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Outside the box, inside the circle

ISOs and merchant level salespeople (MLSs) face price objections routinely when pitching products and services to merchants. It seems encoded in merchants' DNA that the first and only thing they want to know from salespeople is, "What will it cost me?"

And no matter what dollar figure you provide (if you get roped in to responding on that level), they figuratively clutch their processing receipts in one hand and push you toward the door with the other.

Learning about the benefits and nuances of an offer before making a decision, well, that just doesn't often seem to be part of the merchant repertoire.

This makes the proverbial price objection a tough hurdle to surmount. Enterprising payment professionals are always on the lookout for value added services that give them leverage when approaching merchants.

To that end, wouldn't it be great if a proactive partner could help shift merchants' focus to something more productive, like marketing?

The gift card aggregator and distributor Smart Circle International aims to do just that, by being a referral marketing network as well.

According to Thomas Cornelius, President of Card Services for Smart Circle, the company's main objective is to help merchants increase foot traffic and drive sales. Smart Circle does this through local, face to face promotions on behalf of merchants.

"For us, our business is simple," Cornelius said. "We can help the merchant get more consumers into the store.

"In comparison to regular advertising, where you have to pay for an ad and you aren't sure how many people will see it, Smart Circle drives consumers to the merchant. We are really helping merchants ... by actively acquiring new consumers in their regions."

Program with components

Founded in 1989 as Granton Marketing, the company changed its name to Smart Circle in 2005. Two years later, it launched its gift, loyalty and discount card program.

"Through this new offering, processors that sign on with Smart Circle will benefit from a new, value added consumer application that can be offered to prospective merchants," Cornelius said.

Merchants who sign with Smart Circle purchase its POS terminal software application, which enables merchants to process Smart Circle's cards. These are closed loop, reloadable, multi-use cards tailored toward merchants' needs.

Agents at the ready

After Smart Circle's account managers - over 250 of them spread out across the country - sets up merch-ants with software and customized card programs, the company promotes the cards through door-to-door sales aimed at businesses and residences within a 15 mile radius of individual merchant locations. Smart Circle employs a vast network of field representatives to pound the pavement to gain customers for merchants - a service that sets Smart Circle apart from the competition, according to Cornelius.

"It is very difficult to differentiate yourself outside of price," he said. "This is where we feel we really have an edge in helping credit card processors to differentiate themselves."

Smart Circle representatives can cover single neighborhoods or entire metropolitan areas. With 50,000 independent field distributors nationwide, Smart Circle reaches more than 30 million customers annually, Cornelius said.

Consumer benefits

Smart Circle cards can be redeemed online at merchants' Web sites or at brick-and-mortar merchant locations, where coupons and promotions corresponding to Smart Circle cards can be redeemed. Every time a loyalty card is used, for example, the consumer earns points toward free or discounted items. "It's kind of like a punch card," Cornelius said.

A discount card for a deli might give away a free sandwich after the purchase of five sandwiches. The discount component allows merchants to create added value for consumers, such as a free appetizer or a two-for-one deal. Smart Circle cards are branded with the Smart Circle logo, but unobtrusively, like the Visa Inc. or MasterCard Worldwide logo on network cards. The predominant designs of Smart Circle cards are merchants' brands.

Smart Circle's 24-hour customer service agents undergo extensive training to handle customer inquiries for each type of business Smart Circle cards represent, such as cards tied to sporting events, spa services, restaurant/food service offerings and car care. Additionally, Smart Circle offers full refunds on all of its promotions.

Ease of boarding

Smart Circle makes it easy on merchants. They are only obliged to purchase Smart Circle's POS application.

They don't have to pay for ongoing service or card processing. Smart Circle doesn't need to tack on additional fees since the revenue it generates from the sale of the cards pays for its network of representatives, and its overhead costs. Merchants get affordable card programs that increase in-store foot traffic and deepen merchant-customer relationships. And, when ISOs and MLSs offer the Smart Circle program as a value add, "merchants will have an even greater incentive to partner with select processing providers and ISOs," Cornelius said.

Smart Circle makes it easy on ISOs and MLSs as well. After independent sales reps get Smart Circle that initial relationship with merchants, their jobs are essentially complete. They partake in residual income from customer transactions using Smart Circle cards, but Smart Circle's agents handle the merchant relationship.

Numbers don't lie

According to Smart Circle's Web site, sports franchises, a pizza business, a wellness center and a golf course are among the array of organizations that have benefited from Smart Circle card promotions to enhance brand loyalty and generate new customers through its community marketing networks.

For Smart Circle's partners, business couldn't be better, Cornelius said, adding that the company generates 500 to 1,000 new consumers per merchant location in a two-month period. On average, merchants gain 750 new customers in that time.

In addition to doing business throughout the United States, Smart Circle opened offices in the UK in January 2007. It is also active in more than 20 other countries and regions, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, Thailand and the Caribbean.

This expansion signifies merchant satisfaction with the product, but Cornelius noted acquirers are also happy, too. "The salespeople love it because they have something to talk about that is positive," Cornelius said. "It is not just about price."

The Smart Circle program is a way for MLSs to get beyond price. After prospective merchants see what they're missing, Cornelius said there are only two questions MLSs need to ask:

  1. What is it worth to you to get 750 new customers?

  2. Would it be worth switching credit card service providers?

For many merchants, the answer is a resounding yes.

end of article

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Smart Circle International

Smart Circle International

ISO/MLS contact:

Thomas Cornelius
President of Card Services
Phone: 305-586-0600
E-mail: tcornelius@thesmartcircle.com

Company address:
Smart Circle International
19511 Pauling
Foothill Ranch, CA 92610
Phone: 305-586-0600
Fax: 877-582-1157
Web site: www.smartcircleinternational.com

ISO/MLS benefits:

  • Unique service to sell
  • Increased in-store traffic
  • Continuous marketing for merchants
  • Diminished price-driven competition

Company Profile originally appeared in
The Green Sheet Issue 080702

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