By Jon Perry and Vanessa Lang
Editor's Note: This is the first article Jon Perry and Vanessa Lang have written as our 2009 - 2010 Street Smarts authors. Throughout the coming year, they will be posting questions to readers of The Green Sheet on GS Online's MLS Forum. We hope their ideas stimulate many lively discussions that lead to informative, inspiring articles in the months ahead.
Writing the Street Smarts column for The Green Sheet is a unique distinction and privilege. While we may not have decades of experience in the merchant services industry, we do have significant experience with corporate America.
We have applied the concepts we learned in that arena to our company, and our goal over the next 12 months is to share with you our unique experience and skills.
We'll start by telling you what led us to the payments industry and why we have become committed, active professionals in this sphere.
In April 2005, Jon became Vice President of Sales and Marketing for a manufacturing company in Fort Worth, Texas. Less than a year later, the company's Chief Executive Officer was indicted for fraud, and the company was collapsing. It was the second time this had happened to Jon; he had also worked for a large telecommunications company that had folded, and its CEO was convicted for fraud as well.
Vanessa was an industrial engineer at the same company. She worked in Jon's sales support team, helping win business with large military aircraft manufacturers.
Hoping the company would survive through new, top-line revenue, we worked six months in Mexico on North American Free Trade Association manufacturing projects. In August 2005, we were working on military projects at the Air Force Logistics Center in Warner Robins, Georgia.
Jon received a message that all corporate executives were to be on a conference call at 1 p.m. They were notified the CEO was being fired, and the company would probably not make it.
Jon vividly remembers lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling and wishing fervently to find a career he could do with integrity and enjoy for the rest of his life. Five months later 888QuikRate Merchant Services was born.
Merchant Services was Vanessa's idea. She had found a company in California that promised something akin to cash falling from the sky. It provided two weeks of training if we funded the trip ourselves. Jon had unused hotel miles and had never seen America's deserts; a road trip from Fort Worth to California sounded like fun.
We set off in January 2006, and our lives were forever changed. Doubting friends and family thought it foolish to forgo hefty salaries, perks and benefits for an endeavor that guaranteed neither income nor success. We were undeterred.
The two weeks' training consisted of analyzing statements to determine maximum lease amounts; hours were devoted to a canned pitch that showed how to cut out the middleman. In the back room an arsenal of employees cold-called from telephone books and business cards. The whole experience was eye opening, but something did not sit right with us.
On our way back to Fort Worth, we talked, shared and strategized. We wondered how the merchant services company could ask us to lease merchants terminals worth only $300 for $149 per month for four years. While we could see the industry's potential, our conundrum was balancing monetary rewards with our integrity in the community.
We decided this was not the right model for placing business and spent the next two weeks interviewing sales organizations to determine where to send our merchant accounts. We settled on Humboldt Merchant Services, a decision we have never regretted.
People like Ken Mustante and Xavier Ayala of Humboldt were not just caring and honest, but they were also great mentors for a newbie couple trying to find our niche in life.
Over the next two months we negotiated leasing contracts, check services, Internet gateways and gift cards. Our goal was to be niche celebrities. A niche celebrity is the go-to person for a particular product or service in a specific geographical area.
We aimed to become the go-to people in our virtual and geographic circles. We decided to build locally, then globally.
Vanessa took the lead in writing and editing the business plan. Jon worked strategy. We were in business only three months when we won our first contract with a community bank to provide all of its merchant services. We later learned our proposal was the only one submitted that wasn't boilerplate, and we had unseated the fifth largest payment processor.
In March 2007, after being in business slightly more than one year, we had the honor of being named Small Business of the Year by our local newspaper, The Star Telegram. The award provided us with $10,000 in free advertising. We were now on our way to becoming niche celebrities.
Looking back over the past three years, we can honestly say we have never had more fun. We have balanced business with personal life. And after four years of working together, we married this past summer.
Our success has stemmed from leveraging our strengths, not working on our weaknesses. Vanessa's strong suit as an industrial engineer is analysis and cost modeling. Jon's strength is strategy and marketing. Together, we bring the best each of us as individuals can offer for the common good of our company.
We both serve on nonprofit boards. Vanessa is on the Board of Directors for the Northwest Chamber of Commerce. Jon is the Board Secretary for Partnership for Stronger Communities, whose objective is "working together to eliminate poverty in Tarrant County."
We are active in five chambers of commerce. Together, we teach electronic payment basics to business start-ups through a program we partially sponsor that is funded by the city of Fort Worth.
We give of our time and money to local nonprofits focused on giving back to the community, and it has come back to us tenfold.
The preceding story shares information about us and contains hints regarding how we have been successful. We have created a business that is 100 percent referral- and Internet-based. We have never cold-called to obtain business.
If you are a merchant level salesperson hitting the street, these five quick tips will allow you to stand out against competitors big and small:
1. Create a clear marketing message. Not everyone who accepts credit cards is your prospect. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. doesn't sell clothes to Nordstrom customers and vice versa. Focus on a message in key target areas, locally first. Refine your message as you identify pitfalls, and then position yourself with the tools to take it global.
2. Identify and transcribe your unique differentiators. Not everyone can have the lowest rates out there - although people throw that phrase around all the time. And "lowest rates" is not a differentiator. Jon once had an e-mail conversation with a sales agent who said his company's differentiators were:
Jon commented to the agent that the word he thought of upon reading the list was platitude, a trite or meaningless phrase. He asked whether another company could claim the same traits and characteristics as those the sales agent had listed.
The agent said that they could be claimed by any number of companies and realized the list contained platitudes, not differentiators.
Once you have a list of differentiators, test them by replacing your name with competitors' names. Attributes that competitors can claim are not differentiators and should be removed.
Stay away from platitudes. No one cares how long you have been in business or if you are the cheapest or the best merchant service provider.
3. Keep learning. When Jon was the Vice President and General Manager for a large Midwestern e-commerce company, his director of sales wanted to hire a salesperson Jon didn't think was qualified. Jon pointed out that the candidate didn't have 10 years of real sales experience; he had 10 years of doing the same thing year after year.
True salespeople are always learning and making mistakes. They never feel complacent and are constantly looking for new goals and ways to serve their customers.
4. Dig deep. Become an expert in an area that captures your imagination, and exhaust every possible market in that niche. Most companies are shallow and wide rather than narrow and deep. Merchants appreciate targeted proposals geared toward solving problems they know you have solved for others.
5. You might be small now, but you don't have to look small. Establish or revamp your Web site to be clean, crisp and informative about what truly differentiates you from others selling merchant services.
And make sure you are not using an AOL, Yahoo or similar type of e-mail account. Brand your business every time you send an e-mail.
6. Get involved. We are active members in a few select local chambers. We stress the word active because chambers take time to produce results. We have found this a great venue for identifying community banks that can benefit from a referral relationship with us.
Sometimes money is not the only transactional medium. We will close with a story that made a huge impact when we started our business. A neighbor asked for help selling his house. It wasn't something we wanted to do, but out of friendship, we did it anyway.
We created a Web site for his house with details and pictures. We placed the advertisement in the local paper, including the hyperlink to his waterfront home. His house sold in just three days. Yes, he was lucky and so were we. He asked what he owed us.
Instead of money, we asked for three solid referrals of businesses that could use our merchant services. He gladly went out looking and came back with leads for our first community bank relationship and two of our most profitable customers.
What we received in those three referrals was worth far more than any one-time compensation could have provided.
We'll be back in two weeks.
Jon Perry and Vanessa Lang are the owners of 888QuikRate.com, an ISO based in Ft. Worth, Texas, that was named Small Business of the Year by the local newspaper, The Star Telegram. Contact Jon and Vanessa by phone at 817-857-3557 or by e-mail at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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