You have the right to create a practice and workplace filled with only clients who bring you joy, satisfaction, and a feeling of being valuable. These also happen to be the types of clients who will rave about you to all of their friends and family. You simply need to set strong boundaries and be willing to enforce them.
Our empathy is usually one of our best assets as massage therapists; however, it can lead to self-sacrifice and suffering through conflict avoidance and putting up with negative clients. We all have some basic idea that failing to set up boundaries around our practice leads to burnout and negativity, but not all of us spend the time to truly set clear boundaries around our massage practices.
Fuzzy and indistinct boundaries make each situation something you have to judge on a case-by-case basis. It also makes it difficult to identify when clients are continually pushing and crossing our boundaries. Which leaves you expending a lot more time and energy trying to figure out what to do with those clients who you don’t really look forward to working with.
You know the ones. The clients who have you thinking, “Oh, Jane is on my schedule today. Bummer.” I’d like to help you explore and get comfortable with a very underutilized option for dealing with difficult clients in our field. The “follow my policies or you’re fired” option.
Get Your Own House in Order
To know when a client has clearly crossed your professional boundaries, you first need to have them clearly set. Each of these types of boundaries could fill several articles worth of discussion about best practices, so I’m not going to do more than state some quick recommendations for each.
It will be up to you to choose exactly what your do-not-cross lines are in each area of your practice. You’ll also have to get more comfortable saying “no” to clients who request things that fall outside of your boundaries. The more clearly these boundaries are stated up front, the less time you will need later to evaluate situations.
The goal should be that everyone gets treated equally and fairly.
I 1,000% recommend you not negotiate or bend on your policies for any specific client unless you decide to change that policy for all clients. Clients who try to negotiate with you on your policies are asking for special treatment. These negotiations take precious time and energy and always involve you giving in and sacrificing your income, time or energy for their benefit.
Here are some basic policy areas to explore and solidify for your practice. Each of your policies should be clearly stated on your website and in booking confirmation emails. If they aren’t, you are going to spend a lot more of your time and energy answering these questions for each and every client.
And yes, some clients don’t bother to read these upfront. With those, you’ll still be able to simply send them a link to your policy page on your website after a violation versus having to explain and write them from scratch each time.
- Know your prices and clearly list them on your website
- Do you have package discounts and clear rules for who gets to use them and when?
- Choose a weekly schedule that works best for you and stick with it. It should include days off, and clear shifts when you are available.
- Have clearly stated missed appointment, substitution and late-arrival policies.
- Have a respect policy on your website. It should set expectations about how both client and therapist have to treat each other well, respectfully and with positivity.
- Be willing to refer clients who seem stuck in distressing situations to seek qualified professional mental health counseling, and state that you can’t continue to work with them unless they do so.
Integrity Works Both Ways
You’ll feel comfortable enforcing your boundaries only if you yourself are in integrity around them. It’s going to be difficult to charge someone a late fee for a missed appointment if you yourself aren’t reliable to your own schedule.
If you are known for canceling clients the same day in non-emergency situations (like when that friend invited you to that beach house last minute) on a regular basis, you can’t reasonably ask your clients to adhere to a 24-hour cancellation policy.
Be willing to ask the same rules of yourself that you ask of your clients. Did you double-book a client and they showed up while you were in session with another client? Consider giving that client a free makeup session to atone for your error. When being less reliable costs you money too, you’ll see the value in enforcing time boundaries with yourself and your clients as well.
In addition, make sure you know all relevant federal, state and local discrimination laws and that you adhere to them. Treating all clients equally and fairly will prevent you being on the wrong end of a discrimination lawsuit when you decide to stop working with a particular client.
Identifying Clients Who Aren’t in Agreement on Your Policies
There are plenty of best practices for choosing and publicly stating your business policies. Ultimately, the goal of them is to make your work easier, more enjoyable, less stressful and more efficient. They also allow you to turn off when you aren’t working.
It will be up to you to determine when a client has crossed your boundaries enough times to warrant telling them you can no longer work with them.
At my studio, which has two locations, over 20 therapists, and sees thousands of clients a year, we can’t really afford to evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis. Every week there are multiple situations with clients being upset over our policies. Mostly it’s when we enforce our late cancellation policy, which is strict, and charge the full cost of the missed appointment.
Not enforcing the policy would add up to a huge financial loss for the business, especially as we always pay the therapists what they would have earned for the lost session. Having to negotiate with each and every client would cost the business money paying our support staff to do that instead of other things like marketing that help growth. So we have several boilerplate scripts they can employ to diffuse and move on from with these common situations quickly.
Even if it’s just you in private practice, consider writing out some scripts ahead of time to deal with the following types of clients. It will help you clarify your own boundaries and more easily identify when a particular client is starting to cost you time, money, or energy.
Some Common Client Types to Consider Firing from Your Practice
Client Type #1: Anyone who gets disrespectful or verbally rude to you or your staff about your policies.
This client behavior can show up as arguing with you about your late cancellation policy, threatening to dispute a credit card charge for a missed appointment, or threatening to give you a bad review online if you don’t waive your policy for them.
There is a subset of people who will agree to your policies such as a late cancellation or late arrival policy when booking (either verbally or by signing a policy agreement form). But when you actually try to enforce the policy, they get angry, ask for special treatment, insult you in some way, or try a sob story to get out of it.
Or worse, they resort to threats such as disputing the charge or writing a bad review.
These clients have literally violated all three types of boundaries: money, time and emotional.
For our studio, these clients are a major red flag, and in our experience are always going to continue to be difficult to work with. They will wind up costing the business far more money than they bring in and deplete everyone’s time and energy.
Over the course of the last decade out of the roughly 10,000+ clients we’ve worked with, we’ve banned hundreds of these Type #1 clients from booking again with us at our studios.
Rather than limiting our growth, keeping their energy away from the studio increases our growth as everyone else, both employees and clients, is happier to give and receive work at our business.
Client Type #2: Clients who can’t commit to their schedules and have unreliable time-management patterns.
These might be perfectly lovely folks and don’t always fall into client Type #1. Often they will even pay for each late cancellation without argument. But they only show up to 50-60% of their appointments or even as low as 30%.
At first, it almost feels like an upside that you are getting paid to take a lunch break. But after a while, you’ll realize this pattern is an energetic drag. The clients themselves aren’t actually getting the therapy they need to improve their particular pain issue. In addition, there is generally an underlying sense of awkwardness between you both.
In addition, they prevent another more dedicated and reliable client from receiving your work. Some of these clients also try to get you to take on extra work to help them manage their own schedule like texting them the morning of their appointment.
If you notice a pattern like this, it usually helps to simply point it out and ask if they can choose a time to commit to in their schedule. This type of client usually has an issue committing to things in their life that are for them versus for others. By talking about the elephant in the room, you may be the influence they need to better commit to their own health and needs.
However, if they can’t find a way to commit, you may want to consider either an outright firing like, “This isn’t working for me or for you and I can no longer book you.” Or try a softer version like, “Unless you can commit to a regular time I can’t schedule you ahead of time but I can let you know about last-minute cancellations.”
Client Type #3: Clients who try to manage and control what techniques you are using in the session.
Unless you are working with another massage therapist who has far more experience than you and you’ve both agreed they are going to try and teach you new things during the session, there is no good reason a client should tell you what to do, how to do and or when to do it. Period.
You are the one who went to school and got licensed. You are the expert.
A client should get to tell you what hurts on their body and choose the goals of the session. But letting them micromanage how you go about meeting those goals is a losing proposition for both of you.
They can’t relax because they need to be in control of everything, and you can’t relax either.
Both of you end the session dissatisfied and they will still blame you for not feeling much better. If you continue to work with them you’ll feel used, disrespected and angry. It may even negatively affect how well you can focus on your subsequent clients.
You can try a simple, “Hey, I’ll make a deal with you. Let me do what I know to do best and you sit back and relax and you’ll feel even better than you normally do at the end of the session.”
If they can agree and stop directing, you may be part of a breakthrough they need around letting go of control for an hour and truly relaxing. If not, it may be in your best interest to simply say the sessions aren’t working for you and you no longer can book them.
Client Type #4: Clients who are constantly trying to get you to work outside your normal schedule.
Get 100% comfortable saying no to clients who ask to see you outside of your chosen schedule. Once you say yes, you’ll have created an expectation to that client that you are available at 7 a.m. on your day off anytime they want to work with you.
Have a few colleagues from massage school who work on different days or times of day than you do whom you can refer clients to. The client will get their needs met and likely still send you referrals. The other therapist will send you clients who work better with your schedule than their own. Win/win/win.
Client Type #5: Clients who aren’t actually feeling better despite multiple sessions with you.
This one can be tough on our egos; but, sometimes, either massage isn’t the right modality for a client’s issue, or our own skillset isn’t experienced or wide enough to help a particular client.
Massage can help with a lot of different issues. But it’s not a panacea. Sometimes physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic or other modalities are better suited for the client’s needs. Sometimes a problem is far beyond our ability to help and needs a specialist. Be willing to admit to yourself and the client you don’t think you can help them, or the way you can help them needs to be part of a larger team of specialists.
As a general rule, I tell clients they should be able to notice a definite improvement in their pain issues within three sessions. Not 100% better, but noticeably better. If they aren’t sure they can feel any difference after three sessions, even if it just lasted a day or two, I’ll recommend they see either another therapist or usually a different modality or specialist.
In my experience, even when the issue resolves itself with another modality, that client still winds up referring their friends and family to me.
About the Author
David Weintraub, LMT, owns Bodyworks DW Advanced Massage Therapy, a pair of medical massage studios in New York, New York. Bodyworks DW is a National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork-Approved CE Provider in New York and nationally. His small group live, webinar, and on-demand CEU courses offer training on advanced techniques, with a focus on improving assessment and treatment design to get better results with a wide range of clients. His articles for this publication include “A New Type of Massage Client: COVID-19 ‘Long Haul’ Survivors” and “Are You Afraid that if You Raise Rates, You’ll Lose Clients?”