. No one way is correct. In each case, the practitioner is directed by his or her own definition of professionalism, and lives by the ethics and behaviors that match it.

As a marketer, your self-definition will affect your marketing message, the kind of client you try to reach, and the behavior you display around your clients. You need to choose it carefully. Each self-definition opens some doors and closes others. If your work is of medical caliber, then your professional presentation will need to be at a similar level to draw clients who want and expect top-quality treatment.

However, choosing a medical image will likely turn away people looking for more of a relaxing, spa-type experience. Whatever your choice of self-definition, realize that the consumer wants to trust you and feel safe with you, and your level of professionalism needs to portray to them that you are trustworthy.

Rules and regulation about professionalism can fill pages of text, but I would rather focus on the basics of professionalism that work under any circumstances. Perceive yourself through your clients’ eyes, respect your differences, set boundaries, give your clients’ needs and wishes priority, and create a self-definition that calls for maturity, stature, and exemplary behavior.

Monica Roseberry founded the Confidence Academy for Women. This article was excerpted from her book, Marketing Massage: From First Job to Dream Practice, 2nd Edition (Thomson Delmar Learning.)